The Progress Of The Beautiful Game in America Part One

defoe-jermain-05650336It seems like every year, before every MLS season, the question from overseas is whether football / soccer in North America is in a better position than it was last year, or a few years ago.

I still feel that it is behind the big four in terms of stature (American football, baseball, basketball and arguably ice hockey), and I do hold many of the concerns that I have had for a few years now. I do sometimes feel as if there is a requirement for a instant lift in the game but that’s at odds with the progress the game has made over here. There are structural improvements I would make – which I will save for an article later this week – but for now I want to concentrate on the top level of the game.

We’re heading into the 21st year of the MLS and that alone gives you an indication of the progress that has been made, though it doesn’t tell the whole story. There are still franchises that have gone bust, rebranded or relocated and it is primarily with these that the problem lies. It’s difficult to establish an attractive culture for supporters if you’re not giving them a team or a club that they have a local identity and affinity with. I don’t want to see teams simply moved because of financial difficulties – first of all, that does nothing to establish the culture of excellence, secondly, it alienates the supporter base that has been built and has established a rapport with the players of that club, and thirdly, it is precisely that kind of financial mismanagement which led to the demise of the NASL the first time around.

Last year the Portland Timbers won a lot of fans with their progression and, honestly, I feel the North West is the ‘hotbed’ of soccer – there’s a more European climate, a more European culture when it comes to their connection with the game and that played a major part in many neutrals affinity with the Timbers last year.

One of the biggest stories – at least for people reading this back in the UK – will be that of Toronto FC, the club managed by Ryan Nelsen who have made a number of signings from UK clubs. Jermain Defoe is the big name, and don’t get me wrong, players such as Jermain – just like David Beckham and Thierry Henry before him – will do their bit to raise the profile and interest but it’s in players like Steven Caldwell that the reputation of the league will slowly improve.

I don’t mean any disrespect to Steven but his CV is one that represents the lower levels of the Premier League, or a promotion chasing Championship side. Of course, it may well be that Steven came over for the money too, but it will be when players of that standard come over earlier in their career that we’ll begin to see a stronger progress. One such player is Richard Eckersley. He was, ironically, at Toronto, but has just been drafted to New York Red Bulls after some great progress since his arrival in the MLS. Richard is just 24 and a great example to others who might wish to make the same journey.

That’s when the league will begin to establish a stronger reputation rather than being perceived (however unfairly) as some kind of graveyard for over the hill Premier League talents. Jermain has plenty to offer and some raised an eyebrow with his transfer so maybe that, too, might open the doors.

That still doesn’t fix many of the domestic problems over here and no regular reader will be surprised to hear me talking about bringing through young home grown players. I’m as dedicated to that in my work over here as I am back in the UK but as people know, the whole development system is hugely different. This again is for a following article but too many youngsters disappear from the game, too many talented kids are not getting the opportunity. I know people will ask about David Beckham’s Miami venture but that too will be discussed in my next article.

Above I spoke about the foreign influence – people might remember that I spoke last year about how great it was that Clint Dempsey was returning to the MLS with plenty left to offer. The same goes for Michael Bradley, and perhaps even more so – he has done great in Europe and now is back in the MLS approaching his peak years. For $10m, that is a major transfer and showed that a team in the MLS can now pull off such a move. Make no mistake about it; Michael was highly regarded, particularly in his spell for Roma, and there are plenty of clubs that could do with a player of his ability.

People ask me about who the favourites are, and who I fancy for this year in the MLS, and in terms of the squads they each have then LA Galaxy and the Red Bulls rightly stand where they are as bookmakers favourites. I’ll watch, with interest, as I always do, but for me the real story is in the progress made by the game itself.

Trends

Tim-Sherwood-TottenhamEnglish teams didn’t have the best of times in Europe, did they? My thoughts of whether it was a new low for Manchester United under David Moyes can be heard here in my weekly podcast with TalkOfTheDevils.com – I’ve already said enough about United, it shows just how far the standards have fallen and it’s shown how difficult it is to compete at the top.

Perhaps if English clubs continue to struggle in the Champions League there will be a greater appreciation for United qualifying for the 2009 and 2011 finals where only a Barcelona team heralded as the greatest ever stopped them from what would have been an incredible achievement. As it stands, perhaps that nostalgia will help those United teams – far from vintage, but compared to today’s offerings from the Premier League…

United’s only chance of qualifying for next years competition was to do what Liverpool did in 2005 – first of all, that looks very, very unlikely following their first leg defeat in Greece and second of all even if they manage the minor miracle and qualify (let’s remember – in normal circumstances, United beating Olympiakos by three goals is something we should expect – on prior trips to Old Trafford they’ve lost by three and then four) they won’t be coming up against the calibre of teams Liverpool did nine years ago. I’ve written on my website about Bayern Munich and Barcelona and how this season will be interesting to observe from the point of who is the true European superpower (and how that trend might influence the World Cup).

One thing I did find interesting in both of those teams recent games in England was that they both appeared to have Pep Guardiola’s stamp all over them, yet both play in a way that has national characteristics. Bayern were high pressing, efficient and clinical, Barcelona were patient and stuck to the plan A with that unerring confidence that it would come off. I’ve been critical of a patient style before as I like to see penetration and speed but I have to say those performances at Arsenal and City showed that they were simply different class – there’s a lot of work to be done by the English teams in the return legs but I think we found out nothing that we didn’t already know in the first games. We’ve got a long way to go but from an England point of view there’s nothing which says to me that the path forward that Arsenal and City will walk on will be one that identifies with an English style or identity and that saddens me. It’s a side note – Arsenal had a very strong English tradition, and I’ve nothing against the way that Arsene Wenger has done his job. I just find it interesting that the further he’s moved away from that strong English tradition, the less successful the club have been.

I like to think I’ve moved with the times, I feel I approach the game with 21st century values, but I admit, maybe I’m a culprit of looking at my English heritage too much and looking at situations through that aspect too much. Just 33% of players, reportedly, are eligible for England in the top flight, and that figure is even smaller in Arsenal and Manchester City. When we look at the frightening gap in quality between them and the best teams in Europe, I look forward at England’s chances in the World Cup and it’s only natural to be concerned. I watch football from all over the world, I just love the game – and it worries me to watch the Serie A and know I’m watching an Italian game, and the same goes for other respective leagues.

On a lighter note, what did impress me was Tottenham’s European fightback Their fightback against Dnipro was on the scale United have to face and they did it with style and class – what a great comeback, and it has to be said, Spurs played with the spirit and character that has been missing at Old Trafford. Tim Sherwood was right to praise his boys for their efforts and also right to say he wants to see more of it – not to take anything away from any other clubs but Tottenham’s history is a lot like United’s in that they have a fine heritage of wanting to play exciting, attacking football… What are the chances, eh? A young English manager being given a chance in the game at one of our most traditionally exciting clubs and I have to say Tim Sherwood is doing a great job. That’s a trend that I can safely say I’d like to see more of.