Europe no longer a straightforward decision for MLS players
"Should I stay or should I go?" is a question usually reserved for people in rocky relationships or legendary punk rock bands. But with the World Cup now a scant six months away, it's an issue facing several members of the U.S. men's national team, especially those MLS performers currently pondering moves to overseas clubs.
But the American soccer landscape is littered with players who made the journey across the Atlantic only to find playing time scarce, meaning that staying in MLS might be the better option.
"You would hate to see someone who was in the national team World Cup picture go off to a place where they regressed in their development," said Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. international and current ESPN broadcast analyst. "I think we're at a point now in MLS where there is enough quality and competition that it's not always simply 'just go overseas' and you become more valuable."
The fact that European aspirants such as Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden would be arriving in the middle of the season only adds to the pressure.
"Any club you go into, if it's functioning perfectly, then they have no need for you," said Eric Wynalda, Lalas' former international teammate. "If they're looking for something that's going to drag them out of the muck, and you're the guy that shows up, it's a potentially hostile situation for that player. The expectation is, 'Welcome to the club, we're in dire straits here, and we need you to do something. Now.' That's a tough spot for anybody to go into."
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If things go badly, then the decision could also impact a player's status within the national team, although just how much depends on the player in question. For someone like Landon Donovan, who last week secured a loan deal with English Premier League side Everton, his spot is no doubt secure, and the move is -- at least in the short term -- an opportunity to sharpen his game. And if Donovan ends up spending most of his time on the Toffees' bench, a soft landing back in MLS with some guaranteed playing time awaits.
The potential for injury and a drop in confidence are concerns, but Donovan faced similar obstacles during his stint with Bayern Munich last year and emerged from that test just fine. Another failed stint in Europe would no doubt raise the hackles of Donovan's critics, but it's not likely to adversely affect his play come June. And if things go well, it will only expand Donovan's comfort zone heading into the World Cup, which will need to be at its widest for the U.S. to have success.
The stakes are higher for out-of-contract players like Clark and Holden, who might be jeopardizing a starting role, or in the case of Holden, a spot on the World Cup team altogether. While there have been exceptions, U.S. coach Bob Bradley has tended to use players who get consistent playing time with their clubs, regardless of where that takes place. One only has to look at how DaMarcus Beasley has dropped off the radar to see how damaging an extended period on the bench can be to a player's form and international prospects, although his recent revival with Rangers now has him back in the conversation.
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But staying in MLS has pitfalls that go beyond the obvious financial disparity. Granted, regular-season games have increased in importance as the league has added teams and made playoff places harder to come by, but the early-season MLS matches certainly lack the pressure of games occurring later in the European season, making them less of a tool to hit peak form ahead of the World Cup.
"A lot of the guys who rely on their games in MLS as preparation -- and we've seen this time and time again -- the season starts and the guys that are on the national team are playing simply not to get hurt," said Wynalda. "The games are league games, but unfortunately, they're perceived as meaningless games because it's not the end of the season; it's not the end of the world if you lose."
Weighing the short-term benefits of the World Cup against the long-term prospects of a player's club career is also a consideration. After all, it is the club that pays the performer's wages and where said player spends the vast majority of his time.
It is against this backdrop that a player like Holden must make a decision. The Houston midfielder is reported to be on the radar of several British sides while also entertaining an offer from MLS to stay with the Dynamo. Holden has indicated that he isn't "leaning one way or the other." But what he did make clear is that he'll be taking the long view when it comes to deciding what's best.
"The World Cup is obviously on my mind; it's something I've dreamed about, but it's not a direct factor in my decision," said Holden. "And I'm not going to make a decision based on fear, or what happens if I go, and I'm not playing. I'm not one to dwell on what-ifs. I'm not going to look back and regret this decision."
Since Holden is just 24, he can afford to fix his gaze further down the road. For a player like 29-year-old defender Danny Califf, next summer represents what is probably his last shot at playing in a World Cup, which explains in part his decision to leave Danish side FC Midtjylland and cast his lot in MLS with expansion side Philadelphia Union.
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Califf's overseas adventure started brightly enough, and he helped Aalborg win a Danish SuperLiga title in 2008. But after moving to Midtjylland the following summer, Califf saw his playing time steadily decrease, and when his international call-ups also lessened, he felt there was little choice but to head back stateside.
"I felt being in Philly playing for Peter Nowak and John Hackworth was a great opportunity to play for coaches I know, and who would also have [Bradley's] ear if things go like I anticipate," said Califf via e-mail. "[But getting in a better playing situation] was a must. I was miserable at FCM over the last 6 months. I want to be somewhere where I would be a big part of the team and be valued."
How the machinations of players like Califf, Holden, Clark and Donovan will pan out remains to be seen. What isn't in doubt is that the World Cup itself can also help players get to where they want to go.
"I'm a living example of what a World Cup can do to an individual in terms of your value," said Lalas, who parlayed his performance in the 1994 World Cup into a move to Padova, then in Italy's Serie A. "I think the World Cup and your performance in the World Cup will always play into where you ultimately end up. It can dramatically affect, both positively and negatively, what you're doing."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.