MLS-USMNT relationship is more complicated, and difficult, than ever

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Despite massive investment, the path for young domestic talent in MLS remains problematic.

There is a balance that exists for Major League Soccer, which in its relative youth needs quality on the field to grow its product, but also has a responsibility to grow the game in the U.S. and Canada.

It is linked to the tug-of-war MLS waged with former U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The German coach wanted his team’s best players and the best young American players to play overseas. That made sense for the short-term success of the United States.

League officials, understandably, knew that the more top Americans and top young Americans playing domestically, the better it was for the league and, in the long term, for the U.S. national team. As MLS grows into a stronger league, so too will the U.S. improve, the logic goes. Keeping the top Americans at home is key to growing MLS.

Both Klinsmann and MLS officials were right.

This is not going to be a short-term play; it will take time. It will take a commitment from the league and its teams — and frankly from fans, too. Patience is a virtue and all, but I want more. And especially on the side of developing the game and developing players.

I want to see more young American players earning time in MLS, and while I understand that the league has placed a severe emphasis on improving the top end of rosters with Targeted Allocation Money, it’s frustrating to survey the league and see a dearth of young American players breaking through.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Djordje Mihailovic (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Tyler Adams was the lone American teenager to start a game last weekend. In Canada, Alphonso Davies and Ballou Tabla each made late substitute appearances. There are other examples. In Chicago, Djordje Mihailovic has started several games recently and made a late cameo against the New York Red Bulls.

A few 20-year-old Americans have played for teams where the coaches have made a commitment to develop youth: New York City FC coach Patrick Vieira has brought Jonathan Lewis along this year (along with Venezuelan Yangel Herrera and England’s Jack Harrison, also both 20).

Real Salt Lake has been the brightest hope in this regard. Mike Petke has a reliable young core of players on whom he has leaned to dig RSL out of the Western Conference basement. Four of the five are American. Danny Acosta (12 games, 11 starts) and Brooks Lennon (20 games, 12 starts) are two teenagers who have been given regular roles for RSL, and both have delivered.

Their play, along with that of 20-year-olds Justen Glad, Jefferson Savarino and Sebastian Saucedo, pulled RSL back into the conversation in the West.

But I want more.

I had high hopes for Sporting Kansas City’s Erik Palmer-Brown, 20, who has made six appearances this year and is set to sign a pre-contract to leave to Manchester City. Talk about a lost asset; failing to yield any return on one of the top American prospects in the country is a travesty, and a surprise considering SKC has been one of the savviest teams in the transfer market.

Jackson Yueill (10 games, 7 starts) has benefitted from a coaching change in San Jose, and Tommy Redding (14 games, 12 starts) has once again shown glimpses in spotty time. Caleb Calvert (12 games, 3 starts) got some run in Colorado. Derrick Jones (11 games, 8 starts) opened the season as a starter, but hasn’t played since July.

But that’s it. That’s the list. Twelve Americans aged 20 or younger have played semi-regular or regular roles this season in MLS. Two Canadians. That’s not enough.

And I get it. In the short term, MLS is delivering a better product. There is understandable excitement over the substantial increase in talent that TAM has brought to the MLS fields. Playing time has to be earned, and not all of this young talent is ready to see the field regularly.

If the kids aren’t there yet, it puts pressure on coaches who are increasingly fighting for jobs, in part because ownership groups are committing more money to rosters and that has increased pressure to win.

But allowing young players to make mistakes and learn on the field is part of the job, too. That’s an important part of development. The Chicago Fire, in the midst of a run when it needed results, threw Mihailovic into an important starting role.

The 18-year-old had glimpses of promise, but mostly showed he needs more time to develop before he can be counted on as a game-in, game-out starter. The Fire got an answer and Mihailovic got a crucial learning experience. That’s part of this process.

There are failures at the bottom of the table, too. The LA Galaxy has the youth, but don’t trust them after a poor start to the season which saw them underperform. The Colorado Rapids have just one player aged 20 or younger on the roster. That’s disappointing at best, and borderline irresponsible.

D.C. United has two of the best homegrowns in the history of MLS, but has been cautious bringing along its lone teenager, Chris Durkin. Is there a chance to learn something about him at the end of this season, with United securely out of the playoff hunt?

The Philadelphia Union’s ownership committed to bringing along the academy. With six games remaining and the Union essentially nine points out of the playoffs, is there a point where Jim Curtin sees a window to think more about the future and test the likes of Auston Trusty and Derrick Jones?

The teams at the bottom of the table aren’t the only ones that should be committed to improving here. The Red Bulls have not been afraid to use Homegrowns when needed and Adams is the best example. I would love to see more from Toronto and Columbus and Portland and Seattle, too.

Maybe it just takes more time. I get that the academies have only been around for 10 years. I know growth requires patience. But I still want more.

Facebook Live Question of the Week

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

Alex A. Sykes — With relatively new coaches like Puano, Vanney, Viera coming in and being among the best in the league how much better will the US pool be if MLS coaching was more experienced and better? What is the chances that a Dillon Powers or Serna are challenging for US spots if a Viera is the coach instead (just an example).

I wrote about this idea more substantially back in April, but the stigma of foreign coaches is dying in MLS … and it should.

Coaches like Veljko Paunovic, Patrick Vieira and Tata Martino are bringing fresh ideas and fresh voices into a league that need them. If you build the right infrastructure around those coaches and take away the responsibility to manage MLS’ many rules, you can be in a position to succeed in this league.

Vieira is my MLS Coach of the Year. He’s shown a willingness to play and develop young players, as mentioned above, develop “MLS guys” like Ben Sweat and RJ Allen into legit contributors and also tactically create a team that emphasizes its greatest strength: David Villa. I don’t think there is any way NYCFC gets from where it was at the end of its expansion season to where it is now without Vieira.

So yes, I think the MLS pool will get better if more teams reach outside the normal pot for coaches. And that doesn’t have to be outside the realm of American soccer. There are plenty of great candidates in the lower division, from Alessandro Nesta to James O’Connor, Marc Dos Santos and Giovanni Savarese.

The Final Third

Columbus stays in it

A ton of credit has to go to Gregg Berhalter and the Columbus Crew. Columbus faced a real tough challenge to stay in the playoff race. It had fewer games left to play than any team in the East, putting a premium on every single matchup for the rest of the season. It had to take advantage of its home games. The Crew has done just that.

Montreal, New York and New England still have two games in hand on Columbus and Atlanta has four, but the Crew’s five-game unbeaten run sees it sitting fourth in the East. A draw against Sporting Kansas City on the weekend wasn’t ideal, but it was another point in the right direction.

The work is not done. Columbus plays three of its final five games on the road and has to hold off Montreal. Circle these ones on the calendar: vs. RBNY on Sept. 23 and at Orlando on Oct. 15. Those games could flip the scales between making the playoffs and not for Berhalter’s squad.

FC Dallas has turned on its own identity

It’s striking to see what’s happened with FC Dallas over the last six weeks, in which they’ve failed to pick up a win and have collected just three of a possible 24 points. It takes me back to what I said in this column space last week: Dallas missed a big opportunity to cash in on two players and throw its young players into the lineup to see if it could shake things up.

Considering Dallas has long been heralded as a top youth developer, we’ve seen very little of that this season outside of Kellyn Acosta. Yes, Weston McKennie certainly would have played a big role this season had he stayed in MLS, but Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira and Reggie Cannon have combined for 160 minutes this season.

I’ll continue to harp on this point, but with Dallas in a freefall, selling Maxi Urruti and Michael Barrios for $5 million was the right call and a missed opportunity for a team that is built around cashing in on those moments.

Cascadia battle

Don’t look now, but it’s all Cascadia at the top of the Western Conference, led by Portland after Diego Valeri scored in his seventh straight game. Vancouver actually would sit in the top spot based on points per game, with Seattle in second and Portland tied for third with Sporting Kansas City.

Vancouver has a shot at both Seattle and Portland in the final few weeks of the season. Do they have enough to shock the heavy favorites and make a run at a top seed? The Whitecaps would be the most under-the-radar team to finish atop a conference in a while.

Read of the Week

I have three favorites from this past week to share. Let’s start with my favorite MLS profile of the season. A well-told story about the incredible journey of Gerso Fernandes to MLS.

In non-soccer reading…

The fight for desegregation in public schools is still ongoing today. In 2017.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Donald Trump’s presidency.