Editor's note: Just 10 of the top 30 of ESPN FC's #MLSRank list are eligible to play for the U.S. national team. This article originally published in April, but with so few U.S. internationals featuring in the U.S. and Canada's first division, the question was again raised about opportunities in Major League Soccer for U.S.-born players.
In the opening weeks of Major League Soccer's 2017 season, ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman alerted the viewing audience to a concerning set of numbers: 51.2 percent, 47.3 percent, 45.5 percent and 42.1 percent. Those figures, courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau, represent the percentage of opening-day starters who were born in the United States from 2014 to 2017.
Raw numbers tell a similar story. In 2014, 107 U.S.-born players started for Major League Soccer teams. In 2017, that number fell to 102, despite the total number of starting spots increasing by 33 through the addition of four expansion franchises and the closing of Chivas USA.
Seeking further detail, I asked Elias for figures about the number of U.S.-born players who played at least a single minute during a given season. The decline was about the same. In 2014, 260 of the 499 players (52.1 percent) were born in the U.S. In 2015: 253 out of 524 (48.3 percent). A year later, 230 out of 510 (45.1 percent). Through last week, the number was even lower for 2017: 181 out of 416, or just 43.5 percent.
Percentage of MLS players born in the U.S.
What does that tell us, and is it an issue?
"As a product of expansion, the importance of the American player is being pushed aside," Twellman said. "I don't think that's a bad thing right now. You have to keep the linear growth of the league and where it's going at the same level. Expansion is hurting the American player presently, but I don't think that's a harm. I think it's a harm if you and I are having this discussion after 2020 or 2022."
That sounds about right. MLS's first priority is not to improve the individual American player or even the overall level of soccer in this country. Rather, it's to improve as a league, to increase the level of talent on its teams. The fact is that right now, the U.S. has neither the depth nor the breadth of soccer-playing ability to keep up with MLS's rapid expansion and growing talent on the field. It's natural that technical directors, general managers and coaches look abroad, especially as their scouting networks develop and the domestic league's reputation gets better as a place where players want to play.
And MLS is producing more opportunity for Americans to play. The 230 U.S.-born players who tallied at least a minute of MLS action in 2016 is 81 more than 1996, 56 more than 2001 and 34 more than 2006. Could that number be higher, especially considering the percentage of MLS players born in the U.S. has dropped from 62.3 percent in 1996 to 45.1 percent last season? Of course. But more than 200 Americans will play professional soccer in the U.S. this season, which is absolutely a net-positive for the sport here.
MLS walks a line between growing as a league and growing the sport in this country. "Finding that balance is what we are constantly reviewing," said Todd Durbin, MLS's executive vice president of competition and player relations.
Because ultimately, the best thing for both MLS and the U.S. national team is a league teeming with American talent, but only because it's good enough to thrive. We are not there as a soccer-playing nation. How much priority MLS should put on making that happen remains an open question. But there's only so much money to go around.
"I don't think [developing American players] should be a primary focus, but I sure as hell hope it's in the top-three agenda discussions when it comes to on-the-field product," Twellman said. "If the national team does not qualify for the World Cup but Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, all the other CONCACAF teams that have benefited from the growth of Major League Soccer do, someone explain to me how that's not a detriment."
Number of U.S.-born players to feature in MLS
Even if the U.S. does qualify for the World Cup, it's going to be a problem if the percentage of U.S.-born players continues to fall. If that percentage slips into the 30s, which won't take long if the trend continues, then the aims of MLS and the U.S. might be growing too far apart. (Insert your own joke about the foreign influence in the Premier League and the struggles of the English national team here.) Already, a team like the Portland Timbers only has five U.S.-eligible players on its roster. A former MLS player put it to me like this: "The Fernando Clavijos, the Oscar Parejas and the Caleb Porters just don't think Americans are good enough."
Durbin disagreed with this sentiment. "[Domestic players] do have an opportunity and ultimately, our coaches and our teams are motivated by putting the best players they can on the field," he said. "Those players who will give a team the best chance to win are the players who are going to play."
Yes, there's opportunity, but it's also about giving players a fair chance. A player recruited from abroad represents more of an investment than a college senior or a domestic player signed off the street. The former will, understandably, get a few more shots to impress a coach than the latter. But MLS's model is also increasingly tilted toward giving domestic players more opportunities.
The league has invested millions in its youth movement. The development academies are beginning to produce talent for squads across the league, such as Kellyn Acosta at FC Dallas, Tyler Adams of the New York Red Bulls and the Vancouver Whitecaps' Alphonso Davies. The league added two more roster spots for homegrown players this season and a portion of targeted allocation money can be used to pay down their first contract (the Jordan Morris rule). Teams and coaches have an added incentive to stick with the players they have developed for longer, to try to get a return on their growing investment. Whereas an American-born player coming out of college might not get a second chance, a homegrown player from the development academy will get an opportunity that's closer to the one that a more expensive foreign talent gets.
That should help boost the number of domestic-born players and continue to pay off as the academies improve. Durbin said they are considering adding incentives to play homegrown players, with ideas ranging from additional allocation money based on the number of minutes played to adjustments in how much those players count against the salary cap. There's no timetable on these decisions, but MLS HQ is paying attention.
There's also nothing wrong with a league that has a majority of foreign-born players. What matters is who those player are.
"If you are going to go abroad and sign foreign players, which is inevitable, then sign the kind of quality who believe this is a stepping stone as opposed to a retirement league," Twellman said. "That makes the American player better. Playing with a Josef Martinez and a Miguel Almiron, where they are fighting for the same recognition as a 22-, 23-, 24-year-old American, there's a little more juice to it."
On that front, MLS is going in the right direction. In 2017, the average age of a player coming into the league from abroad was 26 years old, well below the previous lowest age of 28.5. That's a lot of young, exciting talent coming into MLS. Some of those players might take spots from an American, but they could also result in other opportunities.
"The byproduct of all this is that you get more scouts watching your product," Twellman said. "Nobody is going to watch Robbie Keane, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard play at the end of their careers. Everyone is going to watch Almiron. Everyone is going to watch Josef Martinez."
When the scouts come to watch one of those players, perhaps they'll find someone else they like. Maybe they even fall for an American-born player, who subsequently gets a chance in Europe that he might not have gotten otherwise. And the cycle continues.
“If a player from the United States would come here and score every week,” said Michael Schade, CEO of Bayer Leverkusen, one of the biggest clubs in the history of German football, “it would be a dream come true.”
It’s a jarringly direct quote and one that shocked me and other international reporters in the Leverkusen boardroom a month ago. But as Schade, formerly an executive of Bayer AG, the pharmaceutical company that sponsors the club, made it clear that he wasn’t being coy. “I think that America is not only a fantastic country, it’s a growing market for soccer. It’s also a growing market for marketing activities for European soccer clubs, but we have to show up.”
“We have to show up,” it’s a clear statement, one that’s laced with both guilt for the past and pragmatism for the future. The German Bundesliga has been one of Europe’s top leagues stretching back to the dawn of European soccer but it’s a league that in 2015 has struggled to capture the attention of the global soccer market. The reasoning is twofold. On one hand the dominance of Bayern Munich, winners of the last four league titles, has somewhat soured the reputation of the league outside its borders from a competitive standpoint. This is especially pronounced in America where parity is seen as an essential ingredient for sporting activities. Bayern running ramshod over their opponents is somewhat Un-American. Additionally, Germany’s justified (but rather prideful) feelings towards their own football domestically has in turn hampered their global impact, or at the very least facilitated their protracted international efforts.
America is, like it has been throughout history from a more social and political perspective, the new frontier. It’s the new world again, but this time for the beautiful game. From convoluted ideas like ‘The Americas Champions League’ to NBC’s impressive coverage of the Premier League, the potential gains from investing in the fanatic and lucrative American sports market, is no secret.
The Bundesliga is no different, the league has been ramping up its efforts stateside in recent years. Some moves may have appeared subtle in a vacuum but upon closer inspection appear to be part of a more substantial strategy. Bayern Munich opened offices in New York City, a new English-language YouTube channel was created, and other clubs even started their own American-focused entities, Twitter channels and club stores that are distinctly different to their English counterparts. This is all in an attempt to compete with the Premier League, a league that’s marketed itself stateside as the preeminent soccer competition in the world, even supplanting the Uefa Champions League in importance, at least to American fans.
“Maybe in the past we made a few mistakes because the Premier League started 10 years earlier with internationalization. And that was very helpful [to EPL teams] as far as I know. Most of the teams are playing overseas in the summer break,” said Schade.
Schade’s business background tends to shine in these conversations. He doesn’t mince words and he’s very direct. His club is also adopting his directness in their strategies. In less than a month’s time both Leverkusen, Schalke 04 and Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donestk will be in Florida for the second-annual Florida Cup. There the European clubs will take on the local Fort Lauderdale Strikers as well as teams from Brazil and Colombia. It’s designed as a training camp for the players during the Bundesliga’s winter break, but the Florida sun and relaxed atmosphere aside, for the clubs themselves it’s marketing crunch time.
The massive amounts of foreign TV money being pumped into the Premier League has read like a code-red for their competitors: Serie A, La Liga and of course the Bundesliga. European football has always been this broad singular entity, in fact that was the appeal, with so many leagues on showcase a fan has a wide palette from which to choose from. But by venturing abroad early, and with such a focused strategy, the Premier League has positioned itself smartly stateside, taking full advantage of America’s penchant for the solitary sport league (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL). Now everyone is trying to play catch up.
“The USA is a very important market for the Bundesliga and obviously also for our club Schalke 04, and that’s why after having our winter training camps in many other countries we selected the USA as the host,” said Alexander Jobst, head of marketing for Schalke 04. “We expect wonderful training conditions, good weather conditions and of course a challenging tournament which will help expand our brand also in US for the future.”
The Germans are very direct but this isn’t just some ham-fisted approach to delve into the American market either; there are roots here. The German-American connection dates to the annals of the modern US men’s national team in the early 90s, when the likes of the German-born Thomas Dooley donned the stars and stripes for the 1994 World Cup. Today it’s a connection that permeates all facets of US soccer, perhaps even too much according to some.
Still, tapping into this market is a tricky task, which is likely why Schade was so blatant about the desire for a successful American player at the club. “If you know anyone…” he joked to the room.
But what would this even look like? This mythical American striker that would bang in the goals in Germany? How would he affect the game on and off the pitch? Thankfully, this isn’t even solely theoretical, there’s actually a real-life example though we have to go south of the border.
Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, the Mexican forward who has plied his trade for Manchester United and Real Madrid in recent years, has in no uncertain terms become a behemoth for Bayer Leverkusen. On the pitch the Mexican has been in fine form, he’s scored 17 goals in his last 14 matches and he’s become the club’s talisman winning the Bundesliga Player of the Month award in November. But despite his exploits on the pitch they largely pale in comparison to what he’s done for the club off of it.
- 20% of the club’s 1.8m Facebook followesr from Bayer 04 Leverkusen are located in Mexico. That’s more than 300,000 fans in total.
- Bayer’s Facebook page also has the highest percentage growth among the top European clubs after starting to produce and share content especially tailored for Mexico.
The Twitter account is quite interesting in fact, as it directly targets newer Leverkusen fans, posting the times for the game broadcasts in Mexico and explanatory tweets about the history of the club and its players. While Chicharito himself hasn’t forced a marketing plan upon Leverkusen he’s certainly guided its current direction. He’s likely the reason behind the club’s American approach in lieu of a more Asian-centered effort. Rest assured when Leverkusen land on American shores on 10 January the Mexican will be top billing.
Still, the Bundesliga is a top league and most importantly a practical one. During our interview Schade spelled out Leverkusen’s strategy for selling Son Heung Min, a fan favorite and star player to Tottenham Hotspur of the Premier League this past summer, in exceedingly practical terms. American players may be desired but the league has no plans to dilute its quality in lieu of a marketing boon.
America has long pined for it’s own Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, that transcendent player that brings casuals into the sport through a mix of marketability, charisma and on-pitch brilliance. Yet even a player of that caliber likely wouldn’t be needed given Chicharito’s success. Landon Donovan was a viable candidate yet he wanted nothing to do with Europe, at least on a long-term basis. Clint Dempsey, in turn, did have a relatively successful career abroad but the soccer climate stateside wasn’t quite right and much of his success in his prime went unnoticed back home. Then of course there is Freddy Adu, who after all these years may still have been the best chance, but his development was entirely botched as he was hastily forced into a professional life far too early. Of the current crop of Americans currently plying their trade in Germany, Fabian Johnson, John Anthony Brooks and Julian Green among others, there’s a sense that they are far too ‘German’ to truly capture the hearts of the fan base back home.
The Bundesliga also represents the best path to success for American players abroad. American players tend to lack the technical ability to make it in Spain, or the tactical ability to make it in Europe. Not to mention the different cultures require a assimilation on and off the pitch. They aren’t as desired in England as there’s no inherent need to focus on the American market. But in Germany many of the factors align both on and off the pitch, it’s why we’ve seen so many Americans thrive over the years.
But there’s certainly interest and now that German clubs have seen the impact a player can have in the American market they are finely tuned to any other opportunities. One staff member mentioned to me that Chicharito may be the important player in the history of the club in terms of global impact, this is club that’s had the likes of Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto in their ranks in the last 15 years.
“You might dream of a transfer like this, but you can’t expect it,” Schade said recently in an interview with Rheinische Post. In that same interview he referred to the Mexican as “life insurance”. Most of sports media took quote at face value and while I’m sure that Schade’s comments were somewhat a reflection of Chicharito’s recent goal-scoring exploits, his comment may have been a little more literal than perceived.