A contribution by Jay Bell
Major League Soccer continues to fight a battle for respect. Most leagues fight that same battle.
Most leagues do it through competition.
All of the Confederations have their own versions of Champions Leagues and some also have second tier club competitions. There may be none less respected than the CONCACAF Champions League.
It is a lose-lose for MLS. If teams take the competition lightly and lose, then it is used as a complete measuring stick for the quality of MLS. If they do perform well, as Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC and Columbus did this past season, then the reaction is “well they were supposed to win.” The only way to gain anything is to overtake Mexican teams as the dominant force in CONCACAF. Still, the Primera Division itself has had difficulty gaining international respect, despite competing well in South American competitions.
MLS’s fight is to sign quality players to earn respect for the league. Even after signing good players, they are held to a double standard. Any player 30 or older that signs in MLS is automatically assumed to be settling down. While playing for top European teams, older players are hailed as “ageless wonders.” If any of them sign for an MLS team tomorrow, they would be labeled as “washed up” or “going to America to retire.” Del Piero, Raul, and Van Nistelrooy were all linked to MLS moves and continue to perform well in Europe. Those players are great and would be great for the league, but they are not the types of players that will help the league improve its reputation or rid itself of the “retirement league” label.
MLS teams would love to get more high profile South American stars. Teams continue to chase the likes of Sebastian Veron, Juan Roman Riquelme, Andres D’Alessandro and most recently Ronaldinho. There are numerous obstacles to overcome in order for MLS teams to sign more of them.
First of all, MLS does not compete in Copa Libertadores or Copa Sudamericana. The lure of competing in these tournaments is akin to the Champions and Europa Leagues in Europe. South American national team managers are also hurting MLS’s chances of signing these players. MLS players continue to be blackballed by the Colombian national team. Juan Pablo Angel, Jamison Olave, Fredy Montero and David Ferreira have been some of the best players in MLS, but continue to be ignored for call-ups, even when Colombia plays the US. The Brazilian national team coach, Mano Menezes, single handedly eliminated Los Angeles from contention for Ronaldinho by manipulating the 30 year old’s hopes to play in the 2014 World Cup.
MLS teams should look more to smaller UEFA national teams for players. Carl Robinson, Joel Lindpere, Branko Boskovic, and Jan Gunnar Solli are the types of players which will help gain respect for the league. The Vancouver Whitecaps have followed suit signing Alain Rochat and Davide Chiumiento from Switzerland. Its helps the league’s perception when it has players called up to UEFA national teams. It looks even better for the league when Joel Lindpere was willing to turn down a call-up to the national team to stay in America and help the New York Red Bulls down the stretch of the MLS season.
For various reasons most American soccer fans and much of the rest of the world look to UEFA as the leader in modern day soccer. The UEFA Champions League is the biggest club competition ever and the European Football Championship has long been considered the second most prestigious international competition, behind only the World Cup. If MLS teams can continue to break into the UEFA player pool, then MLS can continue to try to sign better and better internationals who are currently playing for UEFA national teams.
How would the league be looked at if it had players like Stanislav Sestak from Slovakia and Robert Koren from Slovenia continually called up for Euro qualifiers? And what if Lorik Cana of Albania and Konstantinos Makrides of Cyprus turned down call-ups to stay for the MLS playoffs? What if MLS was being represented by Razvan Rat from Romania and Erik Huseklepp from Norway in the 2012 European Championship or even the 2014 World Cup?