Why missing the World Cup could accelerate young USMNT players' moves to Europe

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Russia 2018 could have left players cautious. Now, some stars of the men's national team's future may be willing to take an earlier plunge.

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From the halls of Soccer House to the lowest rungs of the development academy, the impact of the U.S. men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup will be felt at just about every level of American soccer.

While there’s been plenty of talk since the loss in Trinidad about the upcoming ways to improve the country’s youth development, there hasn’t been much written about how the men’s national team’s failure could play a role in the MLS transfer market.

The impact could be significant, as well as a little paradoxical. In fact, to hear several MLS general managers and player agents tell it, knock-on effects from the inability to qualify for Russia might cause talented young Americans to leave MLS earlier than they would’ve otherwise.

MLS players should feel there is less risk to pursue a move to Europe now. The prospect of playing time won’t jeopardize a potential spot on the World Cup roster.

“As bad as it is to miss the World Cup, there’s never been a better [time] than right now for us to build a bridge and have an opportunity for our players to go to the best leagues in the world,” said one MLS GM, who asked for anonymity to avoid running afoul of the league or club ownership.

There are a couple of reasons that support his point. The first applies to players who would have been fighting for the final spots on the U.S.’ World Cup roster, had the team qualified for Russia.

To make the U.S.’s final squad, guys like Kellyn Acosta, Matt Hedges and Cristian Roldan, or players further on the fringe like Juan Agudelo, Jesse Gonzalez and Walker Zimmerman, would’ve had to excel for the first half of 2018. Leaving behind a secure starting role in MLS to make an uncertain move abroad in January would have been a huge risk. Would a player get enough minutes to stay in-form at a new club? Or would he sit and miss a chance at Russia? The uncertainty likely would have kept those types of players in MLS through the winter transfer window.

Now, with no need to worry about a spot at the World Cup, that sort of player might view a January move as a more attractive option.

“MLS players should feel there is less risk to pursue a move to Europe now,” said one prominent agent. “The prospect of playing time won’t jeopardize a potential spot on the World Cup roster. The World Cup often dictates players’ club moves and makes them risk-averse.”

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The failure to qualify won’t just affect players who would have been on the brink of making the World Cup team. It could also play a role in the prospects for an even younger crop of players, guys who wouldn’t have had much of a shot at cracking the roster for Russia but could be considered potential building blocks for the 2022 and 2026 World Cups.

Because of the U.S.’s failure to qualify, those types of players are now on an accelerated path with the national team. Eighteen-year-old New York Red Bulls defender/midfielder Tyler Adams is on the U.S.’s roster for Tuesday’s friendly at Portugal. There’s no reason he shouldn’t continue to get senior national team looks next year. Same goes for guys like 20-year-old Real Salt Lake center back Justen Glad and 22-year-old Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

If the U.S. had qualified for Russia, those three and their ilk (with the probable exception of Adams, who really was that good for New York down the stretch) might’ve had to wait until after the World Cup for their first turns with the national team. Instead, they should get significant run – and significant exposure to foreign clubs – during international friendlies next year. That could accelerate the process for potential future moves abroad.

“For guys that have already had interest, I think there’s a much bigger carrot dangling out there to go now and roll the dice,” said a second GM. “And I think for these guys like Glad, Adams and a few of these other guys, I think that potential exposure [with the US] is going to increase their market in Europe.”

“They’re two different scenarios, but I think they’re both going to change the discussion big time, I really do,” he added later.

Of course, there are plenty of factors that could keep those types of players in MLS. Overseas options might not materialize, a player might not want to leave home, they might sign a long-term contract, their club or the league might be unwilling to sell. But the U.S.’s failure to qualify for the World Cup could change the transfer calculus for players like Acosta, Adams and Glad, and it could accelerate their timeline to leave the league.

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