Guest Post: European Pie in the Sky

TSG commenter and writer of Ninety Plus Connor Walsh contributed the following piece about US players heading overseas in a World Cup year.

McBride found success on both sides of the pond.

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.

Eddie Johnson's game hasn't traveled all that well.

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.

Holden and Clark: The latest US pair to take their chances in the big leagues.

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.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/01/27 at 7:00 AM

    A very well written article. The only thing that I would like to chip in is regarding Donovan’s ‘failed’ loan at Bayern Munich. First of all, I agree that breaking into a Champion’s League club’s starting XI is a different kettle of fish compared to Evertion. But surely the cultural differences between America & England is a lot smaller than those between America & Germany? I know that we’re talking about the quality on the pitch, but it does take time. Obviously there is the language and not being able to understand your teammates, but at Everton, Donovan has Howard for support off the field. It might sound like a minor thing, but it is a factor. Then there’s the time scale – for example, look how long it for took Henry to settle at Arsenal, or Stam at United? I cannot believe I am defending Donovan, but being fair to the bloke, I think perspective is needed.

    PS For the record, I feel that Brad Freidel is the best player that the US has ever produced.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/01/27 at 7:14 AM

      Also, I have heard the term “Eurosnob” here and there but have heard it more and more over the last few months – can somebody actually define this for me? I am guessing it means more than simply valuing European football over US football…


      • Posted by Free Beer Movement on 2010/01/27 at 12:50 PM

        Eurosnob typically refers to a soccer fan in America that is not a fan of American soccer. That is the nicest way of putting it.

        Without getting too much into it for risk of side tracking a great article the Eurosnob prefers to support the game abroad with his time and money rather than help contribute towards the development of a competitive game at home.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/01/27 at 1:02 PM

          I guess you’re refering to American-born fans who think that they’re too good to watch MLS?

          I have only lived here since 2004, and the one thing that astonished me was the amount of (American born) support Italy had over the USA in 2006. Incredible. I was speechless. Never witnessed anything like it in my life. Needless to say, apart from 12th June (I’m English), I will be wishing the USA well.


  2. Posted by Milad on 2010/01/27 at 7:34 AM

    I think you nailed it when you mentioned the wage differences and the skill differences in European leagues. Even at Aris FC, Adu and Johnson are playing in a higher level league than the MLS, and getting paid more than they would here. At some point, players are going to want to see how far their talent can take them in terms of best leagues in the world (explaining Holdens move, for example). If Dempsey hadn’t taken the chance in going from MLS to Fulham, he’d never become the player he is. So not only
    does it make sense that the players go, it’s in the best interest of the US team, as historically we haven’t done well in World Cups with MLS players who get consistent PT. If were going to make the leap up in ass, this has to be the way. It’s unequivocally a good thing in my opinion


  3. Posted by bw on 2010/01/27 at 9:30 AM

    holden’s salary is a tragedy. if for no other reason than that, MLS should be ashamed of themselves and give in their argument in this labor dispute. shame on them if they didn’t/don’t give that kid some type of bonus for being a huge part of their club and marketing.


  4. Posted by bw on 2010/01/27 at 9:30 AM

    also, what is it about houston? they seem to have a keen eye for upcoming talent and have consistently produced players from ‘nowhere’ to contribute to the national squad and move on to bigger things. what can the USMNT take from their approach and/or their staff? anyone have more knowledge on this than me?


    • Posted by Mike on 2010/01/27 at 12:59 PM

      To answer your 1st question, Coach Dominic Kinnear. ESPN recently had an article about the Dynamo, the departure of Holden and Clark, and Coach Dom’s ability to find talent…. In my humble opinion, a great coach.


  5. Posted by KL on 2010/01/27 at 9:37 AM

    Great read. According to SBI the union and the MLS are no where closer to an agreement than they were when they began. However, if things don’t change soon, we’re looking at a life threatening blow to soccer in the US. The MLS has become a way to fill in the gaps on the USMNT. Stu Holden; case in point. He came out of no where to be a vital contributor to the nats over the last several months. I have read both sides of the arguments: a) the MLS is a great staging ground for overseas play and b) the MLS is a detriment to players who try to make the transfer overseas. Either way you look at it, without the MLS America simply does not have enough attention placed on soccer to produce athletes of the caliber we are starting to see.


  6. Posted by Evan on 2010/01/27 at 12:05 PM

    I’m not sure that the notion that MLS is way worse then second or third tier European leagues such as Belgium and Greece is always true. To me it seems that the top players in MLS could all go on and have success in these leagues. We must remember that some players like Freddy Adu were never actually top players in MLS. I would even argue that Eddie Johnson wasn’t a top player just for his 2 goal season with Kansas City. In all, it really comes down to the salary cap. Obviously there are great players in MLS that likely could have played in many European leagues and found success (Jaime Moreno and Eddie Pope come to mind) but because of such a low salary cap, not only do they have to take pay cuts, but each team struggles to find good supporting players. The reality is that the top players are fit to play in a variety of different places, but the salary cap makes it impossible to play a game without using some of those 30,000 a year players, who are not all like Clint Dempsey or Stuart Holden. Most of them are going to be the next Rod Dyachencko rather than the next Johnathan Bornstein.


  7. Posted by Bob on 2010/01/27 at 1:43 PM

    A really good article! If we really want to find out how U.S. players can make the leap to the Euro leauges, we should study how foreign players are now a major part of the NBA. We know that American basketball players hone their skills in grade school and high school, and sometimes in college. But, where do foreign players hone their skills to be able to contribute and start for some of the NBA top teams? One NBA trainer I talked to a few years back said that most of the good foreign players hone their skills in the Italian Basketball League, which he said is one step above playing college ball in the USA. Maybe this is what we need to find with our young soccer players. Is there a league in Europe that is just below the EPL and other top leagues, but just above the talent pool in MLS? If we can find that and get our top players over there, then maybe we will start to develop superstars that can play and start for most teams in the EPL.

    Think about it – how and where did guys like Manu Ginobli (Argentina), and Tony Parker (France), and Pau Gasol (Spain), and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) learn the skill of playing basketball at a superstar level while growing up in soccer-rich countries? Our model to put soccer players in the top Euro clubs may begin with these four NBA stars. Just a thought….


  8. Posted by bw on 2010/01/27 at 4:01 PM

    Donovan nets one for Everton in the 19th minute!! Way to break the ice Landon!


  9. I appreciate the comments guys.


  10. Posted by Patrick on 2010/01/27 at 7:21 PM

    great write up. thanks for the good insight.


  11. Posted by Sean on 2010/02/07 at 2:40 AM

    Good article. The key to success is playing time. If our top players sit on the bench in Europe, then we will constantly struggle to field competitive teams for World Cup competition.


  12. […] He’s a 6′0 writer (no real idea on his height) out of the University of Kentucky. He penned one of the first pieces on this publication not written by Brothers TSG, but writes over at his publication Ninety Plus. He’s a […]


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