Op-Ed: In The Arena of American Soccer

Arena coaching the Nats in 2002.

Arena coaching the Nats in 2002.

Lost in the email, Darius Tahir on “American” soccer.

In the Klinsmann-pile-on that was so last week, Bruce Arena made sure to get some punches in, saying in an interview with ESPN the Magazine: “Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans. If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”

As we so often do, the narrative immediately leapt to the simplest, most controversy-filled interpretation possible: Arena’s saying foreign-born Americans aren’t REAL AMERICANS, and this allows everyone to write or say their piece about ‘What is America?,’ ‘What does it mean to be American?’ and those other great topics we hated to write essays about while in school and love to talk about once out of it.

There’s another interpretation of Arena’s comments. Let’s use our ability to read and process context. Arena’s interview centers around his career and MLS. Now, Bruce Arena can presumably remember more than ten years of his life at a time — I don’t believe he’s Guy Pearce in Memento — and therefore probably has some recollection that Earnie Stewart played for him. It’s possible Arena is just wilfully cynical and willing to switch his views for convenience’s sake; it’s also possible he has a different point.

To wit: insofar as players born in other countries are taking the place of U.S.-born players, it (probably) means that MLS has not developed them. And while the occasional foreign-born American player is fine, over the long term it’s best (from a practical perspective) that MLS develop those players.

Has MLS succeeded? That’s another question, isn’t it? As Arena notes, if large proportions of the U.S. team is born elsewhere, it’s not a sign of progress. While Arena laughs at the idea of producing a Messi at this particular stage (“Unfortunately people think we’re supposed to have a Lionel Messi and win World Cups overnight.”), there’s a lot of room between the current state of the MLS-produced player and Messi, which could help improve the quality of play in the league and the national team.

Kagawa...

Kagawa…

For example, there’s room to produce a Shinji Kagawa. Japan has been in the domestic soccer league business about as long as we have, and — among others — have produced Kagawa. MLS hasn’t yet developed the next Donovan, let alone a better version.

For all the celebration of MLS-developed players taking up all 14 spots at Azteca, the fact remains that only two goals have been scored in the hexagonal so far, on three shots. Surely a part of the reason is Klinsmann’s tactics — his narrowing of the game, his refusal to put speed on the wings, his leaving Altidore on an island — and surely another part of the reason is the blizzard in Denver, but it’s not exactly a revelation that the U.S. lacks creative, technical players. The fault for that surely has to trace back to MLS’ past policies (with the more recent, homegrown/reserve/USL partnership policies being TBD.).

There’s your problem. The rest is noise.

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46 responses to this post.

  1. Honest questions; are we putting Kagawa on a different level than Dempsey, who went to EPL from MLS at age 23? You could make the case that Kagawa, as well as he performed Japan’s second tier, owed as much to his development as an elite player to Dortmund in Germany.

    Kags is at about 1 goal per 3 games for Man United and Clint was at about 1 in 4(ish) for Fulham in his first full season. But Fulham only scored 38 goals that year, while Manu U might have already doubled that (70 in just 30 games already) after the “dahby” today.

    Both Kags and Clint are at roughly 1 goal in 3 games for their national team.

    Maybe even a more apt American comparison to Kagawa is Claudio Reyna, who was playing in the Bundesliga at 21?

    Anyway, I’d make the case that we’ve already produced a “Kagawa,” (although adding more players of that caliber would be helpful) now I think we need to produce a Rooney or a Sanchez or a Silva. Or maybe even “the next Clint Dempsey.”

    We’ll get to the Messi’s and the Ronaldo’s next.

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2013/04/08 at 1:32 PM

      I put Kagawa on a different level than Dempsey, yes. Your way of phrasing obscures a bit — Kagawa went from a second-tier team to one of the best teams in Europe. Dempsey went from MLS to a mid-tier EPL team.

      Overall, Kagawa’s a better, more astute player than Dempsey — not just goals, but his overall passing and impact. Only guy who comes close to Kagawa from the U.S. is Donovan in his prime, and Donovan is more limited in the halfcourt than Kagawa is.

      Reply

      • Posted by jwran on 2013/04/09 at 7:39 AM

        I think thats fair. Wasn’t trying to obscure Kagawa’s talent or accomplishments at all, just trying to do my best apples-to-oranges. I do think that theres a case to be made that Kagawa wasn’t shaped as an elite player by his domestic league in the same way that Dempsey was. Kags is a great player, and i’ve had him in my fantasy side twice already this year, but I’m not sure (literally, bc I’ve never watched him in Japan’s second tier or more than 2-3 times when he was at Dortmund) how much his development should be credited to his domestic league. Dempsey is also a great player, even if not quite on the same level as Kagawa, but can give greater credit to his domestic development.

        Reply

        • jwran,

          “Kagawa wasn’t shaped as an elite player by his domestic league in the same way that Dempsey was.”

          That’s hard to say.

          Just off the top of my head, currently Japan has 9 players in the Bundesliga, 3 in the EPL (until Wigan gets relegated), 2 in Holland, 1 in Belgium, 1 in Serie A, and 1 in Russia. Only one is a keeper and most of them are good players in their early to mid 20’s. I think most of them are doing well but I haven’t really looked into their playing time.

          Given the sheer number, more than the US I would say, I don’t see how you can dispose of the J-league’s influence so cavalierly. The clubs that are buying them, Schalke, Leverkusen, Stuttgart, Hannover, Nurmberg, Eintracht Frankfurt, etc. are pretty solid teams and I doubt they would buy players at that age who are too much of a project.

          We recruit German-Americans, while Japan make their own Japanese-Germans. Interestingly, Japan have had 5 managers since 1998 only one of whom has been Japanese. So don’t feel so bad about JK.

          Let’s just say I don’t want to meet them in the World Cup until much later in the tournament.

          Reply

          • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/04/10 at 6:37 PM

            You recruit Germans who happen to have an American father.

            A Japanese player playing in the Bundesliga doesn’t make him Japanese-German. That is a ridiculous statement. Is Clint Dempsey an American-English?

            Reply

            • You’re being unnecessarily pedantic. And yes, in a soccer sense Dempsey is American English if you like.

              He has been a pro for ten years seven of which has been spent in England.
              .

            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/04/11 at 12:42 PM

              How do you have the audacity to call anybody pedantic?! Pot & kettle, Sir!

            • GC,

              What good is having audacity if you can’t use it once in a while?

              Besides, what I’m really more interested in asking you is:

              Do you think the Clint Dempsey we see today, playing for Spurs and the USMNT, do you think he owes more of what he is as a footballer to his earlier Texas, Furman, Steve Nicol roots or to his time with Fulham, Spurs and the USMNT since then?

            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/04/11 at 6:10 PM

              Not sure it’s as binary as you’re making it out to be. I am sure they’ve all contributed in some way. But, whilst living in Boston, I saw him play numerous times for NE Revolution – when Taylor Twellman was the big man on campus. You could tell that Dempsey had something about him back then. But the player he is today is so much better in every facet of his game. So I would have to credit Fulham the most. But the fact is, we will never know if he would have reached this level in MLS.

            • Posted by JGD on 2013/04/12 at 3:22 PM

              Dempsey was already a highly talented player before the move to the PL, but raw in many facets. I credit Fulham immensely with helping refine his game.

  2. Posted by s44 on 2013/04/08 at 10:46 AM

    Didn’t Barcelona develop (and, um, grow) Messi? Does this bode ill for Argentina?

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2013/04/08 at 1:30 PM

      mostly, yes. But it doesn’t bode ill for Argentina because they have developed Aguero, Zavaleta, etc.

      Reply

    • Posted by Dirk on 2013/04/14 at 7:48 PM

      He was already a legend (locally) in Argentina by the time he was 12, so Argentina certainly can claim a lot of credit.

      Reply

  3. Posted by bmullis on 2013/04/08 at 10:53 AM

    Asking as someone unfamiliar with a lot of the history of MLS, what sorts of past policies are you referring to in the last paragraph that have resulted in a US lack of creative, technical players?

    Reply

    • Posted by Ufficio on 2013/04/08 at 4:14 PM

      It used to be the case that teams couldn’t directly sign their own academy players; everyone had to go through the draft (or other allocation process). So there was no incentive for teams to develop youth players. That’s probably the biggest one.

      Reply

  4. I read Arena’s comments in the same vein, “If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.” can mean a lot of different things depending on the context of the interview. While Arena’s media personality definitely leaves one open to interpreting that as a shot at Klinsman, it really sounds like he’s using the general “we” meaning US Soccer and all things American soccer aren’t succeeding at creating international caliber players.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/04/10 at 6:31 PM

      My interpretation was he was having a dig at the Germans who only chose to play for the US because they’re not good enough to play for their own country, the one they were born and raised in, and more than likely dreamt of playing for as a kid. Rather than players such as Freddy Adu or Stuart Holden. And personally, I agree with him 100%.

      Reply

  5. Posted by KickinNames... on 2013/04/09 at 12:57 PM

    Arena-SchmArena….Stuey is back playing and yakkin again….good sign….Gold Cup is his next milestone…and then…..

    Reply

  6. Posted by KickinNames... on 2013/04/10 at 1:27 PM

    I know this isn’t anywhere near as interesting as MLS heat maps but some fantastic soccer in the Champs League last two days. Messi is the purest difference maker in the game. He comes on and they look like an entirely different squad.

    Reply

    • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2013/04/10 at 2:27 PM

      Just imagine if Leo had a Spanish passport instead of one from Argentina.

      Reply

      • Posted by Andrew M. on 2013/04/10 at 4:10 PM

        I’m not so sure he couldn’t qualify for one. He’s been living there since he was like 14 right?

        Reply

        • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2013/04/11 at 12:28 PM

          I’m sure he either has one or can qualify for one. However, unfortunately for Spain he chose to exercise his Argentina option.

          In terms of his legacy I wonder if he would have been better off going with Spain.

          Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/04/11 at 12:39 PM

          FIFA article 18.1a states: at the time of the player’s first appearance in an official international match, he must already have the nationality of the representative team for which he wishes to play.

          Considering Messi made his debut in 2005, it is doubtful he qualified for Spanish citizenship.

          Then again, who knows if the Spanish FA wouldn’t pull some strings and get that shit fast-tracked…

          Reply

          • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2013/04/11 at 1:43 PM

            I don’t know enough about Spanish citizenship rules but I do know that Messi turned down a chance to play for their Under 20’s when he was about 16 or so.

            It’s just interesting to think what his legacy could have been.

            His club greatness is unquestioned but his international legacy could have had two Euro Championships and a World Cup with one more still possible.

            Reply

            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/04/11 at 2:29 PM

              His legacy shouldn’t be questioned because he hasn’t won a World Cup.

              Do you think less of Eusebio, Cruyff, Best, Platini and Maldini because of this fact?

              Technically, Valdes and Reina are WC winners even though they played zero minutes.

            • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2013/04/11 at 4:00 PM

              GC,

              “His legacy shouldn’t be questioned because he hasn’t won a World Cup.”

              Legacies are there to be questioned. Messi is a great player, one of the best ever, but his legacy is very much tilted towards his club accomplishments. Maybe it shouldn’t be but that is just how it is.

              I’m not saying he is less of a player because he hasn’t won a World Cup.

              What I’m saying is had he chosen to play for Spain, his legacy might have been out of this world. I’m not talking about winning one World Cup. I’m talking about winning two Euro’s and possibly, two World Cups.

              • Pele was on three winning World Cup (though mostly injured for the middle one) teams but his club record is suspect.

              • Maradona had a better, more legitimate club record than Pele but only won one World Cup

              If Messi had chosen to play for Spain he might have had a overall, club and country record that would have blown Pele, Maradona and probably anyone else out of the water.

              “Do you think less of Eusebio, Cruyff, Best, Platini and Maldini because of this fact? “

              Of course not. Best is my favorite player but Northern Ireland had no one for him to play with.

              However, compared to Leo, all the other players you mentioned had better international careers, even without winning a World Cup. And it helped their legacies.

              Of course, they were all on teams superior to Leo’s Argentina teams. The last time I checked, which was about a year ago, Leo was scoring for Argentina at about half the rate he normally does for Barca. Maybe that’s what having Maradona as your manager does for you.

              Leo’s situation in this regard reminds me of Ryan Giggs. Of course while they have been better than Wales, England, Gigg’s potential alternative team, haven’t exactly been fantastic during his time. Maybe if they had had him they might have done a lot better, who knows. And for all we know, Gigg’s minimal international distractions kept him “fresh” for his Man U. career.

              Argentina, by their historical standards have just not been very good during Leo’s time and that’s too bad.

            • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/04/11 at 6:33 PM

              If he doesn’t feel Spanish, then it’s a non-argument. For example, I am a dual-national but I will never truly feel American.

              Pele never proved himself in Europe, does that diminish his achievements?

              One could argue that the Champions League is a better quality than the World Cup – especially now it’s a very global, borderless market, where the best players really do play in Europe.

              Although, many non-Europeans were not eligible back in the day, Messi is the only quadruple winner of the Ballon D’Or – back to back, to boot.

              It is very difficult to compare players from different era’s.

      • Posted by Ufficio on 2013/04/10 at 4:49 PM

        He has both. He chose Argentina over Spain.

        Reply

  7. The MLS academies are making lots of progress in terms of developing player at the early stages, and it seems like every time more players are being signed in their teens and bypassing the college game. With more and more MLS Clubs realizing that the biggest obstacle to developing their standout academy players is to provide the NCAA’s biggest bargaining chip, a college education, it’s only a matter of time until MLS academies start producing. That said, without playing time in meaningful games, it’s hard to argue that any young player will develop faster by signing a pro contract than going to college. Time will tell whether the partnership between MLS and the USL will pay off or not, but I feel pretty confident about the future of American players being developed in MLS. It’s impossible to tell whether the league’s academies produce a world superstar anytime in the next decade, but the overall intelligence and skill of players coming out of MLS and into the USMNT will go up overall.

    Arguably the next step for MLS acadamies to make (that’s within its control), is to branch out regionally or nationally with other satellite academies. It will take a competitive team with an ambitious front office to invest in an attempt at league dominance by increasing the range of indentifiable players.

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2013/04/11 at 8:06 PM

      I wouldn’t say they’ve made tons of progress. I suppose we could end up playing semantics games here, but it seems to me there’s been some improvement but there are still too many problems to declare success:

      1) teams aren’t allowed to capitalize enough on success: Galaxy and RSL have had problems signing top prospects because you’re only allowed to offer a limited number of homegrowns a big contract (and have it stay cap-free.)

      2) many teams in what should be big market aren’t taking big advantage: Houston’s signed homegrown players but none of them have had big impacts; San Jose has missed out on virtually every youth national player from the Bay Area; Chicago should be one of the premier youth market but hasn’t done jack in the development department. (Here is a list of successful Chicagoland players: McBride, Guzan, Bradley [though to be fair there's an asterisk there], Perry Kitchen, Ned Grabavoy, Chris Schuler… note, of course, the lack of Latino players here. I believe Chicago has the second-biggest population of Mexican-Americans, after L.A. So Chicago should have one of the best academies in MLS; they, uh, do not have such a thing.)

      3) teams are pretty bad at the final stage, turning their signed homegrowns into successful pros: unless you’re ready for pro minutes pretty much immediately, teams have been pretty bad about giving young players opportunities in real games; frequently, actually, they’ve done poorly with getting their young players reserve minutes.

      The big offender here is FC Dallas, who despite sending huge numbers of players to both U.S. and Mexican national teams, have failed to get one worthwhile player out of it. Fault is probably Hyndman’s, who believes in getting Scott Sealy his minutes, yo. That’s the most extreme version, but MLS coaches show an extreme preference for mediocre, older players over younger players.

      So far, the main reason that MLS academies haven’t necessarily produced many, if any blockbuster players is it hasn’t been clear you pay a large penalty for not doing so. That is, there hasn’t been a sufficient number of good players (or their effect hasn’t been obvious), and the source of good Americans from the draft haven’t been depleted. The latter is definitely becoming true; the former may reveal itself soon — Galaxy are this year’s demonstration; certainly if DC United were playing competently they’d be another excellent demonstration.

      Reply

  8. Posted by mbw on 2013/04/10 at 8:53 PM

    CCL, 4/10: This is the Bruce Arena who brought John O’Brien to the 2006 World Cup, not the Bruce Arena who put Donovan and Beasley on the pitch in 2002.

    Reply

  9. Posted by KickinNames... on 2013/04/11 at 8:40 PM

    Help wanted:
    Anyone who can help guide me through how the F— to purchase tickets thru viagogo for Fulham-Chelsea next Wed. It keeps telling me I have to have a season membership or some shit no matter how many different ways I try.

    Anyone successful bought viagogo tix for Fulham match? In London for a few days midweek and wanted to catch a match.

    Reply

    • Posted by KickinNames... on 2013/04/16 at 1:32 AM

      Got my my tickets for the Cottage tomorrow. Train from Antwerp to St Pancras. First match in London for me. I’m so happy I could punch a horse….

      Reply

  10. Posted by dth on 2013/04/13 at 6:12 PM

    Speaking of Arena, his crush on Leonardo makes no sense. Especially since the De La Garza/Gonzalez pairing is so good? It’s one of the most bizarre fixations I’ve seen. (“I have a perfectly good CB pairing. Let’s disrupt it!”) This is why I think people who want to move Fabian Johnson from LB are crazy.

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2013/04/13 at 6:38 PM

      On the other hand, it’s hard to be really convinced by FC Dallas when they go up a man and their opponents look better than they do. (admittedly my first time really seeing them this season.)

      Reply

  11. Posted by Ufficio on 2013/04/13 at 7:14 PM

    Omar Gonzalez needs to kick this habit of ball-watching.

    Reply

  12. Posted by Ufficio on 2013/04/14 at 4:55 PM

    Apparently we have no quality at the U-17 level, other than Soñora, whom we’ll probably never see in a US jersey again. Flores really couldn’t get on the field ahead of any of these bums?

    Reply

  13. Posted by Union on 2013/04/14 at 5:21 PM

    Matt – any way to start a forum of some kind. I need a way to rant about this U17 game.

    Sonora is the real deal. Flores not getting on the field has nothing to do with his talent. It has to do with the fact that Richie Williams is a god awful coach. Come on. There is a common denominator with this stuff. US Soccer has, in the past 25 months, failed to qualify for a U-20 WC (something we thankfully qualified for this time around), failed to qualify for the Olympics and failed to qualify for a U-17 WC for the first time in a long time.

    There are systemic problems that I would love to rant about it longer and longer.

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2013/04/14 at 7:48 PM

      I don’t think the particularities of Richie Williams has much of an effect, to be honest. We’ve seen, now, failures at u-23, u-20 and u-17. Head coaching errors are common to all of them, but then again Williams has been a successful assistant for a while and Porter is doing a solid job so far in Portland.

      I liked a lot of the players in this u-17 team, actually. Sonora, Rubin, Baird, and Moore are interesting, I think. And I thought we were comfortably outplaying Honduras through the first 55 minutes or so (I had to leave, conveniently, right before the second Hondruan goal.)

      But we aren’t putting out complete teams; we don’t put out enough good players. Hence while those players might compare favorably, we’re reliant on a disproportionate number of successes to prosper. That’s not going to happen.

      So: we need more players and aren’t getting enough of them. Conveniently, for the purposes of this piece, there’s a place — a league — that should be developing these players.

      Oh, by the by, Klinsi’s kvetching about Ozzie Alonso and the Cuban government. Two completely disconnected factoids, I’m sure.

      Reply

  14. Posted by dth on 2013/04/14 at 8:36 PM

    Speaking of, in the eternal question of, “Why can’t we get more technical players?” A good place to start would be stamping out the unnecessary roughness. Refs were leaned on a bit after the rash of injuries in 2011, but I’ve seen a ton of ugly tackles and confrontations this season. Culturally, the refs don’t seem to care unless they’re being pushed to change.

    Reply

  15. Posted by godsholytrousers on 2013/04/15 at 9:28 AM

    C L O S E
    B R A D E N T O N ! ! !

    Reply

  16. […] Shin Guardian looks at the issues on developing players within Major League Soccer and the foreign born players on the National Team. […]

    Reply

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