What Major League Soccer Lacks Is a Few Good (American) Men

Article excerpt

When Washington's D.C. United won the inaugural Major League Soccer championship game Sunday, no one dared put it on a level with the giants of world soccer.

While the United States-based MLS has far surpassed expectations in its opening season, its new champion is not on a par with the champions of other more-established leagues around the world - and no one is pretending it is.

The world's top leagues are built on a deep pool of domestic talent, drawing only premier players from abroad to supplement their home-grown base. But as this MLS season progressed, the biggest concern was that America could not supply enough quality talent to fill the 10 teams' rosters. MLS's few world-class players - Roberto Donadoni, Carlos Valderrama, Marco Etcheverry - are not American. The second tier of players is capable - and many of these are Americans. But many critics agree with Paul Gardner of Soccer America magazine who says that the bottom two or three Americans on each team often aren't professional-quality. "If you have two or three subpar players on the team, you can imagine that when you try to weave nice passing movements, they break down because three nice passes and it reaches someone who can't control the ball," he says. The potential solutions, however, put MLS in a quandary. The league wants to encourage the development of American players, and this year it had a rule to support this goal: Only four foreigners were allowed on each team. At the same time, though, the league wants to present the most attractive product possible, and right now foreigners are often more fun to watch. MLS is trying to find a middle path. Short-term fixes such as allowing more foreigners to play may help keep fans in the seats, and long-term programs like the new "Project 40" are designed to nurture young talent and increase the American talent pool. Although MLS Deputy Commissioner Sunil Gulati disagrees with the idea that the bottom few players on each team are not fit for top-flight professional soccer, he does say that "improving the product is very high on everyone's list" - and some steps have already been taken. Concessions to quality MLS has decided to allow teams to use a fifth foreigner for the next three years. But what is needed for the league to succeed, argues Mr. Gardner, is a fundamental change in the way Americans view soccer. One important part of this change must be the way young American talent is refined, he says. "The pipeline we've got in place at the moment for producing players - that is college soccer - is virtually useless," he says. The arguments against college soccer are founded on two main points: College players are not allowed to play enough games, and the level of competition is not high enough. In most countries, promising young soccer players are playing professional soccer almost year-round by age 18. …