One aspect of the coverage in the British press of the United States and the World Cup that amazed (if not surprised) me in recent weeks has been the invisibility of Major League Soccer to journalists writing sweeping narratives about the success or failure of soccer in the country. Despite David Beckham, the league may as well not have existed to the British media, not warranting a mention in numerous pieces covering the country and the sport.
So it was with some pleasure that I read Jed Dawson’s piece in the Guardian today on the role Major League Soccer had played in the development of many players, and also its importance as a professional league Americans can return to from Europe:
By giving American players a place to play professionally, MLS would in turn serve as a springboard to the world at large. A gifted young goalkeeper named Tim Howard signed with MetroStars (now known as New York Red Bulls) in 1998, and his tenure would see him win the league’s top goalkeeping honour in 2001 before he signed for Manchester United in 2003. Now he plays for Everton, of course, where Donovan enjoyed a successful loan spell last season.
The league’s approach to talent allocation – the SuperDraft – would send Clint Dempsey to the New England Revolution in 2004. There, Dempsey would develop his diverse skill set to the point where Fulham came calling. Dempsey’s move to the Premier League – from New England to Old England, if you will – culminated in an appearance in the Europa League final. It’s difficult to imagine Fulham finding Dempsey at a college in South Carolina.
Major League Soccer would also operate as a destination for explosive young talent. Gifted athletes such as Jozy Altidore might have turned to other sports without MLS, just as many skilled US teenagers did in the wilderness years. If you can make a living through your athletic ability, trying to prove yourself overseas becomes a serious life gamble. Being embraced by a professional league in your home country transforms that gamble into a project. And other teenagers would find MLS as a useful incubator – such as Michael Bradley, who ran to the final whistle against Algeria in the style of his playing hero, Roy Keane.
The league wasn’t merely a launching pad. In the case of Donovan, it was more of a lifeboat. Donovan had bypassed the MLS experience altogether to play in Germany. Thrown into the deep end, he found it difficult to keep his head above water. Thankfully, he had a Fifa-recognised league back in the States waiting to take him in. In MLS, he had a chance to mature as a player and as a man; rather than disappear into history as a curio, the American would-be striker who had a cup of coffee in the Bundesliga.
Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it, it’s also notable that this rare moment of fair coverage of MLS in a British media outlet comes not from one of the Guardian’s professional journalists, but a member of their World Cup “fan’s network”, amateur writers and tweeters (is that an occupation, now?) enlisted to cover the World Cup globally for the Guardian: the piece is written by Jed Dawson, a screenwriter from Wisconsin.