STANFORD, Calif. – Soccer in the United States continues to evolve in mysterious ways and one of the most surprising trends can be found in the makeup of the 30-man squad currently fighting for a ticket to the World Cup.
Half of the roster training with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann plies its trade in Major League Soccer, featuring several U.S. stalwarts such as captain Clint Dempsey, midfielder Michael Bradley and influential forward Landon Donovan. On the other hand, some American players – like Kyle Beckerman, Chris Wondolowski and Brad Davis – are battling hard to shine enough over the next two weeks to avoid failling victim to the dreaded final cut to 23 on June 2.
The irony of a foreign coach putting his faith in several players who have either shunned Europe or returned from stints there is striking. Former U.S. coach Bob Bradley had just nine MLSers on his 2010 preliminary roster, and only four survived the last cut for South Africa.
America's top players have sought fame and fortune in lucrative, high-profile European leagues, but not anymore. To the benefit of MLS, the exodus has reversed.
"I think Jurgen has been completely open from the get-go," said Davis, a versatile midfielder with the Houston Dynamo. "He has 100 percent told us it doesn't matter if you play in MLS, doesn't matter if you play in Europe, doesn't matter if you play in Mexico or wherever it may be.
"He said he is going to take guys that are willing to be part of the group and are playing well at the time, people who are going to want to win. It doesn't matter where you come from."
While MLS still lags behind the best European leagues in terms of overall quality, the league has done a better job of persuading some big names to return home and convincing prospective transferees to stay put.
Central defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler were both convinced to sign new and improved contracts, while Besler's friend and Sporting Kansas City teammate Graham Zusi could also have likely gone the overseas route.
At the top end of the MLS pay scale is Dempsey, who was enticed to leave the English Premier League by a $6.7 million-per-year offer from the Seattle Sounders. Bradley makes $6.5 million a year after joining Toronto FC from Italian side AS Roma.
"Those guys coming back is a good thing," said Beckerman, one of MLS's most consistently productive players. "It is a good thing. It could show that MLS is improving, continuing to progress each year.
"When they came back, it helped boost the league's image. It was positive for all of us. We always definitely want guys back."
National team hopefuls have found that regular playing time in MLS can offer the chance to stay high in Klinsmann's thoughts. Some of those who departed for Europe have had it tough.
Brek Shea, Sacha Klejstan and Juan Agudelo all seem to have paid the price for failing to secure a permanent place in their European club teams by missing out on the preliminary roster of 30.
"You have to pick the best team, not necessarily the best players," said forward Jozy Altidore, who suffered a poor season with Sunderland in the Premier League but is confident of finding top form for the World Cup. "The best people that function together and will fight for each other, that is what matters most.
"It doesn't matter where they play, absolutely not."