What Major League Soccer Lacks Is a Few Good (American) Men
When Washington's D.C. United won the inaugural Major League Soccer championship game Sunday, no one dared put it on a level with the giants of world soccer.
While the United States-based MLS has far surpassed expectations in its opening season, its new champion is not on a par with the champions of other more-established leagues around the world - and no one is pretending it is.
The world's top leagues are built on a deep pool of domestic talent, drawing only premier players from abroad to supplement their home-grown base. But as this MLS season progressed, the biggest concern was that America could not supply enough quality talent to fill the 10 teams' rosters.
MLS's few world-class players - Roberto Donadoni, Carlos Valderrama, Marco Etcheverry - are not American. The second tier of players is capable - and many of these are Americans. But many critics agree with Paul Gardner of Soccer America magazine who says that the bottom two or three Americans on each team often aren't professional-quality.
"If you have two or three subpar players on the team, you can imagine that when you try to weave nice passing movements, they break down because three nice passes and it reaches someone who can't control the ball," he says.
The potential solutions, however, put MLS in a quandary. The league wants to encourage the development of American players, and this year it had a rule to support this goal: Only four foreigners were allowed on each team. At the same time, though, the league wants to present the most attractive product possible, and right now foreigners are often more fun to watch.
MLS is trying to find a middle path. Short-term fixes such as allowing more foreigners to play may help keep fans in the seats, and long-term programs like the new "Project 40" are designed to nurture young talent and increase the American talent pool.
Although MLS Deputy Commissioner Sunil Gulati disagrees with the idea that the bottom few players on each team are not fit for top-flight professional soccer, he does say that "improving the product is very high on everyone's list" - and some steps have already been taken.
Concessions to quality
MLS has decided to allow teams to use a fifth foreigner for the next three years.
But what is needed for the league to succeed, argues Mr. Gardner, is a fundamental change in the way Americans view soccer. One important part of this change must be the way young American talent is refined, he says. "The pipeline we've got in place at the moment for producing players - that is college soccer - is virtually useless," he says.
The arguments against college soccer are founded on two main points: College players are not allowed to play enough games, and the level of competition is not high enough.
In most countries, promising young soccer players are playing professional soccer almost year-round by age 18. They play with with professionals who help them improve their skills in a competitive environment.
The American college player plays for 3-1/2 months a year, is deprived of the competitive atmosphere of professional soccer, and graduates at the age of 22 or 23, at least five years behind his international counterpart. This discrepancy has hurt MLS, Gardner says.
Jerry Yeagley, coach of the Indiana University men's soccer team, recognizes college soccer's limitations, but he is not ready to throw it out altogether.
"It's not the ideal situation, but I had eight seniors on my 1994 team and seven of them are now making a living playing professional soccer," he says.
In fact, D.C. United is coached by former University of Virginia coach Bruce Arena and started five of his former players on Sunday.
Despite this, all indications are that MLS is looking to be less dependent on the NCAA to develop the American stars of tomorrow.
MLS and the United States Soccer Federation (which ran the 1994 World Cup) will begin Project 40 in January. The program will invite the top 40 18-and 19-year-old prospects in America to a three-month camp. At the end of the camp, US Soccer coaches will offer the top 30 contracts with MLS.
Gulati insists Project 40 is not intended to undermine college soccer, but rather to give young soccer talent "an alternative at a very top level."
"It is an acceptance of the fact that college soccer is not about producing professional players," he adds. "I don't believe it should be."
Yeagley says the idea is great "in concept," but he worries about players getting left out in the cold if things don't work out.
"It's a little different than football or basketball where someone is set for life if they give up college and go pro," he says. "They'd be making barely more than the cost of a full education at many schools. For the academically motivated young man, he needs to look at it long and hard."
Project 40 will offer scholarships to all the players they sign, but the value of these scholarships is yet to be determined.
Like Yeagley, Gardner also believes prospects should decide their futures carefully, but he says complete dedication to the sport is necessary to become a top player, and that inherently carries some risk with it.
"It's like being a tightrope walker," he says. "I could be a great tightrope walker if I had a huge safety net hanging a couple of feet below the tightrope, but if you're serious about it, you've got to take that away."
Gulati refused to speculate on when Project 40 would impact MLS, but the $1.5 million a year project is clearly designed to be a part of the league's efforts to keep the level of play rising.
"We all agree that it has been good this year, and it can get better and should get better."