MLS teams made another predictable exit from CONCACAF Champions League play this week, and this time, one of the opposing coaches saw fit to kick a little dirt northward after the final whistle.
Toluca coach Jose Cardozo: “(San Jose’s players) were all just sat back. Here (in Mexico), they say soccer has grown a lot in the United States, but I honestly don’t know in what way.”
MLS fans can protest, of course. Sure San Jose plays that way, but isn’t Real Salt Lake fun to watch? And the U.S. talent pool did a bit better than Mexico’s in World Cup qualifiers, right?
And hey, the optimistic line goes, things will pick up when we get more money in MLS to develop and maintain a wider talent pool. Just wait until the Academy teams develop more players and the new TV deals let MLS teams spend more on players. And then more players will skip college to play on reserve teams in USL Pro, and they’ll be great, and we’ll come back and beat all you sorry Mexican teams and take your World Club Championship spots. Just you wait!
Maybe there’s a simpler explanation. Maybe soccer players and coaches in the USA just aren’t that good.
MLS has cast a pretty wide net. College players? Got ‘em. Caribbean players? Come on over. Europeans, either big names getting Designated Player contracts or fringe youngsters looking for first-division play? Sure, they’re here.
Mexican teams are typically drawing from Mexico. Toluca and Cruz Azul certainly do. They may have more money to spend, but they’re just using that money to keep their top players home, not bring over Robbie Keane or Jermain Defoe. An exception is Tijuana, which looks a bit like old-school D.C. United — a few non-internationals from Argentina along with some skillful Americans.
And that brings us back to the Big Youth Soccer Paradox of this decade. We in the USA are taking youth soccer oh so seriously these days. The Bradenton’s U17 residency program debuted in 1999 with Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman and Oguchi Onyewu. A few more good ones followed — Eddie Johnson, Mike Magee, Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley. (Yes, and Tijuana player Greg Garza.) The program expanded to 40 players. We have a curriculum or two or three. We’re funneling players into national leagues and telling them not to play high school soccer any more.
All that, and the USA’s international youth tournament results have actually declined since the days of sending a bunch of unprepared kids in mullets to face down the top youth players of Europe, South America and Africa. And our MLS teams don’t look any better than D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy of the 1990s.
So what are we producing? If MLS lands a megabucks TV deal — something that isn’t the least bit confirmed at the moment — and breaks open the wallet, what will that money buy?
Maybe it’ll take a combination of patience and investment. Maybe it’ll take a few more steps away from the enforced parity that MLS once had.
But maybe it’ll also take some players looking at themselves and saying, “You know what? What we just did wasn’t good enough. My performance wasn’t good enough. Forget the salary cap and TV deal for a minute — this is about me. What am *I* going to do about it?”