By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (June 21, 2012) US Soccer Players -- One of the more intriguing, and often overlooked, aspects of Bob Bradley’s stint in charge of the National Team was his willingness to help members of his player pool secure opportunities overseas. In several instances, Bradley provided a bit of extra playing time for those being scouted by European clubs, granting timely exposure and lending extra legitimacy for Americans ready to move on from Major League Soccer.
Whether you think this tactic was counterproductive to a domestic league that has, from its inception, always been the biggest incubator of National Team talent, or merely the work of a canny international coach ensuring that his players continued to develop in the most demanding environment possible, there’s little doubt that that Bradley’s successor strongly agrees with the philosophy.
In fact, current US National Team Jurgen Klinsmann has pursued this approach even more openly, essentially requiring US-based players to spend a large chunk of their winter offseason training with European clubs and urging MLS to extend its already-arduous season to a length more comparable to its counterparts across the pond. Sources close to several talented young US internationals say that Klinsmann has made it clear that a move into the so-called “24/7 soccer cultures” found abroad would benefit their National Team prospects.
"In Europe or in South America, they live and breathe soccer all day long," Klinsmann told Sports Illustrated late last year. "So I want them to understand there is a social responsibility to their job. In order to get to the next level, I need them to understand there is more than just training and games to their jobs."
But where does that leave elite players who happen to be happily ensconced stateside? Is Klinsmann disposed against those plying their trade in MLS? If so, does he have grounds for such a mindset?
The most recent National Team roster featured just five MLS players: Kyle Beckerman, Geoff Cameron, Landon Donovan, Nick Rimando and Chris Wondolowski. Beckerman seemed to have earned a starting job with his capable displays in deep midfield last year, but he’s has seen only 39 minutes of game time in 2012 with Klinsmann preferring the Maurice Edu-Jermaine Jones-Michael Bradley troika.
Beckerman’s contract with Real Salt Lake reportedly runs through next year. Will he have to move abroad permanently to reach Klinsmann’s “next level,” or will training stints like the one he spent in Germany with Kaiserslautern suffice?
Rimando’s impressive late-career progression has carried him in from the fringes of the National Team picture, but for now he looks unlikely to unseat Tim Howard from the starting goalkeeper job, much like Wondolowski hasn’t yet carved out a reputation at international level despite his prolific MLS scoring. Donovan’s fidelity to the Los Angeles Galaxy, and MLS in general, is well-established, but his loan stints with Everton FC – and public musings about aging and motivation – hint at growing complexities in that relationship. Klinsmann tried to take Donovan to Bayern Munich with him in 2008-09. One wonders what private conversations, if any, the two men have had regarding the U.S. hero’s future at club level.
And now it seems that Cameron, the Houston Dynamo defender whose National Team stock has steadily risen despite the mere five caps under his belt, is the latest to step into the shop window. MLSsoccer.com reported that scouts from Everton, Stoke City and Schalke 04 were at BBVA Compass Stadium to watch Cameron and the Dynamo defeat FC Dallas over the weekend, prompting a flurry of transfer speculation. Benefitting from a stable environment at a successful MLS club, Cameron has blossomed under the tutelage of Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear and it’s far from certain that a move to Europe would automatically speed his development.
Klinsmann’s handling of young MLS stars Juan Agudelo and Graham Zusi also bears watching. They were two of the final cuts from Klinsmann’s May training camp squad, suggesting that they’re knocking on the proverbial door, and in the wake of Agudelo’s trade from the New York Red Bulls to Chivas USA, both should see ample playing time all summer. Should they build strong runs of form, will they be considered for the CONCACAF qualifiers this fall?
Conversely, consider Tim Ream's situation. The former Red Bull distinguished himself in MLS, earned US call-ups, then moved to arguably the strongest league in the world. The immediate result? His international opportunities dwindle despite a number of question marks swirling around the senior squad’s center back situation. What kind of message does this send?
The tenth anniversary of the USA’s stirring run in the 2002 World Cup is being widely celebrated this summer, and rightly so. Hopefully no one forgets that quarterfinal run was achieved by a truly balanced lineup. Coach Bruce Arena fielded 14 players for the iconic 2-0 round-of-16 victory over Mexico in Jeonju, South Korea: seven European-based players, and seven from MLS.