USMNT’s core is moving away from MLS and that’s fine for now

In many respects, March 24, 2023 looked like just another game for the United States men’s national team. Weston McKennie and Ricardo Pepi tallied twice, Christian Pulisic added a goal and two assists, and the Americans beat Grenada 7-1 to move to the top of Group D in the Concacaf Nations League.

In one respect, however, the match was unlike any other in history. For the first time since Major League Soccer’s launch in 1996, the red, white, and blue game-day roster did not feature a single player from the U.S. first division. Atlanta United‘s Miles Robinson, the only MLS player to even make the training camp roster for those games, was left off the 23-man matchday squad because of injury and looking at where American players play, it’s unlikely this will be the last time such an occurrence happens.

In a sense, the impact of current MLS players on the U.S. national team is waning. At the 1998 World Cup, 16 of the 22 players came from MLS. In 2002 and 2006, that number was 11 out of 23. In Qatar? Just nine of 26 players came from the first division, with only Nashville SC‘s Walker Zimmerman playing more than 45 minutes.

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Now, this isn’t to say that MLS (and USL Championship) aren’t having an effect on the senior national team. They clearly are, especially as the majority of those called up started their careers in MLS or the development academies. U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter pointed to the growth of the league as a key element in the development of the player pool.

“MLS is a critical step in everything that we’re doing in U.S. Soccer,” Berhalter said in a November interview with Telemundo. “When you see the amount of investment that the owners have made in Major League Soccer, and actually soccer in America, it’s a great thing. The reason why we are where we are is because of the investment from MLS,”

“We don’t get hung up on where the players are coming from. We’re looking at how we grow this team, grow the player pool, and give experience to a broad selection of players.”

Consider this: 17 of the 26 players on the 2022 World Cup roster played for an MLS NEXT academy, while 20 of the 21 men on the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup roster were, or had been, in an MLS academy. Additionally, 14 players with USL or League One experience made that U-20 roster including Joshua Wynder, who has since moved to Portuguese side Benfica in the USL’s first seven-figure transfer.

It’s a strange spot for MLS and, to a lesser extent, USL. The league needs to move its best young players along to other clubs and reinvest the money in player development, a virtuous cycle that also means talented young Americans will end up playing overseas. While 2023 saw homegrown players set a record, with 174 playing 168,163 minutes across 2,829 games, three aging defenders — Matt Miazga, Tim Parker, and Zimmerman — were the only Americans on the Best XI team. The top three MVP candidates — FC Cincinnati playmaker Luciano Acosta, LAFC winger Dénis Bouanga and Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada — came from abroad, with no American winning the league’s MVP since Mike Magee in 2013.

An emerging league is, almost by definition, a place where the most talented young players leave and that is, for now at least, a feature not a bug.

“All of the work that we do day to day is focused on giving opportunities for our players to reach their full potential, whether it’s in the academy or the first team, so that eventually some of them become high-level players in MLS,” Charles Altchek, president of MLS NEXT Pro, said in an interview with ESPN. “Whether they stay in MLS or end up moving around the world depends on where they are in their lifecycle as a player, what they want to achieve and where they want to be.”

USL is adopting this same philosophy: they want to be a place where Americans start a career, not finish it.

“I feel very strongly that the most valuable currency in soccer for player development is firstly in playing minutes, especially meaningful and competitive games in front of thousands of fans,” USL head of global football development and sporting director Oliver Wyss said during a phone call with ESPN.

“Our clubs are ideally positioned to provide this environment and the full pathway that already has and will have an even bigger direct impact on developing the next generation of U.S. national team players and also allow the USL to become a bigger player in the global transfer market.”

“I encourage all of our teams to look at our top players as assets, and not as expenses. Ultimately, if these assets can be transferred to Europe, and you get a six- or seven-figure transfer amount plus a future sell-on percentage, the return of investment on these players is going to be significant for a club.”

The growth of domestic leagues means there’s more opportunity than ever before for Americans to see the field, but there’s also more competition. The trend for MLS clubs seeking quality is to target players in their mid-20s. In other words, men in their prime who are also depreciating assets in a sport that prioritizes youth and potential.

While this is good for the level of play, it’s not great for younger Americans trying to break through who can see opportunities to get on the field blocked by these expensive acquisitions. As a result, the percentage of minutes played by Americans in MLS has decreased even though available minutes have increased because of league expansion. One worthwhile comparison is Japan, a footballing country in a similar place to the U.S. in this regard.

Tom Byer, a man who has had a significant impact on the development of soccer in the Asian nation, offered an observation during an interview. “With Japan, the majority of the national team players play in Europe, but the gap between those best players in Europe and the players in the J.League is tiny,” he said. “Almost no Japanese player makes it over to Europe to play until they’ve played about 150 professional games in the J.League.”

Closing the gap should, and is, a goal of MLS, and one that it’s slowly achieving. But the truth is, at the end of the day, it’s neither MLS nor the USL’s job to make the U.S. men’s national team better. They are three separate and distinct entities with their own goals and metrics for success. Still, there’s the reality that what’s good for one is good for the other — a strong tide raises all boats, or something like that — and there’s a World Cup not too far away across all of North America.

“When the national team is successful, it’s good for soccer fans in this country and for MLS,” Altchek said. “That’s why we’ve worked really closely with the Federation for decades now on providing those opportunities for players and working with them on call-ups and releasing players for different competitions.”

“We want the U.S. to win the 2026 World Cup or at least go farther than they’ve ever gone before. Having the men’s national team there with a bunch of players who played or are playing in MLS will be icing on the cake.”