One goal from Thomas Muller and an entire nation began to cry. Only down one goal and with 78 minutes left to play, one German strike was enough to bring men, women, and children alike to tears. Just the prospect of having to consider defeat was unbearable, an emotional reaction to soccer many in this country would find unfathomable.
The United States’ loss to Belgium almost two weeks earlier came with no tears to be found. There was no dirge for the end of DaMarcus Beasley’s career, no inquest for why Jurgen didn’t get the team to at least where we were in 2002 and no public excoriation for the disappointing play of Michael Bradley.
Instead, it was raving about the wonderful play of 21-year-old DeAndre Yedlin, and the goal of 19-year-old Julian Green. It was the quintessential “we’ll get ‘em next year” sort of response, always focusing on the next big thing and not the haunting disappointment of the past. Always about the sell of what’s next.
In the week since the end of the World Cup, Bayern Munich has launched an American specific website (now selling Julian Green jerseys!), Yedlin has been the subject of seven-figure transfer fees to European based clubs, and members of the US starting lineup Graham Zusi and Matt Besler have signed contracts to stay in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.
Each move is a million-dollar move. It remains to be seen if these moves were also about soccer. Bayern is following the model of clubs in England that have used the US as a revenue stream for years. For example, Manchester United is due to play in a sold-out football stadium in Ann Arbor. Major League Soccer has weird rules where only three players are allowed to make more than a $387,500 salary (Designated Players), which will require Yedlin to move outside the United States to make a salary commensurate with a perceived future superstar. Zusi and Besler’s deal are more complex, and, I think they elucidate the challenges of soccer in the United States.
Both players received interest from better and better-paying European clubs. Zusi has a great work rate, and is willing to help defend. He offered a wonderful corner to John Brooks to beat Ghana. Unfortunately, his pass completion rate of 79% and 10% accurate cross rate were in the lowest third among players in the US’s group. The midfielder’s inability to consistently cross at the international level or make combination play, underline a player who is ill suited to an offensive-minded system.
Zusi represents a classic mistake of the American game, overpaying for talent. This is not a problem unique to soccer, but in a league where your ability to spend is artificially limited like no other sport, its impact is devastating. It’s as if the NBA had a rule where a team could only have one max contract, and every team picked either Kobe or Tristan Thompson to fill that spot.
Matt Besler is a different case. His passing rate of 87.4% and interception rate of 2.3 per game signal a Centerback capable of reading the game very well. A year and a half younger than Zusi, Besler has the potential to remain near his peak past the 2018 World Cup. He apparently received offers from Sunderland and Fulham and those advances were rejected by Besler. Besler is by no means a complete centerback, his tackle rate, among the lowest in Group G show deficiencies on the physical side. Besler’s rejection of a move to England demonstrates a complacency that permeates American soccer culture. Whether it is Freddy Adu being handed starts at 16, Landon Donovan spending an entire career in Los Angeles, or the continued reliance on college soccer, Americans have bred a soccer culture of good enough. America’s best players aren’t forced to compete for minutes because there isn’t the talent in MLS.
Besler could and probably would succeed in the Premier League. Geoff Cameron has earned every minute of playing time at Stoke City, and is becoming a fan favorite. However, Besler could also fall flat on his face. There are risks with moving to Europe, Michael Parkhurst being a cautionary tale. Parkhurst had a successful run in the Champions League, only to see his career stall out at Augsberg in the Bundesliga. Desperate for playing time, he joined Columbus Crew earlier this year, and now makes a fraction of what Besler does.
Matt Besler is an MLS all-star quality defender, but he’s not an elite player. Staying in Kansas City will make that the book on Besler. His physical play could improve, and his failure to go to the most physical league in the world will only highlight those deficiencies. His new contract builds the narrative that playing time, not competition matters. The chance to test your skills against the best is less important than the financial side of the game.
Graham Zusi will forever be remembered for his goal that sent Mexico to the World Cup. Matt Besler will remain a fan favorite and top performer. Unfortunately, whether it is Kaka, David Villa, or Jermaine Defoe, Designated Player spots have become opportunities to monetize the game, not improve the game on the field. MLS has engaged in the ultimate deal with the devil. MLS has sacrificed developing the stars of the 2022 World Cup, for the immediacy of bringing in names familiar to a younger, FIFA Soccer-savvy generation.
The United States doesn’t need to win a World Cup; our fan base doesn’t demand success on that level. Chris Wondolowski will not live in infamy for his miss against Belgium. Lionel Messi will forever walk in Maradona’s shadow because he didn’t win a World Cup. Passion flows for an American team that can be respected and monetized, not one that can dominate.
Soccer is an outlier in this country; it is the only sport where the highest level of competition is not American. Unless that changes, the United States will not win a World Cup. Despite the disappointment of the US team, ratings for the World Cup final were the highest ever, MLS crowds are growing, and soccer awareness is on the rise. All of this means bigger TV contracts, more hype for Julian Green, and new MLS franchises. MLS has learned from the big American sports how to make money, now they just have to learn how to win, or round of 16 collapses will just have to be good enough.