Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Confederations Cup Success Could Equal Dream European Offers For Some

If the world was taught one thing from the Confederations Cup in South Africa, it was not to sleep on American soccer. The tournament was a wake-up call for anyone who questioned the legitimacy of the sport in our country....whether they were U.S. citizens or foreigners. The fact is, soccer has been and still is somewhat of an afterthought in our country, but the Americans' unbelievable performance in South Africa was most certainly a step in the right direction.

I can't be certain what sort of total impact it will have in American society, but there will certainly be one major perk for the players that made the dream finish a reality...transfer offers. Translation to American sports language: the potential to sign with an upper-echelon European team. You see, in the world of soccer, especially in Europe, the slogan is "What have you done for me lately?" If a manager's team has a disappointing record, they're fired. If a player plays poorly, they're on the bench. On a more positive note, if you train well during the week, you might just earn a start on the weekend. It doesn't matter how much they get paid or where they're from. It is a performance-based philosophy. Period. So naturally, the surprise results that the U.S. pulled off in South Africa have most definitely raised the eyebrows of European scouts. It was the same when Russia went unexpectedly deep into the Euro 2008 tournament. People noticed and players got offers.

It's really a rather novel concept. Up until this point, the U.S. has played scared against the historical international powers. They never really played with the confidence, urgency, or technical ability to be considered a worldly soccer power. Yes, the 2002 World Cup in Korea was an exception, but if you look at the larger picture, the team has been relatively weak and inconsistent. But now, after they perform well individually and as a team against some of the best players in the world, the scouts look at it rather simply and say, "If they can beat players from the top leagues in Spain, England, Italy, and Germany, then why can't they play their club ball alongside them?"

I completely agree. A performance like theirs in the Confederations Cup deserves to be put up there with the top soccer moments in history...doing the unthinkable and beating the world's #1 team! Of course some of these guys deserve to play for top clubs! I'm not saying all of them merit promotion, but it makes you think that guys like Donovan, Bradley, Clark, DeMerit, Davies and Bornstein should join U.S. players such as Dempsey, Spector, Bocanegra, and Altidore at top European clubs.

Sure enough...the first of what I believe to be many contracts offered to American players went down this week when Oguchi Onyewu signed a 3-year deal with A.C. Milan. A.C. Milan is easily one of the top 3 Italian clubs and historically is probably the most prestigious and well-known of the bunch. Say what you want about Onyewu's track record, the guy defended his ass off during the Confed Cup. And for me, it's not surprising that he got scooped up by a club like Milan because he is a beast in the back. I'm so happy to see an American player get the respect he deserves, and for it to be from such an A-list club, it's incredible.

I was waiting for a signing like this to happen and I truly believe that there will be a few more to follow. I look for DeMerit to move up to a better English club. I think Donovan has now shown his worth as an attacking midfielder. Charlie Davies has proven that he deserves to be playing somewhere other than Sweden with his speed and awareness. And as for the players that are already in Europe...well I think their playing time will increase and I consider their international reputations to be bolstered at this point. Dempsey, Spector, and Bocanegra will breakout with new levels of confidence. Jozy Altidore now has the power to put his foot down and go elsewhere in Europe after not appearing in a single game for Xerez, a second-tier Spanish team that he was loaned to from Villareal. It's a beautiful thing to see as a longtime soccer fan that has always wished American players the best.

The issue brings up a debate that I have in my own head sometimes regarding the future path of American soccer and its players. Do I, as an American soccer fan, want our top players to go to Europe to garner recognition and praise? Or do I want these players to play in the MLS in an effort to help build the game in our native country? It's always been tough for me to say. Of course on one hand, it would be nice for our top players to play in the MLS and create a buzz among Americans...maybe even to the point where the league reaches a level of quality so high that it makes top foreign players want to come play over here. But that may be my exaggerated optimism taking over. Because on the other hand, I'd love to see American players get the credit they deserve on a European stage, where the game means so much more. Winning over well-educated, die hard world soccer fans has to be the ultimate stamp of approval! And it would make me so happy to have some of our own men be able to experience that feeling.

So, who knows, it is a super interesting topic to speculate about, but the main point I had was that the U.S. National Team's recent performance in the Confederations Cup was a thing of beauty...not just to watch, but also ponder to the impact it will have afterwards. Many people may not believe it, but soccer in America is improving. The players. The national team. The MLS. And most importantly, the popularity! I can safely say that there aren't many people out there that are more delighted than me about where soccer is going in America.

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