Analysis

MLS won't help the USMNT until this key policy is overhauled

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

What can MLS do to help rebuild a humiliated U.S. men's national team? Here's a crucial move.

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I’m not sure what it took.

Maybe it was watching the U.S. men’s national team collapse on the field in Trinidad and Tobago in the wake of the worst loss in American soccer history. Maybe it was that feeling two hours later when I sat back in my office chair and realized, yes, the U.S. is missing the World Cup for the first time since I was a toddler. Or maybe it was something way less transcendent, something as hilarious and simple as watching Jermaine Jones evaluate U.S. Soccer on Instagram Live.

I’m not sure, but the traumatic World Cup qualifying failure has crystallized an idea in my mind. I’ve long been an advocate of MLS becoming a selling league. I’ve banged the drum multiple times this year. But too often I thought of this from a purely MLS standpoint. It’s not just about MLS, but it’s also about maximizing the talent of the U.S. men’s national team pool.

MLS has tried to avoid the “selling league” moniker because it doesn’t want to look like a stepping stone. But until the league is among the world’s best, that’s exactly what it needs to be for the American player. MLS is a great launching pad for young players, and in order for the U.S. to be as competitive as possible, it has to see its top young players continue to push themselves at the highest levels. Right now, going to Europe is the best way to accomplish that.

This was Jurgen Klinsmann’s biggest argument during his time as national team head coach, and I often hesitated at the notion. I thought it would be impossible for MLS to grow into a top league if the best Americans left the league to go to Europe. There are short-term and long-term goals, and keeping top Americans in MLS is essential to the long-term health of MLS, even if it slows the short-term growth, I thought. How can MLS become a top league, and thus make the USMNT a top national team, if its best players are always leaving?

But that was the wrong way to look at it.

Yes, MLS needs top American players to play in the league in order to grow. But it can also use its ability to develop and sell players as a marketing point for the league. Tyler Adams is a better advertisement for MLS if he is sold and goes on to become a Bundesliga starter than he is suiting up for the New York Red Bulls. That’s a fact. No one is buying tickets to see Adams play at Red Bull Arena. But if he moves on and succeeds in Europe, he is proof that MLS can produce world-class players.

That also creates incentives for owners to invest and push to develop the next Tyler Adams. FC Dallas and MLS should be banging the drum every time Weston McKennie starts for Schalke – even if it’s painful that they lost a top young player for free.

Selling players also doesn’t hurt the reputation of the league. Do fewer people go to Red Bulls games because they sold Matt Miazga? Does that make it a less attractive league or an indictment of MLS? No. It just makes MLS look like every other league in the world. Because players are bought and sold constantly.

MLS isn’t ready to compete with the English Premier League or Bundesliga. Just ask Don Garber. The commissioner will tell you the league can’t spend with those big boys, yet. It would be fiscally irresponsible for a league that has too many teams still “losing money.” If MLS isn’t going to compete with those leagues financially, it can’t expect to provide the same value to players. That’s the reality.

If MLS starts to consistently sell players like Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta, it will give incentive to develop more American stars. And as that new income stream becomes a profitable model for teams, MLS will become more comfortable loosening the purse strings. Eventually, teams will be looking to spend more than they’re looking to sell, and when that time comes and the league allows teams to spend at higher levels, American players can stay in MLS to get world-class soccer.

That’s still at least a decade away, though, and until that day comes, top American players need to go to Europe.

Garber has said in recent days that the one player he would want to sign for the league is Christian Pulisic. It would be a more important signing than even Messi. He’s wrong.

John Todd/isiphotos.com

Christian Pulisic (John Todd/isiphotos.com)

Signing Pulisic would change nothing about the league. It might be marketed as the changing perception of MLS among players. That a top young star would sign with the league can be easily plastered on posters. But one player signing as a Designated Player – even if it’s Pulisic – does nothing to change the overall financial structure of the league. And until that structure is changed, MLS can’t catch up to the top-spending leagues of the world.

No, the only way for MLS to start making progress as a league is to start selling players. And the only way for the U.S. men’s national team to be the very best it can be is to see its best young players grow up in Europe.

As we debate the future of American soccer, MLS needs to realize this is the best way forward – both for the health of the national team, and for the future of the domestic league.

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!

Darren Sullivan - Pay for play has got to STOP!! We miss too much talent in the US for this to happen

This isn’t really a question, but rather a theme that kept coming up in the last chat. I’m going to start by asking a question of my own: What’s a realistic way to replace the entire economy that is pay-to-play soccer? It’s an impossible problem to solve.

The best way to move forward is to increase the number of fully-funded and free academies. That is the movement that can bring bigger change, but the investment has to be there from more clubs. How would I go about doing it?

The first step would be to create a separate U.S. Development Academy league with every MLS team. The only way another academy could break into that league was by fully-funding its academy program. No pay-to-play academies would be allowed in the division, and the investment needed to play against the top teams would create incentive to develop top talent. The hope would be this does two things: First, it gives better competition to the top academies in the U.S., most of which are MLS academies; second, it pushes more academies to get rid of pay-to-play.

The second step is the most important. U.S. Soccer must require all Division 1 and Division 2 sanctioned professional teams to have a fully-funded academy. If the USL and NASL want to claim they are helping to grow soccer in this country, the best way to do so is to be invested in youth soccer in their respective markets.

It has to go beyond partnerships with youth clubs. It has to go beyond pay-to-play teams. If U.S. Soccer is going to grow and if it’s going to rid itself of pay-to-play, it needs the Louisvilles, Cincinnatis and San Antonios of the world to have fully-funded academies just like FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United.

The more fully-funded academies that exist, the more opportunities start to pop up for players. The trickle down would mean more scholarships open for players at other clubs. It would also give the U.S. national team program more eyes and more scouts in more markets.

This wouldn’t solve pay to play, but it starts to chip away at the problem.

The Final Third

TAM increase

While we continue to wait on word from the league about how much Targeted Allocation Money will come into the mix in 2018, there is another potential change to the TAM rule that is circulating among MLS front offices.

According to multiple sources, there is a proposal to increase the cap on players eligible for TAM from $1 million to $1.5 million. That would allow some teams to open DP spots by buying down lower-paid Designated Players. It would also open up yet another level of player on the market for teams to add if they are out of DP spots.

Some teams that would benefit from this change right away: Philadelphia, Columbus and Seattle, which all have DPs that fall in that window – Alejandro Bedoya, Federico Higuain and Osvaldo Alonso. It might also make it easier to buy down players who count for more than $1 million on the cap due to amortized transfer fees, like Atlanta’s Tito Villalba or Real Salt Lake’s Albert Rusnak.

Any additional financial flexibility should be considered yet another step forward for MLS.

Read of the Week

 A heartbreaking story in the New York Times that hits home at the reality of the Las Vegas shooting.