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Michael Lewis

October 16, 2014
Garber, MLS might be angry, but Klinsmann has a point about Bradley, Dempsey

By Michael Lewis Editor

So, Don Garber is ticked off that U.S. national coach Jurgen Klinsmann had the nerve to say that Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey should have not have returned home to play in Major League Soccer.

In case you missed it, this is what Klinsmann told reporters while the USA prepared for its international friendly with Honduras on Monday:

“It will be very difficult for them to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were. as the U.S. team prepared for Tuesday’s friendly against Honduras, which ended in a 1-1 tie. “This league is getting better and stronger every year, which we are all very proud about, and I want everyone to grow in this environment, but the reality also is that for both players, making that step means that you are not competitive environment that you were in before…It’s just reality, just being honest.”

The MLS commissioner and many, if not all of the MLS owners (we don't know what the Red Bulls owners in Salzburg, Austria would say about this as their flagship team would love to perform in higher competitions such as the UEFA Champions League), were taken aback by Klinsmann's statements.

In a hastily called conference call Wednesday, Garber called Klinsmann's remarks “incredibly damaging” and insisted that Klinsmann needs to share the “vision that has been established by the leaders in the sport,” which includes MLS as a pillar in the growth and development of the game."

Garber added:

"For him to publicly state issues that he has with Major League Soccer in my view is not something that is going to allow him to effectively serve the role as not just coach but as technical director. I am in no way saying what Sunil [Gulati, U.S. Soccer president] should be doing with Jurgen as it relates with his employment. That is between Sunil and Jurgen. I think he's done a great job with the national team. I think he needs to think very, very hard about how he manages himself publicly and how he deals with his view as to how he should motivate players that are playing in our league."

Well, while I don't agree with everything that Klinsmann has said or done during his tenure, the U.S. national team coach has a point. I just don't think Major League Soccer teams give many of the top players of the U.S. national team enough of a challenge at the present time.

Don't get me wrong. The league is a fabulous platform and proving ground for young players. But when they are ready to fly the coop and vie for a greater challenge, they should. The league is light years ahead of where it was when the San Jose Clash and D.C. United kicked the ball around competitively for the first time on April 6, 1996. And it keeps improving.

As for the players who pine for Europe, yes the financial rewards are great, so is glory and the chance to stretch your limits.

On the other end of the spectrum there is the possibility of sitting the pine and not getting playing time, which countless Americans, including Landon Donovan, have had to endure through the years.

On Sept. 22, 2000, a columnist penned these words of wisdom:

As important MLS has been in the progress of many players on the U-23 national team, it eventually will have to come to the realization that it will lose many of its best players to European clubs, for the sake of American soccer and the national team.

Like it or not, the league will have to consider itself a springboard, a middle man, so to speak, for the best American players.

"I don't think we would have gotten here without a domestic league, to get these players at this stage of the game," said veteran defender Jeff Agoos, who plies his trade with MLS club D.C. United. "Saying that, we have guys on this team who are basically playing at the same level as most of the guys in the rest of the world and making one-eighth or one-twentieth of their salary.

"While it's important to have a domestic league, especially for the young kids, it's important to keep them there. MLS will have to step up and do something to keep them there."

At this juncture in its history, the league cannot offer the top American players the challenges, obstacles and surprises -- and in many cases, the money -- they need to bring their game the next level so the national team can follow suit. Only a few players can live and prosper in the domestic league, especially with all the money that is being dangled in front of them elsewhere these days.

Who wrote that?

Yours truly did.

I meant it then and some 14 years later, I still feel that way.

At the time, I was criticized by at least one league official about that springboard league phrase. There is nothing wrong about being a springboard league. The Dutch Eredivisie has been one -- an incredibly productive one -- for years.

Just ask Bradley, who earned his spurs in Europe and some confidence with Heerenveen as a high-scoring midfielder before eventually signing with AS Roma. As good and as talented Bradley is -- his work ethic is second to none -- he had problems breaking into the Serie A club's Starting XI on a regular basis.

Now he has gone full circle, returning his home continent. When I heard that he and Dempsey were returning home, especially in a World Cup year, I felt he was making a mistake. Ditto for Clint Dempsey.

I should also say that I wanted to see Landon Donovan continue playing with Everton in the English Premier League during his ultra-successful loan spell a few years back.

It's all about players performing at their highest possible level and whether they want to stay home or go overseas. Some players might be better off remaining in MLS, while others need to be challenged.

Until Don Garber and company understand that, that will be an eternal problem for the league's brass.

Some day, perhaps, perhaps in our lifetime, MLS will be a destination league for some of the top players in the world players in their prime (not necessarily on the other side of 30).

One last thing: I just wonder if having a conference call about this subject was the right thing to do or taking the high road. It might have been better to have put out a statement instead of indulging reporter's questions on the call. I am not sure Garber and the league came out for the better.

Ultimately, Klinsmann will be judged on not what he says, but what his team does on the field.

If the U.S. failed to get out of the opening round, especially without Donovan (who was grounded by Klinsmann) last summer, all hell would have broken loose and the American media would have taken Klinsi to task.

While so many people make a big deal about how well the U.S. did in Brazil -- getting out of the Group of Death -- soccer insiders know how poorly the Americans fared against two top Euro sides (Belgium and eventual champion Germany) in ball possession. We were reminded how far we have to go.

Those sides were packed with players from leading clubs that play regularly in the Champions League. If it wasn't for goalkeeper Tim Howard's performance for the ages against Belgium, that Round of 16 game would have been decided in regulation and there might have been a different take on the Americans' overall performance.

These Belgians and Germans perform against better competition, which challenges them to become better players.

It's as simple as that.

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