JOHANNESBURG – The US probably aren't a contender to win the World Cup this summer, as was the supposed goal of the United States Soccer Federation’s “Project 2010” initiative 12 years ago.
But for everything accomplished since then – qualifying for every World Cup since, three Olympic golds for the US Women’s National Team, and hosting multiple CONCACAF Gold Cups and two Women’s World Cups – there is one thing to which USSF president Sunil Gulati directly points.
The sustained, steady success of Major League Soccer.
“Everything that has happened in the last 15 years, MLS is absolutely essential to that,” Gulati told reporters at US base camp on Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the league’s development and growth is directly linked to the success of the national team.”
Thirteen of the 19 players on the US roster who play for foreign clubs got their starts in MLS, a record high proportion for an American World Cup squad. A further four currently play for MLS teams.
In fact, MLS representatives by far outnumber those in the squad who came up through the IMG Soccer Academy residence program in Bradenton, Fla., one of the biggest initiatives of Project 2010.
Many, such as Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Jonathan Bornstein, all graduated from the program in addition to spending time in MLS. But much-hyped Bradenton alums such as Freddy Adu, Eddie Johnson, Bobby Convey and Robbie Rogers are equally notable by their absences in South Africa.
“When you see here players like Landon, [Oguchi Onyewu] and Beasley that have come through that, I’m pleased,” Gulati said. “But I don’t pat ourselves on the back too much. If you take all of your players and then put them in a training environment and a lot of good players come out of it, that doesn’t mean that much.”
However, the sustained growth of the game over the last 20 years in the US, with MLS a central piece of the puzzle, has had a huge effect.
According to Gulati, everything from two MLS teams winning the CONCACAF title to David Beckham’s impact has helped the league grow in both stature and recognition, and that in turn has graduated more talent to the USMNT.
“We have a league that’s 15 years old,” Gulati asserted. “There aren’t many leagues in the world that have developed so quickly. No one in our organization ... says MLS is at the standard of the Premier League or La Liga or Serie A or the Bundesliga and so on. But in 15 years, it’s come a long way.”
MLSsoccer.com managing editor Jonah Freedman is reporting on the World Cup from South Africa all this month.