In his 2000 best-seller of the same name, Malcolm Gladwell defines The Tipping Point as “that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.”
That might be on the verge of happening in Major League Soccer. Many years from now, we may look back at the last six months as the flashpoint when everything shifted.
I’m not talking about MLS’ global profile or the level of its quality. I’m talking about the future. I’m thinking about the kids. I’m thinking of all those young aspiring soccer players across the United States and Canada who are watching closely and who are suddenly getting a very different message of how they’re supposed to dream and what they’re supposed to aspire to.
And that’s one of the many reasons that reports of Michael Bradley’s transfer to Toronto FC (confirmed on Thursday by AS Roma) is sending shockwaves across the footballing landscape in North America. Here, the most important player on the US national team, while still firmly in the prime of his career, is picking MLS over continuing in Europe.
Put that on the back of USMNT captain Clint Dempsey’s similar move five months ago. Add in the fact that homegrown stars Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi all elected to sign long-term deals to stay in MLS instead of leave for Europe.
All of a sudden, the rules are changing. In less than a year, we’ve gone from the spine of the USMNT – Bradley, Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Carlos Bocanegra, Maurice Edu, among others – all playing in Europe to looking ahead to a summer in Brazil in which as many as seven potential starters all ply their trade in MLS.
Yet, not everyone seemed as thrilled by the reports.
It was this tweet on Wednesday by Philadelphia’s Amobi Okugo that most piqued my attention:
Please Bradley... stay overseas we look up to you ...you're one of the few #ambitionispriceless ...but if you do come to philly haha— Amobi Okugo (@amobisays) January 8, 2014
Okugo is the exact prototype of what U.S. Soccer is shooting for. He’s a kid who saw the US’ magical run at the 2002 World Cup and decided that’s what he wanted to do. He zeroed in on Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley & Co. and followed their lead.
That run in Korea/Japan put much of the young US team – and those who came along in the next cycle, like Howard and Bocanegra – on what most would have you believe is the path to glory for young American and Canadian kids. Okugo himself explains it best:
“For me personally, and close friends of mine around the league, that’s who we looked up to when we were coming up,” the 22-year-old midfielder/defender told me. “It all started for them in MLS, and they worked hard – it wasn’t just about immediately going to Europe to a [second-rate] league. They went to legit leagues and kept working.”
And that’s the model for Okugo and players of his generation. Do the work at home, prove you’re good enough to compete at the highest level. Then maybe you’ll get a shot at one of the biggest leagues in Europe, where the competition is supposedly better, the pay is higher and the opportunities – ostensibly – are bigger.
But the past six months have forced many players – and fans and media, too – to ask a simple question: Is that still true?
The answer is not the same for everyone. For every Deuce who busts his derriere and rises through the ranks in England, there are another 20 players like Eddie Johnson, Benny Feilhaber or Ricardo Clark who bounce around Europe only to learn their best fit is back home.
For every Bradley, there are countless Americans and Canadians like Chris Rolfe and Pat Noonan who try their luck in second- or third-tier European leagues and conclude that 1) the experience isn’t what they expected, and 2) they aren’t getting USMNT call-ups anymore.
Things may not change overnight. Youngsters will still aim for overseas leagues to see what they’re made of and how they match up against the most valued players in the world. But if the ultimate goal is to play at the highest international level, the current US national team is proof that you don’t necessarily need to do that.
Major League Soccer still has a lot of catching up to do to completely level the playing field so some kids don’t feel they must go elsewhere to prove themselves and/or make a better living.
But the tipping point may have just occurred. If Bradley joins Dempsey back in MLS and the stream of young homegrown talent continues to flow into MLS clubs instead of overseas, kids will have a new path to follow.
And maybe then Okugo will realize how many kids are looking up to him – because he plays for the Union.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.