Costello: We're not in Europe
This month, we're forgoing the tradition of leading with a number in the interest of actually getting this column done. Instead, I want to draw attention to a more subjective trend that I've been noticing more and more throughout MLS. Those of you who know me know that I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about soccer with people, whether that's online, at games or at the smattering of soccer-friendly bars around the city. One recurring theme among these conversations is how Major League Soccer compares to leagues in Europe. Everyone loves trying to guess how the Fire would fare in, say, the English First Division, or planning a trajectory where the league is on par with the Bundesliga in Germany.
With regard to the former, you have to figure that the travel would stink - not my joke, but I don't remember who to give either credit or blame - but the second is both intriguing and wrong-headed. Not wrong-headed in that we shouldn't aspire to be a top league in the world, but it's putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Put simply - we're not in Europe. And I don't mean that in the dismissive fashion that often follows silly comments about how we should have promotion and relegation or wear sponsor logos front and center on our uniforms.
The immediate goal, and it's one we seem to be rapidly approaching, is that MLS needs to be the dominant league in our neck of the woods before we can ask for a seat at the table of the world's elite. By my count, 8 out of 10 teams in the league have players from CONCACAF countries, with New England and Dallas being the two holdouts. The MetroStars are leading this charge, with Honduras, Trinidad and Jamaica represented. The Fire had three "Reggae Boyz" before trading 2004 draft pick Khari Stephenson to Kansas City. Of course, you also have Guatemalan Carlos Ruiz, widely regarded as the most dangerous striker in the league. "El Pescadito," (Little Fish) demonstrates that we're becoming a big fish in CONCACAF.
What about the Mexican League? I said "a" big fish, not "the" big fish, and the vagaries of how Mexican "futbol" works makes it difficult to imagine MLS becoming a hot destination for Mexican players. Then again, Chivas USA may help change that. Will the players Jorge Vergara introduces to the league spread to other teams via trades, or will he try to keep his player turnover isolated from the rest of the league? If the former, the controversial decision to add an American version of the Mexican squad could pay off in ways other than just expanding the fan base, if not the geographical footprint. It expands the talent in the league to include all the heavy hitters from Central America on up to Canada, and that's clearly a big step forward.
The history of the league is littered with Central American players, so why is this notable now? In the past, MLS has focused a lot of its international recruiting effort on finding "name" players from the region in some sort of universal bargain bin. What seems different in 2004 is that the influx of CONCACAF players is much younger. Carlos Ruiz is 24. Damani Ralph is 23. Cornel Glen is 22. Even Amado Guevara is only 28. The notion that MLS is a league where young players from throughout North and Central America would like to ply their trade is an encouraging one, even if it is only as a springboard to a bigger pond across the pond.
From this point of view, the rule change that created the "transitional international" designation seems to be a resounding success, as it has introduced a mechanism for more of these young players to enter the league, and these young players - both from within CONCACAF and beyond - are helping improve the level of play by leaps and bounds. Last year saw American youth served throughout the league with standout seasons from young guys like Logan Pause, Pat Noonan, Nat Borchers and Todd Dunivant. This year, we're going to hear more from guys like Fabian Taylor and Cornell Glen, and the net result should be that the word is spreading that this is a strong league.
It's great to want to be up there with Serie A in Italy, and I'm sure league commissioner Don Garber has those aspirations, but MLS is proving that you can think global and act local.
Chris Costello is a contributor to www.chicago-fire.com.