Former National Team players from any country should be people that fans look up to. They should lead by example and be role models for kids when they grow up. Off the pitch they should care about the game, no matter if they have a job in the media or are currently employed by a soccer club.
Former United States Mens National Team (USMNT) player Alexi Lalas enjoyed a ten-year career – playing for Padova from 1994 to 1996 when they were promoted to Serie A ( Italy’s Division One), and later playing for most of a decade with numerous MLS clubs. Alexi had ninety-six caps with the USMNT. Representing our country on the field should be an honor!
Alexi Lalas has since transitioned to a commentator role for Fox Sports, and is frequently in the news over mildly controversial statements. Recently however, he’s upped the controversy. In an interview with Four Four Two, Lalas was asked how a USMNT failure to qualify for the World Cup would affect American soccer. Lalas said, “MLS has to, and I think they have, come to a conclusion, and be open and honest about it, that their priority is not to help the national team of the United States or Canada,” he said. “And that’s OK. They are a business and they need to do what is best for their business.”
I was shocked to hear a former National Team player, and a professional soccer commentator, say such a thing. It’s not unreasonable to expect even a former National Team player to be able to segregate out his associations with a former employer, and express a viewpoint in alignment with a pretty basic goal – to see the U.S be successful on the worlds stage.
Supporters around the country were able to hear a qualified subject matter expert who gets paid to leverage that knowledge, experience and credibility tell it how he thinks it is. If they were listening carefully though, they would have noticed the implicit assumptions in Lalas’ statement. They include: that MLS IS American soccer; that MLS’s profit motive is more important than the long-term health of the National Team’s growth AND that of the greater American sport; that, indeed, they are inseparable in definition. ‘What’s good for [insert business] is good for America’. Alexi Lalas is just out of touch with reality. But as more light is shone upon the behavior and interrelationships of United States Soccer Federation, Soccer United Marketing and the MLS, a more depressing thought arises. As Upton Sinclair once said, “‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Should MLS develop players with a duty to the USMNT’s quality in mind? Yes! Should MLS develop players for the Canadian Mens National Team? No, to be honest it shouldn’t be our responsibility. As the failure to deliver in that department grows more obvious, it makes sense that the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) are soon launching the Canadian Premier League (CPL).
The CPL will develop Canadian players for their national team so hopefully one day they can qualify for the World Cup. The U.S have a whole pyramid, but the problem is we are not all working together to make the sport better in this country by developing players and giving them a chance to succeed by putting them in league matches.
Yes, MLS is a business. Professional soccer leagues and clubs are all businesses. But every single league in this country share an obligation to develop players for the U.S Mens National team. It doesn’t matter if your a first division, or a third division. NASL coaches, for example, will speak freely about their players’ prospects and relevance for their respective national teams, and push for excellence for the benefit of the team and league, but also for deepening the bench from which the various National Teams might draw. Part of this is not shying away from international signings, and not discouraging their participation in their countries’ teams. If there’s one thing all leagues should work together on it’s to develop players for the national team.
Around the world, there isn’t this argument of who is responsible for developing national players. Each club has their own academy and they bring in the best players they can find from the local community. From these come the best players from around the world at a young age into an environment of improvement, so they can develop them the way they see fit.
For example, in the English Premier League Everton Football Club have a 19 year old midfielder Tom Davies – a local lad. Tom was brought through Everton’s academy and is now currently a first team player. He represents England at the U21 level and is set to be a future star for the first team of the England National Team.
In this country, most MLS franchises don’t do that. They don’t think like that. Whether it’s because of a combination of factors like the closed league system, the NCAA system which works for franchise sports business models, the subordinate nature of soccer to other sports franchises, and the conflicts of interest they generate, MLS owners do invest in youth academies but don’t understand how to use them. They rather go through the motions of a draft, and perhaps use their USL affiliate farm teams. Instead of letting those players develop in an academy and actively loaning them out to clubs, they rather waste money and talent by starting a new team they don’t care about. To me this feels disrespectful to the fans in that market because they are not watching an independent club. They are supporting a minor league team with dampened ambitions and drive.
Each club in this country should have an identity, not the league. There are numerous different paths clubs in this country could go down:
Sign Big Names
There are only a few clubs that can afford to do this outside of MLS. Clubs in the lower division don’t have the backing of U.S Soccer and don’t receive some of the TV money from Soccer United Marketing hence why they can’t compete with the big earners.
Since I’m a Cosmos supporter, buying star players comes with the name and the identity of the club. In previous years the Cosmos signed Raul and Marcos Senna. They both retired with the Boys In Green and went out on top with a NASL Championship.
Develop players and sell them and make a profit
Southampton of the English Premier League does this, as do many EPL clubs. Southampton is a small club and not backed by big-pocket owners. They had to find a way to run a sustainable club, and this is one of the main ways it’s done. Southampton develops young players in their youth academy; their development is compensated, and the money they make goes back into the club, either to pay for the academy for the next couple of years to repeat the experience or to buy a more experienced player for the team. This plan should be for smaller clubs that don’t have big money investors but they can still compete.
The sport of soccer shouldn’t only be about making money. The stakeholders in the game should care about the sport and the future of the National team which depends on us. If we sit around and listen to the likes of Alexi Lalas and former players just echo what the MLS shareholders/owners want to hear, we are failing as soccer supporters. We as supporters have a voice and we should start to use it. As you could see, the mainstream media think supporters aren’t smart or relevant, and can write anything to support the largest stakeholders in American soccer without fear of blowback. They employ journalists who may are not interested in the sport, or are reliable in their coverage.
This has to stop! Former players should stick up for what is right in this game. Some supporters in this country look up to the likes of Alexi and listen to every word he says and they take it for gospel. That’s also the problem. Some people in this country who don’t know a lot about the sport will take his words and believe it. When you read a quote or anything from a former pro or a member of the media read it and make your own opinion on it. Don’t let someone like Alexi affect your own opinion.
Young players in this country who are good enough, deserve to sign with youth academies and hopefully one day they can sign a first team contract. Each club in this country should work hard to develop quality American players. I don’t want to see MLS clubs spend big (or what passes for big in the MLS) on foreign players. For one, their resources should be prioritizing the improvement of American players.
If there’s one common goal on which we can all work together – to develop American talent – then the United States Mens National Team will finally find a path to success on the international stage. I would love to see the day the USMNT win the World Cup. The only way we will see that day is if MLS and USSF interests are separated from their dealings with SUM, and focus on what needs to change to push us forward as a country in the sport.