Remember the North American Free Trade Agreement? It was a deal that former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot promised would create a "giant sucking sound" as jobs headed out of the United States. While it's likely that he wasn't thinking of American soccer players when he made that statement, some anecdotal evidence suggests that the rate of players leaving the U.S., while not quite reaching NAFTA-like proportions, is at least accelerating. So will MLS change its ways to hang onto more homegrown talent? Not likely, which depending on whom you talk to, might or might not be a problem.
What isn't in dispute is that for all of the talk about star imports, MLS is a league built on the backs of its homegrown players, and in order for the on-field product to improve, it's imperative for the league to succeed in signing the best American prospects. If the rumblings at this year's SuperDraft are any indication, the league's ability to do that is being challenged.
That's because prior to the first pick even being made, the player pool had long since been shorn of some its biggest talents. Boston College forward Charlie Davies, deemed by many to be the top prospect in the draft, signed with Swedish side Hammarby. Current U.S. U-20 international Robbie Rogers departed five months earlier to sign with Heerenveen of the Dutch Eredivisie. And UCLA product Kamani Hill signed with Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg last fall.
There were also the threats to go to Europe by players like Notre Dame midfielder Greg Dalby and Cal defender Steve Purdy (both drafted in the lower rounds of the 2007 MLS SuperDraft), which made them less desirable than their respective abilities would imply. In Purdy's case, he made good on his pledge, signing with German side 1860 Munich. Dalby is reportedly on trial with Italian Serie A club Siena.
Out of the players mentioned, the likes of Davies and Rogers were the biggest losses. Not only were they talented attacking players, but as underclassmen, they would have entered the league's Generation adidas program. This would not only have guaranteed them a roster spot, but also a relatively higher salary that would not have counted against the salary cap, increasing their value to MLS teams. And given that a similar scenario played out in 2006 when U.S. U-20 standouts Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber signed with PSV Eindhoven and Hamburg, respectively, it would appear that more and more top young prospects are opting for Europe.
But when these examples were presented to MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, he wasn't ready to concede that they signaled an increased inclination on the part of players to head abroad. After all, since MLS doesn't target every player who ends up overseas, detecting a discernible trend is more subjective than one might think.
"I'm not sure it's a numbers game exactly," said Gazidis. "I'd be worried if we weren't getting the vast majority of the important [players] for us, but I don't see that happening at all. I don't see a trend towards that. Do I think we miss the odd one that we would love to have? Absolutely. Do I think if those guys go overseas and aren't successful, then will more of the next [class] opt to come to MLS? Yeah, I think it influences it."
But Patrick McCabe, an agent with First Wave Sports, not only feels that the pace of exports has increased, but that it was inevitable.
"I think it was something that was naturally going to happen," said McCabe of the increased flow of players to Europe. "After a while, college kids were going to start to look beyond what's here [in the U.S.]"
That is due primarily to the paltry salaries that most first-year MLS players are given, especially for players who spent four years in college. A prime example is Columbus forward Jason Garey, who according to the Washington Post, earned only $45,000 in his rookie season, despite being the third player taken in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. Rather than accept such offers, more and more players are looking elsewhere. As former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt put it, "The traditional rookie salary of around $30,000 for an American player can often be beaten by even the lesser leagues of Europe."
Certainly the likes of Davies and Rogers have far exceeded that, but the long-term ramifications of such defections on MLS remain unclear. The league continues to have a deserved reputation for developing talent, as players like Jonathan Bornstein and Kenny Cooper force their way into the national team frame. And people like Wilt feel that the league isn't losing enough young players for them to change their ways. After all, it's unlikely that MLS will lose many ticket sales because it failed to sign the likes of Davies and Rogers. The fact that the current collective bargaining agreement won't expire until the end of 2009 also serves to keep much of the existing salary structure in place.
But the view that losing these players has no impact seems shortsighted. With the departure of a player like Dempsey, fans are clamoring for more U.S. attackers to emerge, and signing the likes of Davies and Rogers would have helped ensure that. In the meantime, McCabe feels that the interest in American players by European clubs will only increase.
"[European clubs] are starting to travel more over here to look at players," said McCabe. "I don't see it decreasing. The players are improving and if [Dempsey] makes a splash, and if Davies does well, there are going to be more and more teams coming. Where else can you find guys that age for free? You can't."
So at what point will the MLS feel compelled to act? Gazidis added that if the national team eventually is comprised mostly of players who never played in MLS, then that's when he'll become concerned. One can only hope that it won't come to that.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.