The Throw-In: MLS' fingerprints are all over New Zealand – but should they be?

Throw-In Lochhead

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Action Photos

While something like 99.99 percent* (math not verified) of the American soccer-loving public has been glued to Mexico’s World Cup qualification near-flameout, a very select group has been tuned to those other guys El Tri are facing in their playoff.

And Major League Soccer’s New Zealand contingent isn’t exactly pleased after last week’s 5-1 first-leg loss in Mexico City.

“You can’t play scared like that,” says World Cup veteran and longtime MLSer Simon Elliott, now working in the LA Galaxy youth system. “I don’t care where you’re playing or who it’s against.”

“I think the leadership of that team needs to take a good hard look at itself,” adds Portland Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson.

“It’d be such a shame to waste all that goodwill from 2010,” offers Columbus Crew lifer Duncan Oughton, now an assistant to former All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen at Toronto FC.

It’s not surprising to see these guys so invested in their national team. New Zealand has made big strides over the past decade, advancing into the world stage. The 2010 All Whites squad will go down in history as the second-ever to reach a World Cup, and the only team in South Africa that went through the entire tournament undefeated.

But look a little closer, and there’s a special interest from Kiwis who have been involved in Major League Soccer over the years. The league – and the American college system – has done more to advance the game back home than anywhere outside of New Zealand. Perhaps even more.

Besides an intrepid dozen Kiwis who have played in MLS, another three dozen young hopefuls have spent time in American colleges playing soccer, looking to advance their careers.

That’s because the opportunities back home aren’t great. New Zealand’s population – 4.2 million – is about the same as that of Kentucky. Its domestic league is amateur, though it does have one professional club – the Wellington Phoenix – that competes in Australia’s A-League.

What that means is, to be a professional soccer player, you either take your chances of making it in the A-League, be among the select few that are talented enough to get picked up by a European academy, or hope to maximize your development by applying to an American university and chancing it in MLS.

That’s how Elliott and Nelsen (at right, during the 2004 MLS Cup final) made it as the Kiwi trailblazers in American soccer. Both rose to prominence at Stanford University in the late 1990s, lured there by former New Zealand national team coach Bobby Clark. That led to successful runs in MLS for both players, and helped both make the jump to the English Premier League. That duo cracked the door open for other New Zealanders to follow.

“Education is very important for New Zealanders,” Wilkinson explained to MLSsoccer.com. “The United States is seen as a very logical next step. To get over here and actually use the college system as a stepping stone is a huge leg up. It gives you a professional environment to develop in and every advantage to make it.”

Besides Elliott, Nelsen and Oughton, the list of New Zealanders who found their way into MLS after playing in American colleges include Andrew Boyens, Tony Lochhead (pictured at top in last week's first leg in Mexico), Cameron Knowles, Jarrod Smith, Michael Boxall and Dan Keat. Each has featured in the national team set-up at multiple age levels.

And that effect has proliferated with prominent Kiwis in decision-making positions in MLS. Nelsen is the most visible as the most accomplished player in New Zealand’s soccer history. At Toronto FC, he and Oughton have an eye on any available Kiwi talent that could help the club with a price tag that makes sense under MLS’ salary cap.

“I’ll put it this way, it’s easy scouting,” laughs Oughton to MLSsoccer.com. “We’re always keeping an eye on them. There are so many good players coming through.”

That includes Wellington Phoenix winger and national-teamer Jeremy Brockie (at right), who had a mostly successful loan spell for Toronto over the summer while the A-League was on break. Brockie could be back in Ontario next season, says Oughton, “if the timing and finances are right.”

Wilkinson has a similar advantage in Portland, where he concluded his own professional career in the Timbers’ USL days. He brought over Olympic team veteran Ian Hogg for a spell last summer as cover at the left back spot, and also scouted and claimed Jake Gleeson in 2010 when the Timbers’ current No. 3 goalkeeper was a teenager.

Not that Nelsen or Wilkinson are giving any preference to their countrymen. But they are clearly aware that they have a unique platform to directly contribute to and effect how New Zealand is developing its own talent.

“It’s an opportunity [for us to help],” Wilkinson explains to MLSsoccer.com. “For instance, a Colombian coach may bring in Colombian players – he’ll always get an early sign that a good player is coming through the system. But it’s the responsibility of the federation and us to have a dialogue.”

And that, says Wilkinson, is a disconnect that he feels a big responsibility to repair. He offers Gleeson as an example of talent that’s being overlooked. The 23-year-old hasn’t been called to the national team in more than a year, and according to Wilkinson, neither he nor the young netminder have received so much as a phone call from the federation to check in on his progress.

“He may be our third ’keeper, but I’d rate him higher than what I saw the other night,” Wilkinson says in a not-so-subtle shot at Glen Moss, who did himself no favors in the 5-1 rout at Estadio Azteca. “They don’t know how good he is and they have no idea how he’s doing. The depth in New Zealand is not great enough for players to be ignored.”

All this, of course, raises another interesting question: Should MLS be this involved in the development of the game for a country that is one-third of the way around the globe? Absolutely, say Wilkinson and Oughton: The United States, Canada and MLS at large offer soccer infrastructure that New Zealand hasn’t developed yet.

Elliott, however, isn’t so sure.

“The game back home has its own challenges to overcome,” he says. “We shouldn’t have to rely on MLS to help us. For individual players, yes, it makes sense. But we’ve got to do a better job cultivating our own and giving them a place to play without making them feel like they need to go thousands of miles away.”

Come the wee hours of Wednesday morning in Wellington, Mexico will likely finish the job, and the All Whites will break camp looking ahead to qualifying for Russia 2018. A lot of that future will be uncertain as New Zealand Football mulls how to do that with the limited funds at its disposal.

In the meantime, Kiwis will continue to be welcomed here.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com