Sunday, November 13, 2016

USA lose in Columbus - MLS View

There was dramatic change between the last USA v. MEX at Crew Stadium in 2013 and the one in 2016 - and it has very little to do with Jurgen Klinsmann and everything to do with MLS.

A few years ago Major League Soccer decided that acquiring USMNT stars from abroad would help jump TV ratings in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup and raise the profile of the league. Make no mistake, this was a league wide initiative and not made by individual teams. MLS is a league that works together as one. This is important to state, and restate and restate because it is such a critical part of what has happened to some of the better players in the (or eligible to play for the) United States.

In order for what happened in the loss against Mexico in Columbus on November 11, we have to take a look at the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. For it was there that MLS purchased three of what we'll call "Group A" - bigger names - Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. Each of them brought back for transfer fees in the $5-10 million range.

Because of this, a couple things happened that you don't hear much about.

1. The total spend is much more than anything MLS had paid for any cluster players in short period of time (for more details, see my post: USA's Place in the Transfer World). The expensive play vertically (re)aligned the USMNT with MLS. 
2. All the sudden, in one big swoop, MLS had three of the highest paid players in this hemisphere and they were all born on US soil. This, in turn, continued to dispose of the argument that MLS is inferior to Mexican competition because of salary restrictions.

No question that MLS went all in on the idea that bringing in these players would benefit the bottom line, but it came at a cost - an erosion in their playing quality. Now, this is a point of contention among some people in the United States soccer bubble, but in no way should it. These players have regressed. They are not as good as they were and it's absurd to suggest that not playing in the most challenging environment for them has somehow made them better.

A bi-product of bringing US born (an important distinction) players back from overseas was MLS doing everything it could to keep stars currently in the league from leaving. The examples of this are Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. Both players got sizeable wage increases to keep them both playing in the United States and with MLS (I wrote about how this would impact Sporting KC back in March 2015, head over here).

Same thing has happened with them. They never got better. Besler is to the point right now where he regularly is not selected for the starting eleven and Zusi has drifted into average with intermittent minor injuries.

Before we get to the second wave of players returning to the United States to play, let's take quick stock of key players so far...

1. Bradley: Worse than he was
2. Dempsey: Not playing, health
3. Altidore: Not as sharp, not getting better
4. Zusi: Got worse, not better
5. Besler: Didn't get better

On to the next round of USMNT eligible guys coming back in and around the last World Cup. We'll call this Group B. Jermaine Jones, Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan, Maurice Edu, DaMarcus Beasley, Brek Shea, Tim Howard and Michael Parkhurst.

Of this group, it is only Sacha Kljestan that has retained most of the quality he had playing for Anderlecht in the Belgian First Division. Jones is sort of in a category all his own. He is one of those players that by all rational football measures isn't meeting the grade yet somehow he immediately lifts shitty MLS teams into better competitive places. First, it was with New England (taking them to a Cup Final) and now it's with Colorado, who are currently in the quarterfinals this year.

The others in Group B are in various stages of not playing well (Diskerud, Shea) / breaking down (Edu) / ending their careers (Parkhurst, Howard, Beasley) or, lastly, just becoming anonymous (Bedoya).

Between Group A and B we have a total of 12 players who were once playing abroad just a few years ago and are now playing in MLS. Twelve! And out of all of them, it's only Kljestan and Jones who might be able to say their quality is not slipping.


The two goals scored were the result of direct involvement of two MLS players. On the first goal we had Bradley getting out worked and on the second we saw Altidore standing with hands on hips for the late corner Mexico scored.

There were moments in this game where both Bradley and Altidore played well (even Matt Besler!), most notably the first few minutes after halftime. But when you inch up the competition level it's the tiny moments that expose the quality difference over the course of a full game. Particularly at the international level where speed of thought, action and decision making are knives that need to constant sharpening 10 months a year.

These two moments were not because of some tactical decision Jurgen Klinsmann and his coaching staff made. Nor were they the only reason the USMNT lost for the first time at Crew Stadium. But, they were part of the two goals Mexico needed.

Pulling back and looking at the bigger picture - Mexico had only beaten the US 2 times out of 14 from the year 2000 to 2009 (both wins at Estadio Azteca). Since then Mexico has won 5 out of 10 with 4 of them in the United States. That's the best run Mexico has had since the 1980s.

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