Villa's Spain recall won't solve MLS' perception problem

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

MLS-bred players succeeding abroad is the true path to further credibility for the league.

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MLS remains in a perpetual hunt for validation in its 22nd season of existence.

The league got one of its most satisfying moments last week when New York City FC’s star striker, David Villa, was called up by Spain for the first time since the 2014 World Cup. The 35-year-old Villa is on pace to win his second consecutive MVP award, and this week he became the first active MLS player to step on the field for Spain.

When Villa signed, he was lumped into the lazy “retirement league” talk like so many signings before him. Only Villa has been spectacular in MLS, and his play has been good enough to earn another chance with Spain in a World Cup qualifier. That Spain lined up to beat Italy, 3-0, is fitting. Villa’s call-up stands in stark contrast to the Italian national team, which has refused to consider Sebastian Giovinco simply because he plays in MLS.

Never mind that Italy has called up multiple forwards who can’t get off the bench for their respective club teams. Or that Giovinco has tallied 58 goals and 41 assists in 90 games across three seasons with Toronto FC, remarkable numbers no matter where you play.

But here are the facts: MLS still has a perception problem globally. And while players like Villa are happy to stand up for the increased quality of the league, it hasn’t been enough to convince soccer observers on this side of the Atlantic or the other. Villa’s call-up isn’t likely to change that.

So, what is?

I’ve argued in this space that MLS needs to be as committed to selling its MLS-developed stars as it has been to finding better quality talent through the Targeted Allocation Money program. While it may seem counterintuitive for a league that wants to sell players like Jordan Morris and Kellyn Acosta and Tyler Adams as “homegrown” talent, that is a short-sighted strategy.

Selling players like Acosta and Adams and seeing them go on to successful careers is the best advertisement for MLS. It will increase the value of players within the league, and it will increase the reputation of MLS globally.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Reviewing MLS’ transfer history doesn’t take much time. It’s an even quicker process when you include American players. But the impact of a Sacha Kljestan succeeding at Anderlecht or Clint Dempsey scoring goals at Fulham far outweighs the benefit of Villa getting recalled by Spain.

Villa will never be considered an MLS player. Not after a career of scoring goals for Valencia, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Spain. Yes, he’s been brilliant in MLS. Yes, it has allowed him to stay at a level where he can earn a call-up at the age of 35. But just as MLS won’t receive any credit for Christian Pulisic’s development, it’s not going to get any for Villa.

The league wants validation. It wants to change its global perception. It needs players it has developed – the likes of Wil Trapp, Acostas, Darlington Nagbe and on and on – to go succeed in Europe. It also needs the younger players it brings in and continues to groom – Miguel Almiron, Yamil Asad, Hector Villalba, Michael Barrios – to fetch their value overseas and continue to thrive.

The league should celebrate Villa’s call-up. It should feel snubbed at Giovinco’s continued exclusion. But its focus should turn to the transfer market if it truly wants to earn the respect it is starting to deserve.

Facebook Live Question of the Week

Every Thursday we do a live Q&A on FourFourTwo’s Facebook page. I select one question from that Facebook Live session to expand upon in my Monday column. Come join us this Thursday!

Joseph Johnson · 24:30 Will DeMarcus Beasley make his 5 World Cup roster?


Right now, there’s no reason why Beasley should not be on Bruce Arena’s roster – if the U.S. makes the World Cup, that is. It’s crazy to think the one thing that will keep Beasley from being the third player to play in five World Cups might be the U.S. failing to qualify for the first time since 1986.

Beasley might still be the Americans’ best option at left back. While Jorge Villafana has tried to make a claim for a starting job, he hasn’t exactly locked the job down. Behind Villafana, there are no clear candidates at left back. Atlanta United’s Greg Garza has been good in MLS, but hasn’t been overly-impressive during his stints with the U.S. national team. D.C. United’s Taylor Kemp failed to make an impression in January camp under Arena. Chicago’s Brandon Vincent is still a ways off from being a national-team defender. Toronto FC’s Justin Morrow is probably the best candidate to take the job, but his Gold Cup performances weren’t enough for Arena to select him over Beasley for these World Cup qualifiers.

Unless someone steps up in the next few months, Beasley is going to go to Russia as long as the U.S. qualifies.

The final third

FC Dallas misstep?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things admired most about FC Dallas is its willingness to exist on a model of developing and then selling players. That’s why it can contend in the Western Conference amongst the big spenders like Seattle, LA Galaxy and, soon, LAFC. Even Portland has been more aggressive, at times, with transfer fees. Yet, Dallas is almost always a contender.

Dallas won the Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup last season despite not being one of the top spenders because it has always been willing to use homegrowns and sell talented players that are ready to leave. Fabian Castillo’s sale midseason was the most perfect example. With a chance to win MLS Cup, Dallas nonetheless saw that selling Castillo was the right business move. It still had a chance to win MLS Cup – until Mauro Diaz was injured, at least – and it took in some allocation money and cash to restock its roster.

That’s why it was so confusing when FC Dallas owner Dan Hunt stepped in and declined an offer for $5 million from San Lorenzo for Maxi Urruti and Michael Barrios. His explanation to reporter Sam Stejskal was that the players did not want to leave midseason and that the decision not to sell sent a message that FC Dallas was trying to win a championship this season. He said the team would have considered the offer if it was another window.

That’s a great message to send to fans, but I’m not sure it was the right business decision for the club. FC Dallas isn’t going to win MLS Cup this season. The team simply isn’t as good as others out there, including the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Sporting Kansas City in the West, and Toronto FC in the East. The two players who could have potentially been sold, Maxi Urruti and Michael Barrios, are producing significant numbers this year. But they’re not irreplaceable players.

FC Dallas had a chance to cash in and add $1.3 million in allocation money to make moves for next season. It also would add another $2 million-plus to pour into its academy, which continues to produce talented players. Would FC Dallas have suffered some this season? Probably. Maybe Dallas would have missed the playoffs. But would it have felt out of place to see Dallas give players like Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferriera a chance to learn and grow in big games at the end of the season, even if it means they fell short of MLS Cup? Wasn’t that kind of what Dallas did with Jesse Gonzalez a few years ago?

Dallas has no wins in its last seven games. It just doesn’t look like an MLS Cup team. It felt like the right team to embrace that selling identity and shake things up.

Reads of the week

My favorite read was this fascinating story from the BBC about a ghostly radio station in Russia no one claims to run and what it could be.

I enjoyed this profile of Aaron Rodgers from Mina Kimes at ESPN the Magazine.

A riveting read about the double life of the UAE’s ambassador to the United States.

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