At the beginning of 2014, just eight of the 23 eventual members of the USA’s squad for the summer’s World Cup were playing in Major League Soccer. Since then, though, the great repatriation has hardly ceased. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey were in MLS by the time the 2014 season began. Jermaine Jones and DaMarcus Beasley made the trip weeks after the World Cup ended. Two more team members, Mix Diskerud and Jozy Altidore, sealed their own big-money MLS contracts in the 2014-25 offseason – and suddenly far more than half of last year’s national team are now MLS players.
No one would begrudge any of the six their chances, of course. Altidore was the butt of jokes among Sunderland fans, and will instead have a chance to repair his image in Toronto. Jones was the USA’s breakout player at the World Cup, and took his chance to cash in by moving to New England. Beasley wanted to move back from Mexico for one last throw of the dice in America. Dempsey got an offer he couldn’t refuse in Seattle. Roma got $10 million for Bradley, and Bradley got the chance to move back to North America.
Suddenly, the USA has gone from shipping its best players abroad, to paying them big money at home. Dempsey ($6.7 million) and Bradley ($6.5 million) were the Major League Soccer’s two highest-paid players last year, a strike against the notion that the league’s Designated Players are mostly over-the-hill stars from Europe. Jones ($3.25 million) clocked in to the top ten list of highest-paid players after he signed, as well. Even less big-name players, like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi in Kansas City, got big raises – both now make just over $600,000, where Besler used to make $200,000 and Zusi slightly less than $400,000.
Before last year’s World Cup, the Pew Research Center published an infographic, showing where the players at the World Cup played their club soccer. Perhaps not surprisingly, impoverished yet soccer-rich countries shipped the most players abroad; just nine of Africa’s 115 representatives played in their country’s own domestic league, as did just four of the 46 from Eastern Europe and the vast majority of the South and Central American players. At the time, the USA – with 13 players abroad – was solidly in the middle tier, with other first-world but second-class soccer countries like Australia, South Korea, and Japan.
On the other side of the ledger, though, were two countries with interesting lessons for America. One was England, which had only one player abroad – and that the third-string goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, who had only gone as far as Scotland and thus hadn’t even left the borders of his own country. The other was Russia, who uniquely among the 32 nations had brought not a single player who played in a league from outside his home country.
There are similarities between the two leagues. England hosts the world’s highest-profile club league, and the vast television riches collected by the Premier League mean that young English players can stay near home and yet get paid better than anywhere else in the world. Russia, too, has seen an influx of oil money in the domestic game, with big clubs from St. Petersburg and Moscow pouring cash into players’ pockets, keeping them at home to play in one of Europe’s mid-tier competitions. Even rich, highly competitive leagues like Germany (six players abroad) and Spain (nine) sent players outside the country’s borders.
Money pouring in, players wanting to stay home and make big money instead of fighting for scraps overseas – this has to sound familiar to US national team fans. On the one hand, a league like England brings in so many overseas players that national-team fans fret that young players might never get to develop; on the flip side, Russia did so poorly at the 2014 World Cup that the country’s soccer association is seriously considering splitting off the national team into a neo-Red Army side and having them play in the domestic league – in hopes of combating the middling level of competition in the Russian league by building team unity.
The latter worries sound familiar to American fans, who have long argued over whether it was better for American players to go abroad or stay near home. National team coach Jürgen Klinsmann has added fuel to the fire by publicly encouraging young American players to head overseas to test themselves with the big clubs, rather than being content to stay in MLS; his World Cup squad, which included four German-born, German-trained players, was enough to signal to most just how he viewed the American development system.
It’s hard to argue with a player who wants to move home and make big money. But it’s also hard not to look at England and Russia, both of which have struggled mightily on the national stage, and wonder if the combination of money and the lure of home might contribute to the same kind of national-team problems that Russia and England are currently facing.