Thursday, October 4, 2012
Is MLS tilting its roster rules too far in favor of foreign players?
By Jeff Carlisle
When MLS began play in 1996, one of the principal beneficiaries was the American player. At last, U.S. players would have a chance to perform every week, improve from the resulting competition, and ultimately strengthen the pool of players for the national team.
That has largely proven to be the case, with 17 of the 23 players on the national team's 2010 World Cup roster having played in MLS at some point in their careers. Yet over the years, the percentage of minutes played by Americans in MLS has steadily decreased. According to statistics compiled by blogger Elijah Miller in an article for MLSSoccer.com, from 2006 to 2011, the percentage of minutes afforded American players fell steadily from 69.97 percent in 2006 to 55.75 percent in 2011, which actually represented a slight uptick from the 2010 mark of 55.15.
Yet in 2012, the numbers have dropped further. Based on statistics available on MLSSoccer.com, ESPN broke down playing time by nationality for the current MLS season, and through Oct. 1, the percentage of minutes played by Americans fell to 52.4 percent. The percentage of minutes played by Canadian players actually rose this season to 3.81 percent, up from 3.27 percent in 2011. Yet when one combines the two numbers, the portion of minutes that went to domestic players fell from 59.03 percent in 2011 to 56.21 percent in 2012.
As a point of clarification, the same methodology that Miller used for identifying the nationality of players is used here. Players are classified using the country that they have played for internationally. This is why New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Bill Gaudette falls into the Puerto Rico bucket as opposed to the United States. If a player has not appeared for a country at any level, then their country of birth is used. This is why Philadelphia's Michael Lahoud falls under Sierra Leone, despite being a U.S. citizen. The same is true for green card holders, even though U.S. labor law requires MLS to consider these permanent residents as domestic players. This approach might strike some as unnecessarily narrow, but it is continued here for the sake of consistency.
The numbers raise a host of questions. In its bid to improve the product on the field, is MLS tilting its roster rules too far in favor of foreign players? Are the numbers simply an outgrowth of expansion, because players who were once deemed not good enough for MLS are now finding spots on league rosters, requiring more foreign players to pick up the slack in terms of quality? And what are the implications for the U.S. national team?
On the surface, the decline isn't a positive for the U.S. team. If the current 2012 percentages continue for the remainder of the season, the raw number of minutes that Americans played in 2012 will actually decrease from last season, despite 2012 being an expansion year. That's not a good development if you're U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann. The more minutes Americans get, the deeper the player pool becomes, although how much the decline will directly impact the performance of the national team is difficult to quantify. The decrease won't cost the U.S. any games in the immediate future.
But during a conference call with reporters last April, Klinsmann was asked what he thought of the trend of Americans getting a lower percentage of available minutes in MLS. Predictably, he didn't like what the data had to say, even though at the time of asking the information only went up to the 2011 season.
"That's definitely a concern," he said. "That's definitely a topic that we want to bring up with [Commissioner] Don Garber and MLS because we want to make sure that, especially the younger group of players, that they get as much exposure as possible coming through the developmental stage. I know that an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old is not at the same level as an experienced player … but we have to make sure they get the chance to break through. They need the chance to get their minutes in … It's definitely worth a discussion going forward."
(An MLS source indicated that to his knowledge, Klinsmann hasn't raised the issue with Garber or anyone else in MLS.)
Granted, numbers can be crunched in all manner of ways. MLS executive vice president of competition and player relations Todd Durbin countered that thanks to expansion, the number of U.S.-born players making 10 or more appearances has steadily increased over the years, reaching a high of 177 in 2011, although the number is down a bit this year to 164 with a month left in the regular season. As a consequence, the falling percentages related to playing time isn't a concern for Durbin.
"From our vantage point, the most important thing we need to be doing right now, is to be doing everything that we can to get the best product on the field," he said. "We don't view it as U.S.-eligible national team players and non-U.S. eligible national team players. We view it from the perspective of, ‘What's the best way to get the best quality talent on the field given our resources?' And as a follow on to that, we view it as the best thing for the American player is to play in the highest quality league possible. That's what is going to make those players better, make them more competitive internationally."
That assumes that U.S. players will continue to get on the field, however, and perhaps the broader issue is one of overall player development in the U.S. and Canada rather than one of MLS policy.
To that end, MLS is rightly lauded for player development initiatives such as the Reserve League and the youth academies of its teams. But there is little to stop teams from taking the path of the Vancouver Whitecaps, who have allocated just 27.3 percent of the available minutes to American and Canadian players in 2012. This isn't a criticism of manager Martin Rennie per se. He and other managers are obliged to construct their rosters as they see fit under the rules that MLS specifies. And some have been aggressive in using U.S. labor laws to their advantage.
"It's a unique employment situation here in the U.S., in that once a player comes here and gets his green card, he's considered an American to an extent," said Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid. "That doesn't happen as quickly in other countries.
"Also, over the years, you've had more players like a Steve Zakuani, Danny Mwanga, Darlington Nagbe; [foreign] players that have gone to college here and decided to pursue their professional career here afterwards. Andy Rose on our team is another good example. I think there are more of those players than there were 10 years ago."
The situation boils down to whether MLS should take a more "protectionist" stance for its domestic players or to simply let the competitive cauldron do what it will and leave the likes of Klinsmann to hope that enough of players break through to benefit the national team. For now the status quo is sufficient, and perhaps in time the academies will bear more fruit and tilt the numbers in the other direction. But MLS should remain wary. If the percentage of playing time for American players continues to fall, it is bound to negatively impact U.S. national team at some point. Given the symbiotic relationship between MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation, such a development would be bad for all involved.
More number crunching: In looking at each team's breakdown of playing time by nationality, one thing is clear. There are many ways to construct a winning roster. D.C. United – likely to be a playoff team thanks to a recent surge - had the highest percentage of minutes dedicated to American and Canadian players at 72.53 percent. New England, who has endured a brutal season, was second at 71.6 percent. Supporters Shield leader San Jose was fourth with 68.58 percent, while Sporting Kansas city, tops in the Eastern Conference,was 14th at 52.84 percent.
At the bottom of the rankings, Portland was second behind Vancouver with just 38.05 percent of the available minutes going to American and Canadian players. New York, long held up as an example of preferring foreign over domestic talent, allocated 39.92 percent to domestic players.
In terms of the breakdown by nation, there was little change in the top 10 from 2011, with Honduras checking in at No. 9 in place of Ghana. After the U.S., Colombia had the second highest percentage at 6.01, followed by Canada (3.81), Jamaica (3.74), and Brazil (3.72). Those numbers represent an increase over 2011 for all four of those countries.