John Smallwood: MLS not good at keeping homegrown talent home

Posted: July 26, 2012

I HAVE NO PROBLEM with the MLS roster for Wednesday night's All-Star Game against Chelsea at PPL Park.

All-Star status is supposed to be for the players having the best seasons, regardless of age or nationality.

But if you are thinking long-term about the success of MLS, you should raise an eyebrow that only five All-Stars — San Jose defenders Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi, D.C. United forward Chris Pontius and Union midfielder Michael Farfan — are American players who are 25 or younger.

Of even greater concern should be that only three All-Stars — Los Angeles' Landon Donovan, Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman and San Jose's Chris Wondolowski — were on the roster for the USA's 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Guatemala on June 12.

Donovan and Beckerman are 30. Wondolowski is 29.

That's not a strong representation for a league whose marketing strategy urges fans to see America's future stars develop here.

Looking at an All-Star roster dominated by foreign players and Americans in their late 20s or older, it seems MLS is seeing less and less return on the young talent in which it has invested so much.

It's not as bad as the one-and-done of NCAA basketball, but the exodus of young American talent after just a few seasons is a troubling pattern.

That's a problem if you are trying to build a league anchored on fans becoming invested in American players.

Union fans must be both excited and scared to death that Farfan, 24, has suddenly stopped being PPL Park's great little secret and is now on center stage as an All-Star.

American talent is becoming more and more appreciated internationally, and when young MLS players start doing good things, other leagues notice.

Last year, Farfan scored against Real Madrid in the World Football Challenge. What if he makes a few of those dangerous lead passes into space against European champion Chelsea with the world again watching?

And as the Union makes a resurgence with such young American players as Zac MacMath (20), Raymon Gaddis (22), Antoine Hoppenot (21) and Jack McInerney (19), do fans spend half their time wondering how long these guys play for the USA, much less Philadelphia?

Transfer — the buying and selling of talent — is just the way things are done in soccer. The right price usually gets a team what it wants.

MLS, in its 17th season, is still growing and developing. It's still in its best interest to sell more than it buys.

"It's a balance," said Union veteran defender Chris Albright, who has seen the evolution of MLS as a player almost from its inception. "As a league, MLS still has to try to make a profit, and those young, talented kids are going to go to leagues where they can make more money.

“But the team is going to take that 4 million-pound offer and put it back into its academy. The money from one player might be the resources to spawn four."

That's a nasty way to have to look at sports if you like the name on the back of a jersey as well as the one on the front.

Still, it is reality in soccer.

At this stage of the game, everything is still conspiring against MLS to keep its young talent.

Everything from the quality of competition to improved salary to the subtle urging of the USA national team tells a young player he needs to exit MLS as soon as possible.

MLS sells young talent to reinvest in developing more talent and gradually build the league.

Still, MLS is a business foremost, and how does it sell the concept of seeing tomorrow's American stars when those players are constantly going overseas just as the fan base is getting to know them?

Nobody faults MLS if a guy jumps to the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga or Serie A, but you'd like to think it could outbid a second-division team in Norway for a player like national team member Clarence Goodson, who in 2008 signed with IK Start.

It's not even the ideal situation for the national team.

The USA soccer team isn't a must-see attraction in the USA.

Sure, the national team can fill a football stadium, but only when it's playing a power nation and 80 percent of the crowd is there to see the opponent.

At any given home match, it's not surprising to see 35 to 85 percent of the crowd not rooting for the USA.

The casual American fan doesn't know the American team, because they see it only a handful of times each year.

LeBron James can't walk down the street without being noticed. Clint Dempsey, despite blazing new trails for American field players in England, can.

"USA players have no brand recognition here," Albright said. "Ideally, you want to be able to market a guy like Clint Dempsey here."

It's a waiting game.

"Ultimately, our goal is that by 2022 to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "Over the next 10 years, we will measure that by the quality of our play, passion of fans and the viability and success of our business."

In the meantime, enjoy watching Farfan, Beitashour, Morrow and Zusi on Wednesday night because they might be out of the country this time next year. n

Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/JohnSmallwood.

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