Major League Soccer has a problem. It is growing at a fast rate, perhaps too fast for the talent pool in the United States to keep up. At least when you have scores of young Americans leaving the United States in search of professional success.
With San Jose set to be team 14 in 2008, and more expansion cities to follow in the future, MLS is in need of a talent infusion. The Designated Player rule was supposed to help with that, as are other potential rule changes relating to senior international players. Teams are setting up player development systems, which should help, but the impact of those systems may not be felt on the league's talent pool for several years.
So what's MLS to do? What if MLS teams looked across the pond to find those American players struggling to find their way? Europe is littered with young American talent struggling for playing time, when they could be in MLS playing major minutes and developing their abilities at a better rate. The league would have to change its approach to Americans who have gone to Europe first (the league has been notorious for low-balling American players looking to join MLS after struggling abroad).
As much as this exercise is a trip down fantasy road, imagine if MLS teams had the financial resources to bring back some of the quality talent that has gone abroad. Here is one look at the talent that could find its way back to MLS if the league and its teams put the resources forward to making it happen:
San Jose Earthquakes
Unfortunately for San Jose, Kamani Hill, the young Germany-based striker, has stated his desire to keep trying his luck in Europe. Hill looks set to leave Wolfsburg this winter and is likely headed to the German second division. Unless San Jose could find some way to convince Hill to sign with MLS, the Earthquakes would have to make a move for veteran winger and one-time San Jose Earthquakes standout Eddie Lewis, who has fallen out of favor at Derby County.
American players aren't the only ones who go to Europe and struggle to find their place. Toronto would have to consider making a move for Canadian striker and Toronto native Will Johnson, a player TFC targeted in the past but found too high a price tag on. Johnson's fortunes at Heerenveen fizzled and he has been loaned to De Graafschap, where he has struggled for playing time after starting the team's first league match this season. Johnson has failed to score and has been reduced to playing small minutes as a second-half substitute. Toronto FC does have Danny Dichio and Jeff Cunningham, but Mo Johnston would certainly find a role for the young attacker.
Real Salt Lake
RSL already boasts a good nucleus of young talents, but adding a player like Preston Zimmerman would be a coup. Zimmerman is currently doing well for Hamburg's reserve team and, at 19, is one of the best young talents in the U.S. youth national team pipeline. He probably wouldn't be in a hurry to leave a club as prestigious as Hamburg, but if RSL and MLS could make the right offer, Zimmerman could pair with Robbie Findley to be the league's best young forward tandem.
Los Angeles Galaxy
Since the Galaxy doesn't seem to have to adhere to the league's salary cap, and the league's "crown jewel" has failed to make the playoffs for two straight seasons, what better destination for beleaguered U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber? The move from Hamburg to Derby County was supposed to provide Feilhaber with the playing time he needed to flourish. With the Galaxy, Feilhaber could combine with David Beckham and Landon Donovan and help save his place on the national team.
The Rapids selected defensive midfielder Greg Dalby with the 17th pick in the 2007 draft hoping he would settle on MLS after initially wanting to go to Europe. Several failed trials and one denied work permit later, Dalby finally signed a deal with Belgian club SC Charleroi. He isn't playing in Belgium but he has the tools to be a capable midfielder in MLS and a potential starter for the Rapids.
The Crew missed the playoffs for a second straight season but the team has some good young talent. What Columbus doesn't have is strong forwards and Gabriel Ferrari is just the type of center forward prospect who could thrive playing with midfielders like Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers. Ferrari has failed to see the field for Sampdoria this year, something that wouldn't be a problem on the Crew.
New York Red Bulls
Danny Szetela only recently left MLS for a shot at Europe four months ago but he has struggled for playing time at Racing de Santander. A move to the Red Bulls would allow him to play for his hometown team and play alongside Claudio Reyna and U.S. U-20 national teammate Jozy Altidore. Szetela isn't in a hurry to leave Europe just yet, but playing for New York would be something for Szetela to seriously consider.
The Hoops may not be in a hurry to sign a hometown star considering how poorly things went with Ramon Nunez, but it would be tough to turn down the chance to sign a player like right winger and Dallas-area native Lee Nguyen. The PSV Eindhoven midfielder has been playing well for the PSV reserve team and still may have a future in Holland, but he would certainly find a starting role for FC Dallas.
The Goats boast a talented forward tandem in Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo, but when that duo got hurt, Chivas USA was lost. The best way to address the lack of depth at forward would be to land former U.S. U-20 forward Sammy Ochoa. Currently on the books at Mexican club Tecos, Ochoa has the skills to play in MLS and has actually been linked to a potential move to MLS next summer.
D.C. doesn't have many needs but the playoffs showed that defending is an issue. Enter Eric Lichaj, the former North Carolina standout who signed with Aston Villa during the summer. However, a broken foot sidelined him and slowed his transition. It might be early for Lichaj to come back to the United States, but being a potential starter for a team like D.C. might make coming back home appealing.
The Wizards look set to lose leading scorer Eddie Johnson to the English Premier League. Who better to replace him than another up and coming U.S. national team forward prospect in Charlie Davies. Yes, Davies played more in his first season with Swedish club Hammarby than most of the other players on this list played for their teams, but Davies' first season abroad wasn't a complete success and KC should have some transfer revenue from the sale of Johnson to throw at Davies.
The Fire lost Honduran winger Ivan Guerrero to the expansion draft so who better to sign that U.S. U-20 standout Sal Zizzo. A right winger by trade, Zizzo's presence could allow Justin Mapp to move to his natural left wing role. Zizzo signed with German club Hannover 96 last summer and has yet to see the field for the first team. After his U-20 World Cup performance, you would have to like Zizzo's chances of being an impact player in MLS.
If Revs officials could go back in time I'm pretty sure they would have found a way to scout and sign Bolton winger and Connecticut native Johann Smith. Capable of playing forward and right wing, Smith's speed and versatility would make him an instant contributor for New England and would put serious pressure on 2007 Revolution rookies Wells Thompson and Adam Cristman.
What does the defending champion need exactly? Not much, though depth in defense is a need after losing Ryan Cochrane to the expansion draft. 1860 Munich defender Steve Purdy isn't seeing first-team action in Germany and while he would not be guaranteed to start for the Dynamo, his 6-foot-4 frame and impressive offensive ability for his size would be tough to keep off the field.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.