Print and Go Back ESPN.com: World Cup 2010 [Print without images]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010
U.S. connection helps New Zealand

By Brent Latham
Special to ESPN.com

As labor strife threatens to disrupt the start of the 2010 MLS season, limiting crucial game time for a handful of national team players, Bob Bradley probably has one eye on the bargaining table. But if you think the American is the only World Cup-bound coach with a stake in the negotiations, you may be surprised to find out otherwise.

It turns out Bradley has some company halfway around the world. From his post across the Pacific Ocean, Ricki Herbert may have a more profound interest in labor peace in America than anyone in the history of New Zealand, because when his team kicks off the World Cup against Slovakia on June 15, the All-Whites' lineup could feature even more MLS players than Bradley's.

Consider that when the U.S. lined up for its friendly against the Netherlands in Amsterdam earlier this month, the starting 11 included just two current MLS players. In Los Angeles later that day, New Zealand fielded an MLS pair of its own against Mexico. But that outing actually marked a low ebb in terms of American exposure for the Kiwis, whose national program's development in recent years has depended to a surprising extent on the American soccer scene.

Ryan Nelsen
New Zealand captain Ryan Nelsen played at Stanford before moving to MLS and the EPL.

For a distant country of just over 4 million people, New Zealand is flush with players with American ties. The national team features Simon Elliott of the San Jose Earthquakes and Andrew Boyens of the New York Red Bulls, as well as former New England Revolution defender Tony Lochhead. Columbus Crew defender Duncan Oughton, who featured at last year's Confederations Cup, still hopes to make the World Cup squad, while former Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders forward Jarrod Smith received a few caps last year before being limited by injury. Even team captain Ryan Nelsen made his name at DC United before a successful move to the English Premier League.

Such a large contingent of New Zealanders with MLS experience seems strange on the surface, until you find the common denominator -- the American university system. The attraction of American colleges, which provide the chance for a young, English-speaking soccer player to develop his talent while getting an education, has been bringing New Zealanders across the ocean for more than a decade. The best of those players graduate to MLS and the country's national team, providing a path for young Kiwi soccer players that has played an unsung role in the country's first World Cup berth in nearly three decades.

"Up until the mid-'90s there weren't a lot of avenues for young New Zealand players, other than toughing it out in the U.K.," said Elliott. "Coming to the States you get to go to college and get a degree. It gives New Zealand guys a couple more years to develop, to get rounded out."

While lower-division English soccer and the emerging Australian A-League provide the most direct option for New Zealanders intent on becoming professionals, college in the U.S. offers an attractive route for those wishing to hedge the long odds of a bet on a pro career. As more players in New Zealand have recognized the benefits of attending American colleges, the trickle has turned into a steady flow. More than two dozen New Zealanders are currently playing for Division I programs across the U.S.

The trend got its start in the mid-'90s when former Scotland international and current Notre Dame men's soccer coach Bobby Clark returned to the U.S. from a stint as head of the New Zealand national team. As the new coach at Stanford, Clark naturally looked to bring over some of the talent he had seen during his time in New Zealand.

"Bobby Clark has to take a lot of the credit for this. He came back and took the job at Stanford and facilitated a lot of players coming over at that stage," said fellow New Zealander Gavin Wilkinson, current coach of the Portland Timbers, who will join MLS next season. "You look at Simon Elliott and Ryan Nelsen, both came to the U.S. because of Bobby Clark."

Both also eventually moved on to play in England. Nelsen has found success at Blackburn Rovers, while Elliott played for a spell at Fulham before returning to MLS for the 2009 season. Those successes paved the way for other New Zealanders. Many young Kiwi soccer players now see college in the U.S. as a stepping stone to MLS, and onwards.

"You see what can be done," said Boyens, who joined MLS in 2007 after three years at the University of New Mexico, "the likes of Ryan and Simon, and even Duncan who's been in MLS for years now. That's viewed as a professional environment and I believe that college is a great stepping stone for that. I would encourage any young New Zealander to do it."

New Zealanders who have spent extended time in MLS say they are frequently contacted by their young countrymen back home for advice about following a similar route. The players say it's a two-way process, with college coaches seeking them out to ask for tips on potential prospects in New Zealand. As the game continues to strengthen on both sides of the ocean, it's likely the influx will continue.

"Going to Europe is not always the easiest path and it doesn't come with the education," Oughton said. "Going to college you have that educational background to fall back on. There's a lot of guys that have come this way, and have played for the national team. The national team's been doing well lately, and you'd have to say it's had a really positive influence."

How far that MLS experience will help take this group in the World Cup remains to be seen. Of the 32 qualifiers, New Zealand tops only South Africa and North Korea in the latest FIFA rankings.

"New Zealand is a small country," said Wilkinson. "Getting to the World Cup in itself is a success. Any result would be new territory for them. A couple of draws would be admirable."

If they do find a way to achieve some level of success in South Africa, it won't be the first time Kiwi soccer players have conquered a land far from their own.

Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.