The questions began almost as soon as Clint Dempsey signed with the Seattle Sounders last summer, and resurfaced again when Michael Bradley joined Toronto FC last winter.
Would returning to MLS hurt Dempsey and Bradley's form heading into the 2014 World Cup? Would the drop in class from the English Premier League and Serie A to MLS do harm to their level of play in a World Cup year?
Early indications are that those fears were wasted energy, and this past weekend offered a showcase of just how good the two U.S. stars can still be even though they have traded in high-profile European leagues for Major League Soccer.
Dempsey willed his Seattle Sounders to a 4-4 comeback tie in Portland, netting a hat trick and easing concerns about his form. Bradley followed up his virtuoso performance against Mexico on Wednesday with another masterclass on Saturday against the Columbus Crew, scoring the winning goal and bossing the midfield against one of the better possession teams in the league.
Both players helped put to rest concerns about whether playing in MLS would hurt their form heading into the World Cup. Bradley has been one of the best players in the league and his display against Mexico last week showed us a player who looks to be in even better form now than he was in the fall when he was at Roma.
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As for Dempsey, his hat trick puts him on four goals and an assist in three matches this season. He has either scored a goal or set one up in each game he has played in. Perhaps it was easy for folks outside Seattle to miss the fact that Dempsey was already showing signs of improved player before Saturday's hat trick. His two-game suspension for striking an opponent put him out of sight and out of mind, but his three-goal outburst against the Timbers served notice that he is ready to live up to the hype that came with his signing in Seattle.
Does dominating in MLS really show us what we can expect from Bradley and Dempsey at the World Cup? Not necessarily, but watching Bradley dominate Mexico gave the clear impression he is playing at a very high level at the moment, and should maintain that level heading to Brazil. As for Dempsey, while he didn't dazzle against Mexico, he showed signs of the old Dempsey. He was active, involved in the U.S. attack and a handful for the Mexican defense.
If Bradley and Dempsey don't provide clear examples of two U.S. national team players thriving in MLS play, then Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst certainly do. Both players were wasting away in terrible situations at European clubs where they were not playing. Both moved to MLS this winter, and after a month of the 2014 season, Edu and Parkhurst have become standouts and leaders for their new teams. They have also boosted their World Cup hopes.
Parkhurst started and played well at left back for the USA against Mexico, and looks more and more like a World Cup option after helping lead the Columbus Crew to a strong start to the season, while Edu has been a force in central midfield for the Philadelphia Union, and has put his name right back in the conversation for a World Cup roster spot.
It may only be one month into the new MLS season, but all signs indicate that Jurgen Klinsmann stands to benefit considerably from the exodus of American players from Europe to MLS. As much as he probably hated the idea of having Bradley and Dempsey, two of his best players, leave top leagues in Europe, even Klinsmann has to acknowledge that the moves could wind up leaving both of them in better positions to be impact players at this summer's World Cup.
Does this mean that future young national team prospects shouldn't consider moving to Europe if the opportunities present themselves? Certainly not. Destinations like the English Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga are still among the world's best, and the kind of leagues all top young American talents should be striving to play in. That being said, Dempsey and Bradley are showing that MLS is now a league where top talents can still play at a high level, and returning from Europe to MLS doesn't have to mean some sort of death sentence for a player's national team prospects.
MLS WRAP WEEKLY AWARDS
Player of the Week: Clint Dempsey. In a week when there were a boatload of worthy candidates, Dempsey gets the nod for leading Seattle's comeback from 4-2 down to earn a 4-4 tie in Portland.
Team of the Week: Toronto FC. Missing your leading striker, both starting center backs and starting central midfielder and you still find a way to record a road win against the only remaining team in the league with a perfect record? Yes, TFC absolutely impressed, showing its quality and its depth.
Rookie of the Week: Nick Hagglund. Earning your first professional start on the road in a hostile environment is never easy, but first-round pick Hagglund handled it with relative ease. Though he had plenty of help from veteran Bradley Orr, Hagglund avoided any major mistakes and stayed solid enough to help TFC post a shutout in a 2-0 win.
Supporters' Gesture of the Week: Columbus Crew. You don't often see MLS supporters clapping for opposing players, so when Michael Bradley came off in the 73rd minute to a round of applause from the Crew faithful, it was a classy gesture from fans who are much more used to seeing him play for their team in USA-Mexico World Cup qualifiers at Crew Stadium.
Back-up of the Week: Jeff Attinella. Nick Rimando's goalkeeping understudy at Real Salt Lake stepped in and turned in a Rimando-like effort against Sporting Kansas City, making a handful of top-quality saves to post a shutout in Saturday's 0-0 tie against the defending MLS Cup champion.
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- English Premier League
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- Columbus Crew