One of the constant debates for USMNT fans is where the best American players should play. Any time a men’s player shows promise, the debate rages over the best location for them. The loudest voices tend to fall into a general camp of “play for a top European team or play in MLS”. This means of course if you don’t play for one of the most recognizable names in European soccer (an Arsenal, Manchester United, or Barcelona), then MLS is the right alternative for the player’s career.
This is an over-generalization, of course, but like with most generalizations there is a kernel of truth to it. Take for example, Christian Pulisic. The rumor mill has Liverpool making a bid for the American midfielder, which understandably is exciting some fans. However, which is a better situation? Situation A – him moving to Liverpool – has him sitting behind a glut of talented players struggling for consistently playing time. Situation B – his current one – has him still working for playing time but he is competing and earning tough minutes in practice and games.
Dortmund is not a soccer minnow but this is a situation many players face who do play for smaller European teams. The instant they begin to excel fans expect them to move big or move home. If not, they are forgotten as possible valuable contributors in the national team set-up. In fact, smaller clubs in Europe (and Mexico) serve the valuable purpose of exposing players to top-flight soccer against diverse opponents. In many cases, the players’ ability to earn consistent playing time improves their overall game, consequently helping the U.S. national team.
An example of how this could work is happening in Scotland currently. Perry Kitchen had a good enough MLS career with DC United to become part of the USMNT set-up. When his contract expired, he sought a spot with a European club, and when the names people recognized failed to sign him, his quest for time in Europe automatically was seen as a failure. However, his short time at Hearts in Scotland has been an unqualified success. At age 24, he has been named captain of the side within a few points of second in the league. He has 19 appearances in all competitions and, although the Habs have a new manager coming into the side, he is already an integral part of this exciting club. There may come a time (soon) where the rumor mill churns about Kitchen moving to a “bigger” side, but right now his game is improving playing for a club most Americans couldn’t point out on a map. (You can by reading our story about Kitchen!)
Contrast that with the player that Kitchen could one day replace. Michael Bradley is captain for his club and country, but the general consensus is his game has stalled by playing for Toronto. This path, however, was not preordained. After leaving the then-MetroStars, Bradley made his name in Europe succeeding in three different countries with Heerenveen, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Chievo. It was when he made his move to Roma that he struggled to earn consistent playing time. His next step was to MLS and, while I would never begrudge someone wanting to earn a lot of money in their trade, remaining in Europe may have been more beneficial in developing as a player.
To many fans, once you reach the status of a Roma you cannot go back down. In reality, many soccer players’ careers are exactly that. When they hit a bump at a very high level, they’ll go on loan or sign a deal with a “minnow” to reestablish their reputation. This is not an insult to the players; rather, it is a benefit to both the player and the club. American players are beginning to understand this, it seems. Probably the most positive result of the Jurgen Klinsmann era was his encouragement for Americans to go overseas and stay overseas. Some players still returned to MLS but some are clearly benefiting from staying in Europe.
An example of an up-and-coming player benefiting from this set-up is Bobby Wood. Hamburg is struggling to stay up in the Bundesliga, but plays in the best league in the world (arguably) and Wood has to fight for playing time. This has lead to a progression at both the club level and the international level to the point that he is a leading candidate to start for the U.S. in 2018. The same for the U.S.’s best defender; John Brooks is a major contributor for the third place club in the Bundesliga. Could they have reached the same level if achievement playing in MLS or sitting on the first team bench for a major soccer brand name like Bayern Munich? Maybe, but realistically right now there are a handful of players who can go to a super club, sit on the bench, fight for playing time, and improve.
This is not to say Europe is the answer for everyone; realistically some players benefit most by developing at home. But the assumption that it is MLS/Bayern/ManU/Arsenal/ManCity/Chelsea/Liverpool or bust is the wrong assumption for all players.
As the U.S. matures as a soccer nation, it will realize that not all of its players must play for one of 20 clubs to be considered good. A player can play an entire career for a second division club in England, a yo-yo club in Italy or France, or even a non-brand name club in Germany, Norway, or Turkey and still be an essential USMNT player. In fact, we as fans should want this, as it allows us to expand our soccer knowledge and fandom. How many U.S. Everton fans are walking around because of Landon Donovan’s stint there? Maybe one day soon there can be a growing section of U.S. Hertha Berlin fans (make it happen Fox).
Players will continue to play for soccer minnows, and these players should be playing there. We as fans need to accept this and follow them on their soccer careers (for both club and country) without dismissing them for not playing in MLS or one of the big soccer brands.