A Gentlemen's Discussion of the Potential of Player Dilution

Bruce Bennett

Ahead of announced expansion in MLS, NASL, and USL-Pro in the coming years, Kartik Krishnaiyer thinks the dilution of the player pool is a major problem; I disagree.

Mr. Krishnaiyer is an intelligent guy who normally has pretty solid opinions about soccer, especially the development of the game in this country. The article he posted this morning, however, veers off that course. Beyond omitting the existence of USL's Oklahoma City Energy FC ("USL PRO will between now and 2015 add new teams in Colorado Springs, Sacramento, and incorporate several MLS reserve sides") and a few key typos, his general premise fails even with the employment of questionable rhetorical tactics. You can read the whole story here, but I'll paste key sections before I dissect them.

"The continued push for expansion in American soccer among the three professional leagues is diluting the talent base and arguably making the product less entertaining. This leads directly to the continued inability of MLS to improve its TV ratings among soccer aficionados although one school of thought holds that the more teams, the more interest and the more relevance thus pushing up TV ratings."

Nope.

MLS is scalping the best players from other leagues, sure, but that doesn't have a negative impact on MLS TV ratings. How could it?

There are several possible explanations for the league's low TV ratings (as Jake discussed in-depth last month) but none of them has to do with snapping up talent from the lower divisions.

A lot of guys in the NASL are former fringe MLS players, the guys who wouldn't have even made the bench in roster spots 21-30. Carolina RawilHawks has a veritable aviary of former MLS players: Nick Zimmerman, Ty Shipalane, Julius James, Austin da Luz, Zach Schilawski, and Tim Murray.

Despite the flair of Marcos Senna, the Cosmos title largely came on the back of solid performances by Hunter Freeman, Carlos Mendes, Kyle Reynish, and Danny Szetela. These players all played in MLS for a few years but showed that they were no longer starting 11 material in the top flight. How is this dilution?

As the best players try their luck in MLS, like former Charleston Battery forward Tommy Heinemann, many won't make it at the highest level and end up returning to the second/third divisions. Instead of denigrating MLS quality, this revolving door shows that MLS is indeed able to find enough top-level talent in order to push this type of player down into NASL or USL-Pro.

If you follow lower division soccer at all, you'll notice that most of the offseason news is about player tryouts and combines. This specifically means that NASL and USL-Pro coaches are seeking out players that would not even be on the radar of MLS teams. The local boys just signed by NASL club Indy Eleven (GK Nathan Sprenkel and DF Babe Omosegbon) were never going to be plucked from obscurity for a shot at an MLS roster.

"MLS increased its foreign player limit to 8 per team as this most recent wave of expansion began in 2008. Still, it is not difficult to see how the youth structure in the United States and Canada, often designed to maximize profits and not speedy and efficient player development, is going to cope with the strain of needing to produce substantially more professional players than in past years."

Again, this seems like a nice argument until you start to apply facts. During the 2013 season and its preceding offseason, MLS (all teams combined) signed 25 Homegrown players. The return on investment has also increased, as more of these players are earning significant first-team minutes, which was mentioned in Paul Kennedy's article yesterday on Soccer America. The rise of the HG signing mechanism is not just a way to combat the stagnant development model of the NCAA but also to alleviate the need for more players in the league.

"Not long ago, second division teams could occasionally compete at the same level as MLS clubs in continental competitions and the domestic US Open Cup. However, those days seem to have gone by the wayside as the top second and third division players of the era from 2006 to 2010 now have mostly been integrated in MLS. The poaching of top clubs from the lower divisions to MLS such as Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal has also diluted the talent base from the lower leagues."

Notice how Kartik has to qualify his own claims with the use of the word "occasionally."

He is painting a "Leave it to Beaver"-style mythologized history based on the 2008-09 CONCACAF Champions League campaign and the 1999 U.S. Open Cup.

As second division teams, Montreal Impact was narrowly defeated by Mexican club Santos Laguna in the quarterfinals of the CCL and Puerto Rico Islanders pushed powerhouse Cruz Azul to penalty kicks in the semifinals. The time when second division teams like the Impact or the Islanders can make deep runs in the CONCACAF Champions League is surely over, but that fact is also due to the restructuring of that competition to cushion the larger clubs and the higher prioritization that MLS clubs now give that tournament.

In 1999 the Rochester Rhinos beat 4 MLS teams en route to lifting the U.S. Open Cup trophy; a feat that will likely not happen again. MLS rosters and salaries have been expanded so that when MLS teams come calling on lower division clubs, as the Revolution did in at Sahlen's Stadium on a stormy night in 2013, a largely reserve MLS squad should be able to dismantle a lower division club. However, even with players and scheduling on their side MLS teams don't always win the games against lesser competition.

Depending on how one defines the word "occasionally," his basic claim isn't even true. If occasionally means 6 times in one year, then Kartik is just flat wrong. In the 2013 U.S. Open Cup, Orlando City defeated Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City, Charleston Battery defeated San Jose Earthquakes, Carolina RailHawks defeated Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA, and Tampa Bay Rowdies defeated Seattle Sounders.

Furthermore, I fail to see how MLS teams acquiring players from lower division leagues is note-worthy; this happens in the sport around the world and is the reason why these leagues exist within the identification and development schema. When a player performs well in a second division club, he is often purchased by a bigger club. A couple seasons ago, Kartik's own Manchester City showed this process with the knee-jerk purchase of Adam Johnson from Championship club Middlesbrough in the January 2010 transfer window.

First division clubs should have larger operating budgets and should attract the best players. A talent like Doug Miller would not have a second division career if he turned professional today instead of 20 years ago. At that time, MLS clubs were only 2 or 3 years old and hadn't established themselves as serious teams, let alone the stable top-flight teams they are today.

The absorption of talented players from lower division teams into MLS is not something to spark hand-wringing. Not all the clubs in NASL have the deep pockets of the NY Cosmos to attract MLS utility players and clubs like Orlando City don't pop up everyday, but this just puts a pressure on these clubs to find the necessary players elsewhere.

One of the most effective players for the Rhinos at the tail-end of the 2013 season was Pierre-Rudolph Mayard, a former Canadian youth international winger who hadn't played professionally for two years. A constant presence on the Rhinos' counterattack this past campaign was Rochester native Mike Reidy, who got a sniff from Sporting KC after graduating Colgate University but was never offered a contract.

USL-Pro and NASL clubs have merely shifted their scouting focus to unearth the kind of players that can do the job for them. These clubs are not going to be able to compete with MLS for the biggest American talents of the day, but in what world would that make sense?

Talent dilution, without a flooding influx of foreign players, is a slight concern for MLS as the league adds more teams but the lower division league should be seen as a positive influence in mitigating that phenomenon.

There is one main point to remember while reading Kartik's article, in case you get distracted from the crux of his piece by the strategy of starting each section with an irrefutable fact before jumping to an illogical conclusion; MLS does not compete with NASL and USL-Pro for players! Lower division clubs look elsewhere for talent, which is why these leagues so heavily scout the MLS combine, their own league combines, and other showcases like the InfoSport Combine in addition to holding open tryouts. These teams are going to snap up the players that MLS clubs don't want, and that's fine. The fact that these teams can integrate players who haven't played professionally for well over a year (like Mayard or even Szetela) is proof that there are untapped sources of players out there for NASL and USL-Pro.

If these players, who are rightly overlooked by MLS, can take advantage of opportunities given by lower division clubs to develop into professionals, they may later catch the attention of MLS clubs. This is fulfilling the purpose of lower divisions by uncovering and developing players who may move up to top-flight teams, swapping places with those players who can't hack it at that level anymore, which justifies the need for more lower division teams at the same time as there are more MLS teams.

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