MLS v Europe: USMNT debate rumbles on

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Ah, the old MLS v Europe debate continues to rumble on when it comes to the best place for USMNT players to develop.

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Somewhere, probably in his helicopter hovering over Southern California, Jurgen Klinsmann is smiling.

Like spring after winter and the sun rising every morning, this debate is one you can always count on cropping up every single time the USMNT play a game. And there is no easy answer to it. Is there?

Due to US Soccer focusing on a European-heavy 24-man squad for their friendlies against Wales and Panama this month (due to the MLS Cup playoffs and ease of travel with players already based in Europe) only Sebastian Lletget, a replacement for Josh Sargent who was unavailable, came from MLS.

In fact, the USMNT’s starting XI for the 6-2 win against Panama was made up entirely of European-based players, and that was the first time since it had happened since June 2011. It was also the second-youngest USMNT starting XI in history.

With Sergino Dest, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent, Tyler Adams and now Yunus Musah playing regularly in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga, the USMNT youngsters are getting invaluable experience in some of the biggest leagues in the world.

Reggie Cannon leads calls for European experience

Speaking to the media in a conference call ahead of the international friendly against Panama, right back Reggie Cannon had this to say after his move from FC Dallas to Boavista over the summer.

“I’ve always wanted to play in Europe and that’s been my goal for the longest time,” Cannon said. “I have always given this advice to the young guys, to the upcoming guys, … all those guys that competed in the FC Dallas ranks and ultimately the MLS ranks. There’s so much to accomplish in Europe, especially for Americans.

“It’s so amazing to see the level of competition over here. It’s just a completely different level I can’t, I can’t explain in words. You just have to experience it. Ultimately, it’s just going to raise your game as a player. It’s going to make you want to be the best. This European lifestyle is completely different than what MLS offers and again that’s no slight to MLS. I just think that for all these young guys coming up and that should be your goal to ultimately help not only yourself but the national team and everything going forward.”

Cannon, 22, was fascinating on the topic and he has clearly kicked his game on to a new level in the matter of just a few months playing in Portugal’s top-flight.

He is now challenging Dest for the starting slot at right back, so much so that Dest may play on the left to try and get Cannon into the team.

Gregg Berhalter wants Champions League experience

USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter is a long-time advocate of MLS but spent 16 of his 19-year playing career in Europe in Holland, Germany and England.

He also became the first-ever American coach of a professional team in Europe when he led Swedish side Hammarby. Remember that?

Berhalter told the media over this break that there is no one right way for a player to develop, and that is true, but he also stressed how big of a deal it is that a record 10 USMNT players have been named in Champions League squads for the 2020-21 season.

“It is a great step for American soccer,” Berhalter said. “I’m a firm believer in the measure of talent in any given country is based on how many players they have playing in the Champions League. I think it is really important we get those numbers up. The two things that lead to success is having a strong domestic league and having players playing in the Champions League. It’s good to see we have that.”

Berhalter is right to point out that every player should make the best decision for their own career and if you move to Europe but you’re not playing regularly, is that better than playing week in, week out in MLS as a youngster? Klinsmann got in hot water in the past as he urged his young players to move from MLS to Europe, but look at all of them breaking through now. Was he wrong to push that agenda?

Cannon urged other youngsters who have come through MLS academies to head to Europe as soon as they can.

“The chances of challenging yourself because in MLS, you can get so comfortable at times,” he said. “You can almost create a bubble of comfort around yourself. Being with family, being able to see all your friends at all times, playing a competition that isn’t nearly as challenging as the rest of the world, make plenty of money and just be comfortable. It’s just so easy to just stay where you are and be satisfied.”

“That’s what the great players and the elites do. They go to Europe to challenge themselves. And that’s not saying you can’t be successful in MLS and still playing a World Cup. Of course, you can. But I think just for this player pool, the best thing and the upcoming player pool, the best thing for us to do is to go to Europe and challenge yourself and get a taste of what real football is like, because I think that’s ultimately going to create so much challenge and so much unity within the team that everyone can experience this lifestyle and challenge each other for spots. That’s what makes teams great.”

When you look at the most recent USMNT squad, over a third of the players now playing in Europe started in MLS academies.

Matt Miazga and Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls), Cannon, McKennie and Chris Richards (FC Dallas), Sebastian Soto and Richie Ledezma (Real Salt Lake), plus Gio Reyna (New York City FC) and Uly Llanez (LA Galaxy). The MLS academies are producing great young talent and Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union) is heading to RB Salzburg soon.

“It’s just a higher level in Europe,” Cannon added. “That’s going to make everyone the greatest they can be, which will ultimately make our chances of entering the World Cup and winning a World Cup the best it can be. I think that’s the best statement I can give.”

Cut to a shot of Klinsmann walking off into a sunset horizon.

The simple fact is that MLS continues to develop top young talent and that after a few years of honing their skills, the best USMNT youngsters should head to Europe before the age of 21. Again, that’s not the right answer for everyone but as we saw over the last week it’s working out pretty well for this crop of USMNT youngsters.