For all of the energy and all of the sweat equity American coaches, investors and players have poured into MLS to develop players for the greater tasks ahead, the primary benefits at the international level are now derived somewhat further north than they originally anticipated.
That particular assessment isn't to say that MLS doesn't help the U.S. national team in its own way by cultivating young American players and moving them onwards. It is, however, to say that it sure seems to help Canada a whole lot more these days.
Take, for instance, the damp squib of a Canadian Soccer Association centennial celebration offered up by the friendly neighbors in a 0-0 draw in Toronto last night.
U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann quite rightly continues to pick his starting XI from a group of players operating out of leagues with a higher standard of play than MLS. Klinsmann's selection in Ontario included just one MLS player (Los Angeles' Landon Donovan) from the outset and featured just one more domestic star off the bench (San Jose's Chris Wondolowski). As the Musings discussed a few weeks ago, these are not halcyon days for the domestic league in the American national setup.
A quick glance at the lineup named by Canadian coach Stephen Hart reveals a far greater reliance on American- and Canadian-based options. Houston defender André Hainault partnered captain Kevin McKenna in central defense with veteran Chivas USA left back Ante Jazić on the outside. Julian de Guzman (Toronto FC) and Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake) featured in the midfield setup, while D.C. United talisman Dwayne De Rosario nominally featured on the left side in the 4-2-3-1.
Injuries to key players – including regular left back Marcel de Jong (ankle) and influential midfielders Atiba Hutchinson (left knee) and Josh Simpson (broken leg) – have prompted Hart to insert the likes of Jazić and Johnson into the starting XI, but the ample reliance on MLS players – including squad players Dejan Jaković (D.C. United) and Ashtone Morgan (Toronto FC) – stems from other factors as well.
In stark contrast to Klinsmann's array of choices from top tier leagues, Hart doesn't have the luxury of calling upon players from the upper levels of European football. Only de Jong (FC Augsburg), McKenna (FC Köln) and striker Simeon Jackson (Norwich City) played in one of the top five leagues in Europe this season. Former New York draftee Olivier Occean (SpVgg Greuther Fürth) will presumably join the elite after finishing as joint top scorer in the 2. Bundesliga and leading his side to promotion last season, but Köln's recent relegation may ensure the current group remains at three for the moment.
(Note: Everyone in the Canadian setup would like to add the recently relegated duo of Blackburn Rovers winger Junior Hoilett and Villarreal midfielder Jonathan de Guzman to the mix, but neither player has accepted Hart's repeated entreaties to suit up for the national side. Hoilett, however, did take in the friendly against the U.S. Also, if someone with a Canadian passport or any semblance of Canadian heritage could display a proclivity for polishing off chances in the final third with regularity at the highest level, that player would be welcomed into the squad with open arms.)
Aside from those three players, the currently viable options in the player pool earn their wages from clubs in a somewhat underwhelming and surprisingly eclectic set of destinations. Those employers ranges from storied clubs in solid leagues (Hutchinson's PSV Eindhoven) to respectable sides in respectable leagues (Simpson plays in Switzerland, while Milan Borjan [though on loan at Vaslui in Romania this season] and Mike Klukowski are based in Turkey) to the usual array of English and German lower-league sides and Scandinavian outfits to far-flung locales like the A-League (Issey Nakajima-Farran suits up for all-conquering Brisbane Roar) and the Portuguese second division (Pedro Pacheco at CD Santa Clara)
From the range of choices on offer in that particular distribution, MLS stands out as one of the better competitions and one of the most suitable venues on the list. The presence of three Canadian teams theoretically provides more opportunities for talented Canadian players to secure regular first-team action (though Patrice Bernier might have a word or two to say about his chances to impress in Montréal these days and there are still plenty of discussions about a quota system north of the border), while American sides have time and again turned to Canadian players who meet the requisite standard.
MLS provides a helpful home for Canadian players preparing for international duty because it ingrains certain necessary traits for CONCACAF play and offers regular match action at a decent level of play. Other nations have also relied upon MLS in this manner – Jamaica immediately springs to mind, while Guatemala and El Salvador supply two other examples – over the years to provide a reliable home for their regulars as well, but no country (outside from the U.S.) can suggest that its approach dovetails quite as neatly.
If last night's friendly offers any reliable indication, then MLS has done fairly well by this side. Most of the principles often on display in a MLS match – commitment, determination, energy and organization, for starters – were employed by the blue-clad Canadians. Most of the players did their part to implement Hart's pragmatic game plan, too: Hainault looked defiant in central defense, de Guzman and Johnson both toiled earnestly to negate the fatigued Americans in midfield and De Rosario roamed around to cause some havoc as usual. It was, on the whole, the type of dogged performance the U.S. has cobbled together to succeed against supposedly superior opponents for a couple of decades now.
Much of the talk surrounding the U.S. these days focuses on the continued evolution away from those stolid showings under Klinsmann. This particular regime plans to eschew some of the fundamental principles that have yielded success in the past in favor of a more aspirational and technical style of play designed to increase the country's stature in world football. Those sorts of goals have prompted Klinsmann to scour Germany and Mexico for talent and shun the vast majority of domestic players pressing for a place in the setup.
The perpetually promising Canadians have not yet reached the point where their objectives outstrip the benefits MLS can supply. If the Canadians want to mount a viable challenge for their first World Cup bid since 1986, then they will do so on the backs of players like de Guzman, De Rosario and Hainault (among several others) and on the coattails of the pragmatic principles often deployed to secure results in MLS play.
A league that once spurred the Americans onwards at the international level now exerts a more influential role upon the Canadian setup. The current state of affairs isn't quite what the founders had in mind when they laid the plans for an American top flight nearly 20 years ago, but the quibbles on both sides of the border about the arrangement won't matter much if Canada manages to find its way to Brazil in two years' time.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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