MLS and the U.S.: Why the league is making a bigger impact on the national team

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Major League Soccer will have 21 representatives on Brazil’s fields at the World Cup, the highest number since 1998 – the first finals after the league began play in 1996. Unlike that tournament in France, however, most of MLS’s representatives are not going to be on the United States’ roster. Whereas 16 players from the nascent league made Steve Sampson’s squad in 1998, only nine MLS’ers are among the 23 that Jurgen Klinsmann will take to Brazil.

Considering so many have trumpeted 2014 as a World Cup resurgence for MLS, that figure may be seen as disappointingly small. It’s the second-lowest in league history. When you consider where the league was four years ago, however, you can see why the trumpets are out. Only four Major League Soccer players made Bob Bradley’s squad for South Africa.

In that light, the resurgence is both remarkable and, as if four years ago, unforeseeable, with its main effects apparent on the U.S’s starting lineup. Of the nine players Klinsmann’s taking to Brazil, five are potential starters: Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, and Graham Zusi. Not only are Major League Soccer’s numbers up; the league’s significance within the team is climbing, too.

The cause of all this isn’t a complex one. The league is just better than it was four years ago, when it was climbing out of its nadir of the early- and mid-oughts. The steep nature of that climb, however, deserves a little more examination. Within the U.S. team, MLS has gone from nearly irrelevant to a necessary part of the squad.

1. Core stability – While so many have focused on Major League Soccer’s lack of television viewers, the butts in seats continue to be solid. Combined with the league’s single-entity structure, that’s provided Major League Soccer with a reliable foundation from which it can grow. As the league becomes more aggressive in seeking out talent, it knows its large, loyal core of fans provides an enviable stability.

2. Increasing the quality of play – You can have all the fans you want, but if nobody’s going to improve by playing in your league, you’re not going to convince World Cup talent to stick around (or, come back). Thanks largely to its efforts in Central and South America, the league has been able to bring in affordable talent that’s significantly raised its quality of play. Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales is the poster play for this movement, but thanks to others like him, Major League Soccer is now a place where the likes of Davis, Kyle Beckerman, and Chris Wondolowski can improve. They’re all going to Brazil.

3. Money, Part I: Retention funds – Not every player is like Beckerman or Davis, however. If players like Besler and Zusi had come along five years earlier, they’d probably be in Europe by now.

With its new security, however, Major League Soccer has made it a priority to compete for those types of talents. Thanks to retention funds — a mechanism that allows teams to offer increased compensation without taking up a DP slot — players like Besler and Zusi, as well as a number of non-U.S. players, have been kept in the league.

source: Getty Images4. Money, Part II: Transfer fees – And then MLS really stepped it up, going into the transfer market to reclaim one of its own. Starting with the fee the league paid Tottenham Hotspur to bring Clint Dempsey back, the league committed to competing for the U.S.’s best talents.

This winter, the league struck again, paying AS Roma for Michael Bradley. In transfer fees alone, the league committed $19 million to two of the U.S.’s biggest stars, an amount that would have been unfathomable 10 years ago.

5. Increased international profile – Call this the David Beckham effect, but don’t forget the influence players like Thierry Henry have had on international perception, too. Whereas Major League Soccer was recently seen as a player’s last stop, it’s becoming more and more viable to make the switch earlier in your career. That not only means getting players like Tim Cahill and Jermain Defoe a year or two sooner than you would have before, but it also gives the Bradleys and Dempseys of the world reason to come back early.

Major League Soccer still has a long way to go, but some of the early returns will be seen at the World Cup. Only nine leagues across the world will have a greater representation in Brazil, and within the U.S. national team, there will be more than twice as many MLS’ers in the squad.

That may not mean the U.S.’s team is built around league talent, but if this new pattern holds, it won’t be too long before the domestic league is again claiming a majority of the national team’s spot.

MLS Snapshots: Opara scores a bike, SKC win; SJ thump RSL

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): I’m going to start by quoting myself (re: Sporting Kansas City), via Twitter: “This team is better in June than it was in March, and will be better in October than it is in June. Just steadily progressing.” Saturday’s 2-1 victory away to LA Galaxy (just their second road win of the season, and the team’s fourth and fifth away goals in 10 games) is the latest sign of progress for Peter Vermes’ side, as they extend their lead on the rest of the Western Conference to five points. Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara scored the visitors’ goals — the latter coming in spectacular, most unexpected fashion — before the hosts pulled back to 2-1 through Dave Romney late in the second half. LA, meanwhile, sit sixth in the West, one point clear of the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

22′ — Diop’s howler puts SKC up 1-0 — Sometimes — and this is one of those moments for Clement Diop — you just want the ground to open up and swallow you into the middle of the Earth.

35′ — Opara rides his bike to 2-0 — Ike Opara, a center back, scored a bicycle kick from a long ball played to him by Matt Besler, Sporting KC’s other center back. It’s a sequence of events you won’t see again for a long, long time.

59′ — Smith goes through Feilhaber, who is subbed off — Baldomero Toledo allowed Nathan Smith to stay on the field after this “tackle” on Benny Feilhaber.

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Man of the match: Ike Opara

Goalscorers: Espinoza (22′), Opara (35′)


San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Three Two moments that mattered

13′ — Hoesen blasts a loose ball past Rimando for 1-0 — If you fail to clear the ball anywhere inside 12 yards, you’re probably going to get scored on. Danny Hoesen got all of this one.

68′ — Hoesen sets up Ureña for 2-0 — Hoesen’s speculative through ball found its way into space, and Marco Ureñat took it from there, putting the game away and handing RSL their eighth loss in 11 games.

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Man of the match: Danny Hoesen

Goalscorers: Hoesen (13′), Ureña (68′), Hernandez (90+4′)

MLS Snapshots: Hat trick for Accam; MNUFC come back from 2-0

Photo credit: Chicago Fire / Twitter: @ChicagoFire
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The game in 100 words (or less): All hail King David Accam, the newest superstar of MLS — except, well, you know, he’s been doing this for a couple years now. It’s not his fault you hadn’t already taken notice. For too long, it was Accam and not much else for the Chicago Fire, who finished bottom of the league two straight seasons, in 2015 and 2016. Now, with the likes of Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining him in Bridgeview, Accam has ascended to his rightful throne as an MVP candidate. The 26-year-old Ghanaian international strengthened his case on Saturday, bagging three goals and an assist, playing a key part in all four goals, in Chicago’s 4-0 drubbing of Orlando City SC. Accam’s season stats now sit at 10 goals and six assists, for the Eastern Conference’s second-place team. If these kind of performances persist, don’t be surprised when Accam follows in Fabian Castillo’s footsteps, right off to Europe.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

8′ — Accam rounds Bendik for 2-0 — The long-ball distribution from Bastian Schweinsteiger is perfect, but Accam still has a ton to do from there. He corrals the ball with his first touch, quickly goes around Joe Bendik, gets his wits about him and fires through an opening to make it David Accam 2-0 Orlando City SC. This one came just six minutes after his brilliant backheel finish for the opening goal.

52′ — Accam sets up Nikolic for 3-0 — The time and space afforded Accam is inexcusable from Orlando’s midfield remaining players in their defensive half of the field, but the through ball still required inch-perfect precision to find Nikolic.

63′ — Accam converts from the spot — No doubt about this one, as Accam slams home from the penalty spot to complete his much deserved hat trick.

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Man of the match: David Accam

Goalscorers: Accam (3′, 8′, 63′ – PK), Nikolic (52′)


Minnesota United 2-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Three moments that mattered

45+2′ — Tchani heads a rocket past Shuttleworth — You’re not going to find many headers with more power behind them than this one from Tony Tchani, anywhere in the world, anytime.

50′ — Calvo heads down and past Ousted — Take, for example, Francisco Calvo’s goal five minutes into the second half… not quite as much behind it.

63′ — Thiesson hits it low, through traffic, for 2-0 — Jerome Thiesson’s equalizer needed eyes to make its way through a penalty area full of bodies.

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Man of the match: Kevin Molino

Goalscorers: Techera (17′ – PK), Tchani (45+2′), Calvo (50′), Thiesson (63′)

MLS Snapshots: Manneh inspires Crew SC; Philly, Atlanta win at home

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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Columbus Crew SC 4-1 Montreal Impact

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Higuain’s free kick beats Bush — Aided by a slight deflection off the top of the wall, Higuain put a free kick past Evan Bush to give the home side an early lead.

70′ — Manneh makes an immediate impact — The initial ball from Higuain is what you came here for, but the elementary defending by three Montreal defenders is what’ll keep you glued until the very end.

72′ — Manneh sets up Kamara for 3-1 — Kekuta Manneh had been on the field for all of three minutes, and he put a goal and an assist to his name. Most importantly, three points to that of Crew SC.

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Man of the match: Federico Higuain

Goalscorers: Higuain (17′, 88′), Jackson-Hamel (19′), Manneh (70′), Kamara (72′)


 

Philadelphia Union 1-0 D.C. United

Three moments that mattered

28′ — Blake gets down to deny Harkes from distance — Ian Harkes had picked out a spot just inside the far post, but Andre Blake was well up to the task of denying DCU’s homegrown rookie.

31′ — Picault slams Bedoya’s cross — Alejandro Bedoya’s cross has some serious loft on it, which it makes it so tough to keep the ensuing shot low and to hit it with such power. Fantastic finish from Picault.

70′ — Blake stone-walls Neagle from the spot — It’s a pretty poor penalty from Lamar Neagle, but it’s a massive moment so badly needed by Andre Blake who’s been well off his own standard this season. Don’t be surprised if it’s a season-turning save for the talented Jamaican.

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Man of the match: Andre Blake

Goalscorers: Picault (31′)


 

Atlanta United 1-0 Colorado Rapids

Three One moment that mattered

67′ — Martinez turns and beats Howard for the game’s only goal — You can’t give Josef Martinez this kind of space, and this kind of time, around the six-yard box. He’s shown us seven times already this season (in just seven games) how deadly he is from there.

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Man of the match: Josef Martinez

Goalscorers: Martinez (67′)

VIDEO: Accam’s slick backheel puts Chicago ahead

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For the last two years, David Accam has been, in my estimation, the best player in MLS that no one talked about.

[ MORE: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win NY derby 2-0 ]

Understandably so, of course, given the 26-year-old Ghanaian international and the Chicago Fire been rooted to the bottom of the league table for two years running. All of that has changed in 2017, though, as Accam finally has a forward (Nemanja Nikolic) who can not only put chances away, but create space and chances for his teammates, and a solid midfield base which allows him to cherry-pick counter-attacks just that little bit more.

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Entering Saturday’s game against Orlando City SC, Chicago sat second in the Eastern Conference, just four points back of Toronto FC, and Accam’s 7 goals and 5 assists (in 15 games) were a huge part of the why and the how. It didn’t take Accam long — two minutes, in fact, to put Chicago ahead of Orlando with a ridiculous backheel finish to Matt Polster’s cross.