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Saturday was the culmination of a year in which everything that could go wrong went wrong for the USMNT. The U.S. was defeated 3-2 by their arch-rival Mexico at the Rose Bowl. The win for Mexico means that El Tri will represent CONCACAF at the 2017 Confederations Cup, a spot that the U.S. had inside track to prior to the 2015 Gold Cup.
A little more than a year ago, the USMNT returned home from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil more popular than they’d ever been before. Since, the USMNT has gone from a team filled with fan optimism for the future to a team in disarray with fans calling for the coach’s job.
What happened? Where did things fall apart?
There are several different answers, but one in particular — one that we all knew was inevitable. The downfall of the USMNT has to do with three simple letters: M.L.S.
In the past few years, the USMNT has seen a migration of their players return home to play in the MLS. When Michael Bradley left Italy to join Toronto, Jurgen Klinsmann came under fire when he made comments suggesting that going from Serie A to MLS was a step down in quality for Bradley.
After the World Cup, players who had chances to move to European teams such as Graham Zusi and Matt Besler opted to sign big contracts to stay in MLS. Meanwhile more players such as Mix Diskerud and Jermaine Jones also left Europe to come ply their trade in the United States.
Amid the mass homecoming of USMNT stars, many fans became skeptical. As Klinsmann said when Bradley and Clint Dempsey came over, you want your players competing against the best players in the world. Fans were now becoming skeptical over how the USMNT would look in the future if their best players weren’t being challenged week in week out.
A year later, that skepticism was warranted.
Klinsmann took over the USMNT in the summer of 2011, right after the U.S. lost 4-2 to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. In the 2011 Gold Cup Final, 10 starters and 12 of the 14 guys who saw the field played outside of MLS (11 in Europe 1 in Liga MX). The two MLS players were Landon Donovan, who was far and away the United States’ best player, and Juan Agudelo, a teenager who was just coming up as a professional in MLS.
Klinsmann took over a team where the players were playing in the best leagues in the world against top competition and not surprisingly were getting better. By the 2014 World Cup, of Jurgen’s preferred XI (the team that started the first game), seven of the 11 starters came from outside MLS, with two of those MLS players being Bradley, who played in Europe up until the previous January and Dempsey, who spent two months on loan at Fulham in the EPL in early 2014. The team did very well in Brazil including playing their best game ever under Klinsmann (the 2-2 draw vs. Portugal), and were unlucky not to beat Belgium.
Since making the return to MLS, many of the players have stopped improving and a lot have even looked significantly worse (looking at you Michael Bradley). On Saturday vs Mexico, eight of the 11 starters came from MLS with only Brad Guzan, Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron playing for clubs outside North America. When it came to substitutes, MLS’s Brad Evans was solid but nothing spectacular when he came on. The two players who did make an impact coming off the bench — DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood — both play in Europe.
This is going to bring up the age-old argument: “Isn’t it better to play in MLS every week then to be riding the bench over in Europe?”
Well obviously it’s not.
Bradley had a very up and down career in Europe. He was constantly switching teams and going through managerial changes. Every time he established himself it seemed like a new manager came in and he fell in the pecking order only to fight his way back up each time. But guess what — he got better every single year. Give me the guy who needs to fight his way into the team every week, then maintain that level of play otherwise he’ll get dropped over the guy who has a guaranteed spot in the team against inferior competition every time.
MLS fans were up in arms that Klinsmann kept criticizing MLS and implying that he didn’t want his players playing there. Now that the team is mostly MLS players and the team isn’t performing, those same MLS fans who are now calling for his head.