TSG commenter and writer of Ninety Plus Connor Walsh contributed the following piece about US players heading overseas in a World Cup year.
Every American soccer player wants a piece of it; many Americans have tried and failed in Europe’s frying pan, unable to compete, adapt, or otherwise acclimatize themselves to it.
In a World Cup year, is the added benefit of European training and the much larger stage that comes with it, a risk worth taking when a World Cup roster spot is at stake?
Major League Soccer has taken great strides in the last few years in terms of level of play, but no argument can be made when compared to it’s quality versus the majority of European Leagues. Regardless of how hard it may be for anyone to break into a top Euro side, Americans are received overseas with a certain stigma.
Only a few Americans over the years have achieved success in Europe and even then it’s moderate success at that. Clint Dempsey, Oguchi Onyewu, Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra, and Steve Cherundolo are the few names that come to mind.
The rewards for jumping ship to Europe are obvious. First, there is the pay.
The average pay in the Barclays Premier League in 2009 was $1.8 million/year. The average pay in MLS did increase 12 percent to $129,395/year in 2008, but 119 players in MLS made the league minimum of $33,000/year or less (development players). The large disparity in MLS wages also makes that number look much larger than it really is. David Beckham makes the most of any player in MLS at $6.5 million/year guaranteed, but up and coming US star Stuart “Iceman” Holden of the Houston Dynamo made a paltry $34,728.75 in 2009.
Contrast that with Clint Dempsey, who is rumored to make around $36,865.71 per week staring for Fulham in the Premier League. The gap is that big.
A second draw for top footballers is the lure of playing “European Football”, otherwise known as the Champions League. This is the equivalent of a miniature World Cup, only it’s contended every year by the best clubs from the best leagues in Europe. The last American to play consistently for a Champions League side was DaMarcus Beasley during his PSV days.
How hard is it to make it on a top European side? Arguably the best American player of all time, Landon Donovan had a difficult time getting field time with perennial German power Bayern Munich, making only six official appearances in 3 months and scoring no goals.
Eddie Johnson is another excellent example. Johnson, who tore through MLS before moving to Fulham in 2008, has made only 8 appearances for the EPL side, and while he enjoyed some moderate success on a loan stint with Championship side Cardiff City (30 appearances, 2 goals), it wasn’t enough for Cardiff to sign him. Now facing possibly his last chance to impress mothership Fulham, he has been loaned out to little known Greek club Aris FC with fellow yank struggler Freddy Adu. Donovan, Johnson, and Adu; three names synonymous with US Soccer and none of them have enjoyed much success in Europe.
But in a World Cup year, success and consistent playing time with your club, whoever it may be, becomes that much more important. Soccer is a sport where being solid for 90 minutes means much more than spectacular for 20 minutes. Just ask Oguchi Onyewu.
The anchor of the US defense developed his game in Belgium; a country which can’t even sniff the top five leagues in Europe in terms of overall quality. Gooch played consistently for Standard Liege for six seasons and won a couple championships along the way earning him a transfer to legendary Italian club AC Milan. Minus the injury, he has arguably been the most improved US player over the course of this World Cup cycle. Why? 139 appearances from 2004-2009 with Liege.
By comparison, Donovan, Johnson, and Adu have made just 76 combined appearances in Europe over 14 seasons. Granted, Donovan spent time in between all his destinations with MLS clubs, where he did play consistently. But the international dreams of Johnson and Adu are traveling down the drain for this World Cup as both are relegated to Greek side Aris to try and regain pitch time.
The theme? Consistent. Its one thing to work and practice all week, but entirely another to then throw in a full 90 the following weekend, to show the result of that hard work and learn in game situations. Consider this. Beyond Bob Bradley’s apparent prejudices for American league players, had Eddie Johnson and Fredd Adu stayed in the MLS, developed their game and played more weekend minutes, would they have been in the picture for a World Cup roster spot? Most likely.
Charlie Davies is yet another fine example. Davies worked his way up in a lesser league (Sweden respectively), became a starter, became a star, transferred to a bigger club, and now has the US coaching staff and armchair managers around the country lamenting his injury and scrambling to find a replacement or hasten his recovery.
Was it conceivable a year ago that a 21 year old former super sub for Hammarby in Sweden would now mean so much to the national team in 2010? All that success because he got consistent playing time with his club.
So now you have this year’s crop of American talent headed overseas, including Ricardo Clark, Stuart Holden, and Landon Donovan? In the eyes of many Americans, Donovan has nothing to prove. When LD10 puts on the red, white, and blue we can always count on 100 percent effort and a lot of speed and skill thrown in.
With Holden and Clark, two emerging but not cemented talents from Houston, it’s quite different.
Clark boasts a solid Confederations Cup and a game winning goal in World Cup Qualifying to his name, but can he break into a significant role with Eintract Frankfurt?
Holden has moved over to the EPL with Bolton. Despite the lack of “star” power, is Holden good enough to secure a spot in the 18 and then the starting 11? Not only do Clark and Holden risk a roster spot should they fail, but they risk getting lost in Europe, ala Adu and Johnson.
The lack of pitch time anywhere can ruin a player’s motivation to continue working hard. It can ruin the confidence and swagger they may have had prior to joining their new club. Elementary parts of the game can become stressed when not consistently under the full pressure of a game time situation. All this puts pressure on the US coaching staff who must evaluate players and then scramble to adjust if the player is either not confident or not fit.
Does the reward of Europe outweigh the risk of possibly being glued to the bench for the months preceding a World Cup 2010? Ask me in September.