Commentary

MLS's American problem

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

So when are eight international player slots in MLS not enough?

Too often, it seems.

Seattle and Toronto FC announced a trade on Tuesday that had lots of folks scratching their heads. The Sounders acquired TAM (Targeted Allocation Money) and an international roster spot from Toronto FC in exchange for GAM (General Allocation Money).

A trade without a player or the rights to a player? Thing is, it wasn't the first time that has happened this season. Colorado struck the same deal with San Jose two weeks ago.

Both Seattle and Colorado currently have seven international player slots filled, so their deals give them the flexibility to sign two more foreigners this season. But they are not the kings of the international player slots. Vancouver had 12 and Orlando City 11 as the 2016 season opened.

But 160 international player slots over 20 MLS teams don't tell the whole story about the foreign influence in MLS. On top of that, you have players who used to take up international player slots and have earned green cards since their arrival. Stars like Robbie Keane, Federico Higuain and Diego Valeri are no longer listed as holding international player slots.

Of the 220 MLS players who started on Sunday, just 102 (or 46 percent) are eligible for the U.S. national team. (We could throw Canadians into the mix, but only four started on opening day.)

The situation is not as bad as in China where every goal on the opening weekend of the new Super League season was scored by a foreigner. MLS's tally was 13 of 36 goals scored by players eligible for the U.S. national team. But the number of foreigners holding down starting jobs on key teams is startling.

Portland, the defending champion, started just two U.S. national team-eligible players, though only five starters are classified as international players.

FC Dallas, first in the Western Conference in the 2015 regular season, is touted for its work developing youth players. Only three starters against Philadelphia were U.S. national team-eligible players though just four starters are classified as international players. (Victor Ulloa, one of FCD's highly touted Homegrown players, earned the "iron-man" award for starting 33 games in 2015 but his job in midfield was taken by Ecuadoran DP signing Carlos Gruezo.)

MLS has put $2.1 million into each club's pocket via TAM -- $500,000 over the period 2015-19, $800,000 in 2016 and $800,000 in 2017 -- but the TAM rules make it more likely that it is used on foreign players coming into MLS than the Americans already in the league. (That despite, the most publicized use of TAM, which allowed the LA Galaxy to keep U.S. World Cup defender Omar Gonzalez, for one season at least, after the acquisition of Giovani dos Santos.)

Without specifying the Gonzalez deal, LA Galaxy coach and general manager Bruce Arena joked that the move earned him the nickname the "Milton Friedman of TAM” in his interview with the Washington Post's Steven Goff.

In the interview, Goff asked Arena, the former national team coach, to comment on the current state of the team. He said it wasn't much better or worse than before. Asked whether that was a reflection of the current state of the player pool, Arena rang the alarm bell, “A lot of factors, but our domestic league needs to have more Americans playing in it to make the pool stronger. We have a lot of international players now, players who aren’t helping the U.S. national team.”

You could argue MLS needs to do a much better job of attracting and keeping young American players -- players like Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Matt Miazga, Emerson Hyndman and Paul Arriola who are in Europe or Mexico -- but you must wonder when is too much on the international player front.

Just 10 Homegrown players, including Seattle rookie Jordan Morris, started on opening day. You could throw in a player like first-year Galaxy defender Daniel Steres, who spent two seasons at Galaxy II. But that's the total return you saw starting on Sunday for MLS's $40 million annual investment in youth development.

When you weigh that equation -- spend on average $2 million for a 50-50 chance of netting one HG starter or use TAM, money that a team loses if it's not spent, on an import -- it's clear which way the playing field is tilted.
39 comments about "MLS's American problem".
  1. Wooden Ships, March 8, 2016 at 5:37 p.m.

    Quandary. Continuing the quality of play with a heavy international influence, which is building soccer momentum, versus insisting on more playing time for perhaps less skilled and savvy National team eligible players. I prefer the international influence, because its still necessary and its setting the bar higher for US developing players. Here's a developmental question, how many players are earning the MLS call up from the NASL and USL per year? Are we developing quality anywhere close to the rate needed to feed MLS?

  2. don Lamb replied, March 9, 2016 at 12:33 p.m.

    You did a much better job of pointing out the issue and asking the right questions than the author of this post did.

  3. John Soares, March 8, 2016 at 5:43 p.m.

    For each individual team "Ya'gotta do what ya'gotta do" to win games. I get it and don't necessarily object.... It is however a sad trend when (for whatever reason) we do not see a greater influx of American players.

  4. Ric Fonseca replied, March 8, 2016 at 6:23 p.m.

    Good point John Soares! I do question Paul Kennedy's statement that "The number of foreigners holding down starting jobs on key (???) teams is startling....(sic)", first why should he find it startling since many of us have decried this sad state of affairs, and then to read Arena's comments say that our "...domestic league has to have more Americans playing (and that) we have a lot of international players now who aren't helping the US national team..." IS the height of hypocricy, which I can say that his statement IS STARTLING given his very own Carson Galaxy team. And YES, Paul does hit the nail on the head when he states that the MLS MUST do everything to bring up and sign homegrown talent, else how in hell are we going to develop our own teams?!? Actually, is this any different than what is going on in Mexico or England with the number of foreign players taking the places of the homegrown talent in these two countries? Lastly, Paul, you needn't ask/say "which way the playing field is tilted..."it is obvious!

  5. Lou vulovich, March 8, 2016 at 6:12 p.m.

    The NASL back in the day stood for No Americans Soccer Players, the MLS is taking that up one notch.
    They sign all of these HGP and they let them rot on the
    bench, for two or three years. Now they have so called reserve USL teams and those teams are made up of 23-24-26 year old castoffs. Look and see how many 18-19-20 year olds are playing every game. The reality is while the owners are spending 40 million on academies, the coaches and or GM will not risk their jobs and put these young players on the field, long enough for them to succeed, as their jobs are more important then playing young Americans. That goes for every American coach in the MLS and USL.
    And when you watch some of the foreign players brought in their level is not much better then Sunday league players, only difference is tactics and conditioning.
    In defense of the coaches first coach to play 11 Americans on the field and loose 5 game in a row will be fired.

  6. Ric Fonseca, March 8, 2016 at 6:25 p.m.

    Lou vulovich, thank you! You have also banged the hell out of the nail on the head!

  7. aaron dutch, March 8, 2016 at 9:43 p.m.

    $40 million on academy development for a league is a joke. That is almost nothing. If you look at most other top 10-12 leagues its 5-10x that at least. Much less the whole US soccer Pyramid USSF, NASL, USL, NCAA (which is a pro subsidy)which spends maybe $100m if we are lucky compare that to top 20 countries in the world and it a joke. If we spent 5x the amount we would have a MLS/NASL loaded with great american players, and 50 players playing at top levels in Europe much less 50 in south america. You get what you pay for.

  8. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, March 9, 2016 at 9:51 a.m.

    Sounds great - where is the money coming from? 20 years ago MLS didn't exist and yet some people expect it to already be at the level of countries where soccer is the #1 sport and has been for 100+ years. Not very realistic.

  9. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, March 10, 2016 at 10:52 a.m.

    My argument was that this guy was saying just spend five times more money but it's not that simple. Where does this money come from?

    I don't think Garber has said MLS will be as good as England or Spain in 10 years although I do think that long-term that should be out goal.

    Soccer doesn't have to be #1 but right now it's not realistic to look at other rich countries like Germany, England etc. that have fairly large populations and a populace that is obsessed with the sport to a degree we can only dream of here. That stuff matters.

  10. R2 Dad, March 9, 2016 at 1:45 a.m.

    The obvious answer is that MLS will continue to tweek their formulas for TAM, GAM and HG amounts/limits/requirements in order to encourage desired outcomes--whatever MLS decides "desired" happens to mean every year. Unless US Soccer demands player development, MLS will not provide it. Youth Academies are only a small piece of a larger puzzle.

  11. Tommy Retzlaff, March 9, 2016 at 8:11 a.m.

    So where should the budding young American player go to start their career? Some of the talent in this country is still growing in physical strength between age of 18-21 and these talents will surely never be selected despite their speed of thought.

  12. Lou vulovich, March 9, 2016 at 9:01 a.m.

    Does anyone really believe that Emerson Hyndaman, Rubio Rubin, Christian Palusic woul have seen one minute of first team action in MLS.
    The only hope for young players is for the USL to make it mandatory for 3 U19 and 3 U 21 players to be on the field for 80% of all games. Otherwise go to Europe where you have to be one of the top three players to make the team and be the best player for playing time.

  13. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, March 9, 2016 at 9:53 a.m.

    Actually I do think all of those players would be getting minutes in MLS. Not that I think they should have stayed in the US but I do think they'd be getting playing time. It would depend which team they were at too.

  14. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, March 10, 2016 at 10:54 a.m.

    The introduction of MLS reserve teams in USL will help bridge the gap between youth soccer and MLS, especially in that 18-22 age area. But you are talking about one guy. Many youth internationals around the world do not go on to be top professionals. Maybe Victor Pineda just wasn't good enough?

  15. Woody Woodpecker, March 9, 2016 at 10:09 a.m.

    Personally, I think every major league in Europe has the same data, that their homegrown talent is diminishing every year. MLS is a league which many players from around the world would like to play in. Personally, I believe the best option is for NA players to pursue the NASL, with the aspirations of being picked up by MLS or lower leagues in Europe.

  16. Wooden Ships replied, March 9, 2016 at 11:51 a.m.

    Woody, I think there might be less interested in playing in MLS than you think. Synthetic turf is a major deterrent. I agree with the NASL route as a viable option.

  17. Woody Woodpecker replied, March 9, 2016 at 2:31 p.m.

    Wooden Ships. I would have agreed with your comment 10-15-20 years ago regarding artificial turfs, however, technology today with AstroTurf is night and day. The old days of playing on concrete with a carpet over it are long, long gone.

  18. Wooden Ships replied, March 9, 2016 at 3:26 p.m.

    Woody, yes I'm aware turf is night and day from astro turf. It is still not grass over dirt and no matter the tech leap, it is and won't be the real thing. Is FIFA mistaken for insisting upon grass? If turf is better why isn't it sweeping pitches across the globe. It isn't safer or preferred. Do you believe that even, lets say 10%, of futballers would prefer it over a well maintained grass field. You could be right Woody, especially with those that grew up playing on it, but I still think its a big deal for non US players.

  19. Carlos Figueroa, March 9, 2016 at 10:18 a.m.

    Not MLS's responsibility to create a stronger national team. The top 2 attacking trios in the world are arguably Real Madrid and Barcelona; none of the players are eligible for the Spanish team. I'd rather have as strong of a league as possible. US player development is a separate story.

  20. Wooden Ships replied, March 9, 2016 at noon

    I agree Carlos, MLS is a pro league that needs to field the best roster they can. With all the numbers of kids playing in the states, we still suffer on the technical and creative side. The club systems have done more harm than good.

  21. Lou vulovich, March 9, 2016 at 10:31 a.m.

    What do you base that on, how many 17,18,19 year olds are playing regularly in the MLS. The National team is not the responsibility of the MLS, but developing players by putting them on the field is.
    Barca and RM have HG stars on the field every game. There is a huge difference between, Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Suarez and the foreign players taking up breathing room in the MLS.
    You have 8-10 quality foreign players in the MLS and most of them are 33 and up.

  22. Carlos Figueroa replied, March 9, 2016 at 10:51 a.m.

    Yes, developing players is their responsibility, that's why you now see so many mls affiliated USL clubs. As for a 35 year old foreigner who is a slightly better player getting more playing time than his 19 year old home-grown teammate, that's the coach trying to win games. 60% of teams make the playoffs, coaches won't experiment with younger players until they're mathematically elleminated.

  23. Lou vulovich, March 9, 2016 at 11:04 a.m.

    I understand Carlos. Read my earlier comments
    and take a look at the USL rosters. 35 year old is short sited. Look at the MLS vs Mexican clubs 0-5
    the level is not good enough to justify not playing Americans.

  24. don Lamb replied, March 9, 2016 at 12:42 p.m.

    So if we lose to Mexican teams using the best players available, we should throw kids who are not ready for that level out there? For the sake of development? That would get embarrassing really fast and probably would not do much for the stated goal of development.

  25. don Lamb replied, March 10, 2016 at 3:11 p.m.

    Does that mean we force players into action when they simply are not ready? These homegrowns will make an impact soon, but they are not ready yet. The few of them that there are are babies and would probably not be competitive in this type of competition. Development does not just mean throwing young players out there. It is a long process that has really just begun.

  26. don Lamb replied, March 10, 2016 at 11:29 p.m.

    You can't be serious if you are asking which player between a Nigel de Jong or Steven Gerrard and an inexperienced 18 year old would be better equipped to play in Monterrey or Mexico City. The MLS youth just is not ready yet. If we are not seeing a significant number of MLS produced youngsters playing starters minutes in five years, then it will be time to ask questions about what went wrong and how can we do it better. You can't decide the cake is shit before you take it out of the oven.

  27. don Lamb replied, March 11, 2016 at 2:59 p.m.

    Good point. LA should have sent Los Dos. They would have gotten beat 12-0, but that experience would vault them into becoming champions in just a couple of years!

  28. don Lamb replied, March 11, 2016 at 10:05 p.m.

    But that is exactly what we are seeing. A few have gotten chances with the first team, and a few more seem to be on the cusp...

  29. Lou vulovich, March 9, 2016 at 1:34 p.m.

    The idea is, eventually get to a point where you can compete. You have to start somewhere. It's not by continuously bringing over the age foreigners. If you are going to play subpar soccer and loose on a constant basis, should you than not look to develope some young Americans. The disrespect that is shown to American soccer players is unbelievable, by American coaches and by the MLS and the US National team coaching staff. They can't get on the field and their pay is minor league.

  30. Ric Fonseca replied, March 9, 2016 at 2:27 p.m.

    Lou, I like your comment about "The disrespect that is shown to American soccer players is unbelievable, (sic) by American coaches and by the MLS...(sic" however I don't agree that USNT coaching staffers are also in this category, rather they have been more than likely told by MLSers and company, NOT to expect much since, even by Bruce Arena's own statements that while we need more homegrown talent on teams, the very teams (and his own team the Carson Galaxy) bringing in foreign and over-the-hill players is NOT helping the national teams. Convoluted thinking, I'd say, and it IS a matter of the proverbial Catch 22 syndrome for our home grown talent. But why keep on beating and flagellating ourselves over this issue, it'd behoove us as a whole to continue to help the developmental processes of our players, and prove the so-called hot-shot MLS experts and try and hope to prevent our players from going overseas (yeah right, you say!) by at the VERY least give them the opportunity to strut their stuff on the field with MLS teams, and eventually NTeams!!!

  31. Woody Woodpecker replied, March 9, 2016 at 2:35 p.m.

    Ric, I'm sorry to say this, I really am. Many, many US coaches including USSF think they're much better than they are. Almost an "air" or arrogance. However, I find this not to be the case with NSCAA coaches or NSCAA coaching courses.

  32. Wooden Ships replied, March 9, 2016 at 4:57 p.m.

    Lou, Ric(7th Inf bro),Woody. I don't think this is a question of arrogance by anyone and coaches have always been overrated with respect to their ability to develop players. I don't see any obligation of MLS to the USMNT. As All American and, most of us would have to admit, has pointed out, too many US soccer players lack the requisite touch on the ball at a consistently high level. It's the eye test, plain and simple. Freedom/creativity is also arrested. The early years up to U-16/17 are vital to touch and creative play. It's not impossible to develop markedly after that age, but its very improbable.

  33. Lou vulovich, March 9, 2016 at 6:17 p.m.

    WS, there are different phases of development ,
    we do a great job here until U15-U16. After that it's all down hill, because that is usually when the fun stops and the so called professional coaches take over. Developing U15 is one thing U17 again is different U19 again different U21 again is different. Take a look at U17-19-21 WC Stars and you will see that the X11 only 20% go on to play first team soccer.
    This is not me trying to be smart, this is documented stuff I have seen from people who coach and track this stuff. So actually most of the developing happens after16-17, everywhere except USA. Respectfully WS

  34. Wooden Ships replied, March 9, 2016 at 8:31 p.m.

    I appreciate that Lou. I'm coming from my experience with regard to quality touches and the imagination based on my playing days, with American players and players of other countries. And later as a coach for semi pro and then General Manager-President and then as a college coach. All this beginning in the 60's thru 2011. I also respect your opinion, but I distrust the age bracketing analytic's. As time goes, we have become infatuated with trying to empericize the art of soccer. Learning to dance with the ball starts young.

  35. aaron dutch, March 9, 2016 at 10:13 p.m.

    MLS has been given the right under US federation to play and have an operating model that has been certified. The federation could mandate that MLS spends $4m a team on a academy and audit the development model, MLS can be and should be much better as a league with $450m in revenue it could have 2x the revenue, Academy models is not rocket science. The world has already fixed this.

  36. aaron dutch, March 10, 2016 at 10:24 a.m.

    The real change is in USSF by forcing a FIFA level attack on them to get USSF to fire the board and reorganize etc..

  37. Ric Fonseca, March 10, 2016 at 3:16 p.m.

    Woody: Having "been there and done that" with BOTH NSCAA and USSF Coaching courses/schools of thought, and the "air" of arrogance you mention in your comment, it is now MY turn to say that it exists and is prevalent in BOTH camps.

  38. Raymond Weigand replied, March 11, 2016 at 12:06 p.m.

    hahaha Ric is speaking the truth. In some cases - this is self promotion. A risky situation when coaches try to self promote to other coaches - takes a special personality with just enough patience to see the bigger picture ... which is: I will coach and share all the things you should already know! (hah)

  39. Raymond Weigand, March 11, 2016 at 12:28 p.m.

    My assessment for the current USA soccer landscape ... after watching the Atletico Madrid - Valencia (March 6th) game - not just the highlights - there is motivation for all to keep learning / keep moving forward. Another turn: in case the above game is not available ... another game filled with opportunities for the coach to learn was yesterday's Liverpool over Man U. Somehow Klopp has Liverpool's players set and ready to play as if they came over from the Bundesliga (by way of Spain) and schooled their highly compensated / and older friends in the Premier League.

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