The aftermath of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World cup has turned into one giant blame game. Many want to blame the players, others put the blame on Bruce Arena, and most people agree that USSF President Sunil Gulati needs to take the fall and resign from his position. Quite frankly, all parties deserve a great deal of blame. However, the biggest threat to U.S. Soccer moving forward as it pertains to not fixing what went wrong during this World Cup cycle is MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
Garber has his hands in every soccer-centric cookie jar in the United States, and for fans of the national team, that’s a problem. Not only is Garber MLS Commissioner, but he is also a USSF board member, which means he has influence with regard to Gulati’s role within U.S. Soccer.
Garber is also the CEO of United Soccer Marketing, a company partnered with the USSF that has the exclusive global marketing rights for North (CONCACAF) and South American (CONMEBOL) national teams. Garber’s involvement in all of these different roles is an obvious conflict of interest, and as a result, the national team has suffered.
To put it simply, MLS and the U.S. Men’s National Team are mutually exclusive. What’s best for one is not always going to be what’s best for the other. This makes it impossible for Garber to effectively serve in important roles for both MLS and the USSF. Based on recent history, Garber values MLS over the national team, and that has hurt the latter.
“My sole goal here is to do what’s best for Major League Soccer and do as much as I can to improve the sport in the U.S. and Canada.”
The one thing that will make the national team better, more than anything else, is having better players on the field and a deeper player pool. One of the best ways to do that is to have more American players, specifically the top American players, playing in the top European leagues. Of course, that’s not what is going to be best for Garber and MLS.
When players like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley left Europe and returned to MLS, it was spectacular news for the league. However, former national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann was outspoken in being opposed to those players leaving Europe, and he was right. While they continued to be among the best players on the national team, their performance reached a plateau when they weren’t being challenged in a top European league. Bradley’s performance at the 2014 World Cup speaks for itself as a player who was clearly not at the top of his game after moving back to MLS.
“Sending a negative message to any player — and obviously to U.S. players — that signing with MLS isn’t going to be good for their career or good for their form is incredibly detrimental to MLS.”
During Klinsmann’s time as national team coach, he and Garber clashed very publicly about Klinsmann’s player selection. Garber was critical of Klinsmann for not selecting MLS standouts. The MLS Commissioner claimed he was merely a fan expressing his opinion. But when you’re on the USSF board, you are not a fan expressing an opinion, you are someone in a position of power higher than the head coach who’s making player decisions. That’s nothing if not a conflict of interest. More importantly, Garber’s comments in defense of players who moved back to MLS undermined the national team head coach.
“I think it’s great if people have their opinion out there, that they express that opinion. But I think before they express their opinion they should give me a call and ask what is really going on. Because a lot of people mention their thoughts without even knowing what is really going on.”
To be fair, MLS is a fine league. Garber has done a truly amazing job growing the league and growing soccer in the United States. But a team composed primarily of MLS players is never going to challenge for a World Cup trophy. A team composed primarily of MLS players couldn’t even get a point against Trinidad & Tobago.
There was undoubtedly a boost when the league first formed in the 1990s, and a run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup is evidence of that. But MLS has taken the national team as far as it can go, and now it’s doing more harm than good.
The proof is in the pudding. Aside from reaching the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup, the highlight of Klinsmann’s time as U.S. coach was a semi-final appearance in the 2016 Copa America Centenario. That run was possible because of a strong performance from the backline of DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, and Fabian Johnson, as well as goalie Brad Guzan. At the time of the tournament, all five were playing in Europe.
“Our picture is the global picture. We need to know what England, Germany, and Spain are doing in Europe, and then Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay are doing in South America. But our benchmarks are international.
“So for a lot of people they define their world domestically, which is totally cool. They should think maybe a little bit more before saying things from the outside about the national team program.”
For further evidence, look at the most promising American players who were part of the qualifying failure but figure to be important during the next World Cup cycle. Yedlin, Bobby Wood, and Christian Pulisic are all under 25, all started the last two qualifying matches, and all play in top European leagues.
If the national team is going to recover from this disaster and return to the next World Cup in 2022 with vengeance, they need more players like Yedlin, Wood, and Pulisic, and that means players who are being challenged every day in training and every week in games in top European leagues.
There’s no reason for MLS and its fans to be insulted by this assessment. The league is still an important part of developing young talent. But moving forward, a majority of the national team players need to be playing their club soccer in Europe, and those who aren’t shouldn’t be part of the national team.
Garber is clearly opposed to that, which is understandable in his role as MLS Commissioner. But because he is also associated with the USSF, there is a huge conflict of interest and a serious problem for U.S. Soccer.
It’s time to acknowledge that MLS and the U.S. Men’s National Team are mutually exclusive. MLS wants to keep the best American players, but the national team needs those players applying their trade in superior leagues in Europe.
With Garber closely tied to both organizations but clearly in favor of MLS growth, he is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the national team taking a negative and turning it into a positive. If you care about the men’s national team, Garber is public enemy no. 1.