When Major League Soccer was founded in 1993 and, indeed, when it kicked off in 1996, the underlying intention was very much to advance the American game. In fact, FIFA had awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States with the stipulation that it had to get a new professional domestic league up and running.
MLS owes its existence at least in part to the notion that American soccer had to get better. And that in order for the game to progress stateside, it needed a league.
On the eve of the 23rd MLS season, that idea still lingers. It remains widely held that MLS bears some responsibility for the health of the American game. Because it exists, after all, for the express purpose of aiding the sport here, of giving Americans a place to play. Or it did originally, anyway.
So that begs the question: what responsibility does MLS still have toward the sport as a whole? And, more practically, is it obligated to act in the best interests of the national team program — the manifestation of the domestic game on the global stage?
And is that especially true now that the senior men’s national team program begins rebuilding after failing to reach the 2018 World Cup?
Some argue that the league should only be beholden to the quality of play on the field — not the nationality of the players partaking. “I think that the roster restrictions limiting international players should just go away altogether … MLS is a business,” FOX Soccer analyst Alexi Lalas said on his State of the Union podcast. “I’ve never believed that it ever had any inherent responsibility to the domestic player or the national team. The truth is, in 2018, international imported talent sells. That’s the reality.”
Lalas figures it’s incumbent on the domestic player to force his way through, rather than being assured of a spot through some mandate sent down from above.
And it’s hard to argue with that. Mandated spots means lesser quality, necessarily, than organic competition. After all, if the Americans really were the best, they’d play even in an open and unadulterated fight for playing time.
It’s the line of reasoning essentially taken by default in the English Premier League, where the economic success of the circuit as a whole has cannibalized English youth. That is to say, the league got so rich and had so few constraints on importing foreign players — if they can get a work permit, which is admittedly tricky, there are no caps at all — that they quickly crowded out domestic youth products.
This has resulted in far fewer minutes going to English players in the top circuit. It’s also made the league better. In the last two decades, the EPL has arguably become the most competitive league in the world, in large part because the majority of the best players are active there. Not all of them, by any means, but there’s probably a bigger concentration of elite talent in England than anywhere else.
So what effect does that have? It means minutes are hard to come by for everybody. And it means fewer opportunities for young players to break through — namely, the academy products who are for the most part English. It also means that those who do make it, like Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane and Dele Alli, for instance, are in a more competitive environment, ultimately benefiting their progression and their national team.
There is a smaller base of English players seeing regular action in the Premier League for national team manager Gareth Southgate to choose from. But that shallower pool of talent plays in a better league.
Mexico’s Liga MX faced the same dilemma and tried to come up with a compromise. Its old limitation of five foreigners was easily circumvented by the acquisition of Mexican citizenship after just two years. So it come up with a 10/8 rule in 2016, amended to 9/9 last year. It offers nine gameday roster spots for foreigners, but also reserves nine for players who became Mexican citizens before their 18th birthday, protecting Mexico’s youth products.
It’s too early to tell what the effects of these regulations will be. The league has made some increasingly impressive foreign captures of late, while its national team’s program has also tapped into a rich vein of young talent. Yet there is a precedent. From 2005 through 2011, Liga MX required a minimum number of minutes to go to homegrown players, which was credited with the breakout of several national team starts. There is talk of bringing the rule back for the 2018 Apertura season.
MLS, for its part, grants each team eight international slots, but they are tradable and there is no maximum. There is also no rule requiring a minimum of involvement from homegrown players, although much investment has been made and encouraged in mandatory youth academies and the league offers salary cap discounts, of sorts, for players developed at the club.
There’s a youth movement happening in MLS anyway, as the league has veered dramatically away from its once-successful formula of signing aging European stars. The league says the batch of off-season signings by its 23 teams this winter had an average age of 24.92 years, the lowest figure in league history. And the most exciting of those players — Atlanta United’s 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco; LAFC’s 19-year-old Diego Rossi; NYCFC’s 20-year-old Jesus Medina — are even younger than that average. Yet about half of those 89 new players have already made debuts for their senior national teams, underscoring the injection of high-level young talent.
Still, if MLS created some rule to aid the U.S. — and Canadian — national team, a larger pool of potential national teamers would be empowered to develop with real playing time, albeit perhaps at a slightly lower playing level. But with the quality of imported players rising, a higher level of play also benefits young Americans — just fewer of them.
It’s a vexing trade-off. MLS is getting younger, providing opportunities for talent no longer stuck behind expensive brand name players who have to play for marketing and monetary reasons. Should it feel obligated to create more avenues for homegrown talent to develop than it already does? Or is its mandate and moral duty to the domestic game met merely by existing?
Should the league take an active role in stocking the next incarnation of the U.S. national team?
For a possible answer, perhaps look at how England fares at the 2018 World Cup. Or see how the talent level of Mexico’s senior national team correlates to the rule changes it has enacted in Liga MX.
But even those models are imperfect for the differing circumstances. So the best MLS can hope to do is thread the needle between providing opportunities for national team prospects while serving its own interests by putting out the best product it can.
All we can do is hope those two things eventually overlap into a perfectly round Venn diagram.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.