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.
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.