Through ten MLS seasons, the league has had to encounter a myriad of obstacles and challenges. Fluctuating and fickle TV contracts, the desertion of key sponsors, contraction, dwindling crowds for certain franchises and a disastrous World Cup showing in 1998 have all left their bruises on the fledgling league. Now, with the league turning a corner and perhaps finally entrenching itself in the greater American sports scene, the greatest challenge MLS has had to face since its inception is now at hand.
These players not only brought an American work rate and ethic to the league, but quickly endeared themselves to local fans and media for their hard work and talent. While a Martin Vasquez, Steve Rammel, Paul Dougherty or Rhett Harty did not earn the accolades or salaries of their more famous teammates, these players were a vital link in terms of talent and experience between the more famous players on each MLS side and the newly minted college and Project-40 players whose professional careers were being birthed.
However, a concerning trend has emerged over the past several seasons that should awaken MLS to take a cold, hard look at its infrastructure and direction. Recently, a bevy of second tier European leagues have been making swoops for MLS players out of contract and looking to re-sign with the league.
Historically, the list of targeted players usually consisted of washed up MLS players signing with lower tier leagues such as the Eircom League in Ireland. Such moves were fit for individuals long in tooth such as Paul Keegan or younger players who could not cut it in the league, for example MetroStars goalkeeper Russell Payne. However, the success of MLS players abroad and the increased profile of the U.S. national team, has made American players the new flavor of the week in Europe. These players tend to share the following traits -- they're cheap, young and for the most part have a very limited national team resume.
It was always expected that players with certain aspirations, ranging from Bobby Convey to Cory Gibbs or DaMarcus Beasley would eventually be transferred by MLS to Europe. It was no surprise that other players like a Clint Mathis or a Carlos Bocanegra would leave at the end of their contracts to test their European ambitions. Upward moves to superior leagues like the English Premiership by players such as New Zealand's Simon Elliott, who developed professionally in MLS and played collegiately in the states, are to be expected. Very few, however, foresaw the disconcerting exodus of players such as Nat Borchers, Ramiro Corrales, Adin Brown, Wade Barrett or Danny Califf to leagues in Scandanavia or Denmark.
Whereas Beasley, Mathis and Convey moved abroad to a higher level of play and reputation, this new breed of American players are moving laterally in terms of both style and competition. Most worrisome is the fact that MLS is not losing its players to more prestigious or demanding leagues, but due to the financial incentives offered abroad by their European suitors.
Taking the point further, in the 2004 La Manga Cup, a preseason tournament in Portugal, the MetroStars discovered a young Canadian striker named Olivier Occean, drafted in the third round of that year's Super Draft. Occean, who was not under contract with the team, was quickly turning heads in the tournament. Shortly after the La Manga Cup concluded (still the New Jersey side's only piece of hardware to date), Occean was signed by Norwegian outfit Odd Greenland, turning down a contract from MLS that pailed in comparison to his European offer. Occean is quietly developing into a gem of a player and is beginning to figure prominently in Canada's national team picture.
MLS is dependent on these players as the primary basis of the league. Califf and Corrales are far from household names or even major draws at the stadium, but to lose players of their ability, savvy and experience is a detriment to MLS as a whole. Perhaps, hard nosed players such as these lack the flamboyance and notoriety of their more stellar teammates but it is their consistent presence in the lineup that provides the league with stability during the long summer months riddled with national team call-ups and injuries.
While one expects that an exciting young prospect such as Crew midfielder Danny Szetela would have suitors in England, the loss of a Wade Barrett or Adin Brown to a league of minimal prestige is a rude wakeup call to MLS. It is a sign that the league is neglecting its fundamental base in an effort to appeal to a broader audience.
The continued attrition of promising young Americans to leagues in Norway, Sweden or Denmark could have a devastating impact on a league still seeking to achieve its identity and forge a reputation at home and abroad. While these players will be wonderful ambassadors of the league as they play abroad, the league cannot seriously sustain itself by losing these solid veterans in the prime of their careers to such competition.
Certainly, it is inevitable that any soccer league throughout the world will see a variety of player movements flowing both into and out of the league, but MLS' recent inability to sign a certain caliber of player is discouraging and a negative trend away from a healthy league. The players who have sought the continuance of their careers abroad in recent years are still the center of MLS and the key to its success. In order to take the next step in its continued growth, MLS must reverse this trend and begin to keep as many American players at home by financially satisfying their requests and ensuring their continued development within the league.
Kristian Dyer is a freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com