The TopDrawerSoccer Show is back, and this time the guys are talking up Americans abroad. Specifically the young ones, and what it takes to succeed.
On this week’s show, the discussion pings from a trio of highly regarded Americans at a top club in Germany to the three critical aspects of a prospect’s success abroad. How do they settle? What sort of position can they carve out at the club? And what are the essential differences between a Landon Donovan stint abroad and a Christian Pulisic one?
And, of course, we hit on our prospect of the week with a trip to the girls side of the development aisle before reaching into our mailbag. And as for that mailbag, you can hit it here and we might get to it on the show next week.
There was no one in the Development Academy last season quite like Efrain Alvarez. In reality, there have been few like him in the academy’s history.
Alvarez has been a star in the making seemingly since he first stepped over the lines for the Galaxy in the DA more than two years ago. His first three months in the academy, for the Galaxy 14s, he scored 16 goals. He was a no-doubt starter in the attacking midfield for John Hackworth’s U.S. U15 BNT practically from the moment he was eligible. He’s been playing up in age group seemingly his entire youth career, and he almost invariably looks like the most dangerous force on the field. He was at the center of a desperate tug-of-war between the USSF and the FMF, a battle Mexico appears to have won.
The first MLS Homegrown game in 2014 was a bit of a clunker. It ended 0-0, and the MVP was a goalkeeper named Jon Kempin, who washed out at Sporting KC and is now with the LA Galaxy’s USL team. In fact, the best player on the field that day was on the other sideline, guest playing for the Portland Timbers U23 team. His name was Cristian Roldan.
In that context, the game itself has come a long way. We knew before hand the game featured its most fun MLS roster ever, and Tuesday’s match against Chivas’ title-winning U20 side did not disappoint.
You get the sense Caleb Porter would’ve been at home walking the marbled, austere halls of Roman-era philosophy. Like his toga’ed predecessors, Porter is a stern pontificator. He is neither joyless nor joy-filled, merely a matter-of-fact thinker who clearly has spent time in the dark crafting, modifying, rewriting his own personal coaching ethos. Whatever you would say about Porter, he is on the practical side of the philosophical continuum.
This, too, is the way Roman men of letters thought. It was Cicero who first said brevity is the great charm of eloquence, Plutarch who observed that nothing is more unwieldy than a man in prosperity, Pliny the Elder who posited that life would be sweeter if we desired nothing but what could be wrought with our own hands. Rome was a meat-and-potatoes society nonetheless given over to higher thought, and in this I think Porter would’ve found a comfortable home.
Spain’s La Liga, like Italy’s Serie A, remains a city with frustratingly high walls and studded gates mostly closed to Americans. There are ingrained reasons for this, of course, but the one that drives most closely to the heart of it is that the league’s teams have not made a conscious decision to value American prospects.
Americans, in kind, decided to heed those opinions borne out over time and flocked to other leagues. Mostly, where Europe is concerned, in Germany and England.
The excoriation of Chelsea regarding its wanton use of loans is not without its merits. At least on the surface, the club appears to at least partially bankroll its lavish transfer spends by buying players on the cheap, and then selling them on for far more than their original value without ever really considering them for the first team.
In the meantime, it loans them out to puff up their transfer value while all but ignoring them for its own first team. It is as though the club tends two farms: one for its own consumption made up of only the choicest grain, and another only for the consumption of everyone else. It is a rare thing indeed that the public farm tills up a product the club deems worthy of its own soil.
Chelsea’s done well for itself in this. Just last year, it made in the neighborhood of $50 million off transfers from players it shuffled around on loan for years: Nathan Ake (Bournemouth), Christian Atsu (Newcastle), Bertrand Traore (Lyon), and Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford). It’s hard not to see a method in this, that Chelsea is purposefully culling its herd to flip players for cash to throw back into the pot to fuel ever more, pricier transfer fees. Chelsea’s business is as bald-faced as it is uncomfortable.
It is uncomfortable, most of us reason, because it presumes these players never had a chance at Chelsea in the first place. I think that is a somewhat simplistic reading, but it is not without its merits. Just in the previously mentioned group, Ake got seven games for Chelsea’s first team, Traore and Chalobah 10 each, Atsu a grand total of zero. The club’s impatience is legendary, but it also feeds the notion that its mind was made up before any had a chance to truly cement themselves within the first team construct. Too much money at hand, too much at stake, too much predetermined. They never really had a chance, and the talent ceiling on each of their careers no doubt lowered as a result.
This is why Matt Miazga’s sale to Chelsea in the winter of 2016 was a chilly wind whipping across the plains of American soccer sentiment. Here was one of the most promising American prospects period – not just defenders, mind – seemingly being dumped into that other crop-growing field, the one with the business interests in mind for public sale. It wasn’t that Miazga couldn’t be picked for the club’s own harvest, but no one would take those odds. Not with this club.
In this prism it is impossible not to understand some of the angst surrounding news of Miazga’s impending second loan stint to Vitesse, in the Dutch Eredivisie, after starting 20 games there last season. Miazga installed himself as a regular center back at the club, helping them to a fifth-place finish in the top tier and a place in the Europa League group phase thanks to its KNVB Cup, the first major trophy in the club’s 124-year history. Miazga was on the field for it. By returning at 21, Miazga will very likely play in Europe this year, and more than once. The list of Americans who’ve done that at all, at any level, is not long.
The bigger worry, to me, is not Vitesse itself or the level of the Dutch league. Vitesse is a fine place to develop, even for defenders, and Miazga will see plenty of the field this season in a top European flight. That’s all to the good. The bigger worry is to what end. Where is this all leading us?
USMNT fans sighed a collective breath of relief when Miazga played, and played relatively well on balance, in a 3-0 win over Nicaragua in the Gold Cup in July. He scored a goal, even. It would have been hard to sway a coach like Arena, who prefers to lean heavily on veteran experience at center back, that Miazga deserved more starts in bigger games in the tournament. But it peeled back the curtain and gave us assurance that this version of Miazga is better than the 2016 Olympic qualifying version that was in turn better than the 2015 U20 World Cup version and so on back we go.
In so many words, he is progressing.
But there is still a guillotine hanging over the careers of Chelsea’s collective loan army, and it lowers by fractions with each successive loan. Players tend to need loftier experiences each year to improve, and continual loans to the same place in lesser leagues don’t usually move the needle. Miazga thankfully has the promise of Europe this year, which defrays that worry to a degree, but the fact that his career is filled with so much uncertainty is what worries so many.
This is not an unfounded worry, as I said, but I think it’s overblown on balance. The lack of a stable club home – Miazga will not go to Vitesse full time, I can assure you – is a problem so long as Miazga begins stagnating. We have no indication he’s in that swamp yet. And the Eredivisie presents a unique challenge for defenders, who are usually forced to face attacks many times more powerful than what their coaches are able to muster defensively. There is development value to being overwhelmed and tasked with quelling the fear.
But there is a caveat. Miazga can’t dwell in this place long. Substantive development tends to calcify somewhere in your early 20′s – it’s different for every player – and it happens sooner for players who either aren’t playing in challenging enough environments or simply aren’t playing first team soccer at all. Miazga runs the risk of the former at Vitesse and the latter at Chelsea. Which means finding a middle distance for next season.
In the interim, this is all fine. Miazga is in a stable club environment he knows, where he’ll have the opportunity to play against good attacking competition and compete for a spot on a team competing for a Europa League run. The real crucible isn’t now; it’s next summer.
Europe’s breathtaking transfer jet stream appeared to be sweeping Dom Dwyer into its irresistible flow during the summer of 2016. Transfer rumor piled upon rumor as Dwyer bagged goals in clumps, until one finally caught in July.
Olympiacos, the biggest club in Greece and an on-again off-again Champions League group stage punching bag, offered a reported $3 million to Sporting KC for its stunning rags-to-riches striker.
This was not a windfall, so to speak, but it did represent a significant offering in a league with fewer than 20 $3+ million transfers in its 20-year history. On a personal level, it offered Dwyer a chance to crack into the world’s biggest club competition and provided an in to European soccer itself. On the other end, if it so chose, Sporting KC could turn around and use that money on a striker far more lauded than Dwyer was. Three million goes a ways in South America.
Except this is not, as we know now, how MLS works.
There are no half measures with Jozy Altidore, no half-baked takes still in the process of rendering. He is, by almost any standard definition, the most polarizing first team figure not just in the USMNT, but perhaps in MLS as a heaving whole. At this point, the likelihood of your feelings on Altidore’s utility as a bonafide No. 1 striker being mutable are not great.
Altidore is the climate change of American soccer. It is easy enough to see his effects, and yet the wheel turns about what true cause of those effects are (is the natural course of Giovinco not really the one bringing down this heat?) The mention of his very name, in fact, often raises hackles and frankly somewhat uncomfortable debate.
The fruit pulled up from the diseased soil of the take farm has largely brutalized Altidore since his erstwhile stint at Sunderland went so violently awry. The drumbeats in his defense are steadier in number now that he’s among the blue-blooded scorers in MLS, a stream of 36 goals in 72 games since his return, including five in seven playoff games. But as with everything Altidore, there are barbed caveats digging into each notable item about his seeming revival in an attempt to drag them from even shallow heights and back to earth.
Perhaps the single greatest benefit of VAR, once it’s instituted in MLS on a trial basis from Aug. 5 onward, is to burn off the fog of war and eliminate missed poor conduct red cards referees couldn’t possibly see. There is no injustice quite like seeing your teammate’s nipple twisted and the ref missing the call entirely.
Wait. Did I say nipple? Yes, America. Yes I did. I said nipple.
McKennie joined Schalke as soon as he was eligible in August of 2016, before FC Dallas was able to secure him to a contract and gain any financial windfall from a move. Whether or not that contributed to Schalke’s interest – scooping up a player of McKennie’s caliber for literally nothing is an unbeatable deal – it certainly greased the wheels to Germany.