Empire XI: Zusi, Besler Reflects Differences Between MLS, USMNT


Staff Writer

American soccer is on the ascendancy, but Graham Zusi and Matt Besler’s collective decision to commit themselves to a long-term career with Sporting Kansas City shows while a rising tide lifts all boats, not all boats rise the same.

The two boats in question are MLS and the U.S. Men’s National Team.  Their differing ascendant paths have always existed — it just took a landmark moment like this to show the difference for all to see.

MLS will always need more people to spend money or time attending, watching or sponsoring it and its teams. The USA will always look to get better on the field.  What makes it so difficult to unlink the fates between MLS and the US Men’s National Team is the strong symbiotic relationship that exists between the top flight league and the national team. Financially, Soccer United Marketing markets both entities but that sort of connection is commonplace throughout the world, with the English Premier League being an exception to the rule since it negotiates television and sponsorship deals for itself. Competitively, 15 of the 23 players on the USA World Cup squad were current or former MLS players.

Zusi and Besler staying in MLS does not make the USA better. It does not make them worse. The problem is that the same statements cannot be made had the two — or any American MLS player in the same position — went overseas.

It has to be noted that only one player, Geoff Cameron, left MLS for Europe during Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure and made the World Cup roster. It is safe to conclude that top MLS players like Cameron, Zusi and Besler can go to Europe and get better, but they are just as likely to remain the same player or worsen should they fail to gain any playing time.

Klinsmann is not wrong to urge his players to look overseas and he does not hold it against his players if they decide not to go. There is something to the point he has repeatedly made about American players giving their opponents too much respect and familiarity that does breed contempt and knowledge—two things that go a long way towards beating your opponent in a competitive game. That being said, the players that play within countries Klinsmann hopes to compete against play for teams that are not looking at Zusi and Besler to improve their first team. The teams that look at Zusi and Besler to improve their first team only face those players twice a year and may be competitive in one of the two legs.

Obviously this is better than staying with an MLS club who may play a July friendly against a top club, but the true competitive effect of leaving MLS to join a non-elite overseas club is minimal in Besler and Zusi’s case.

The fact that effect has been minimized to the point where we can say with a straight face that Besler and Zusi are not harming their careers by opting to stay with Sporting KC instead of going to Sunderland or Fulham is a testament to the competitive improvements MLS has made. The designated player has undoubtedly been a driving factor in that regard, but the fact that the DP is, by definition, a select distinction means that DPs have an added significance to the franchise, usually for marketing reasons. Making two members of the USA’s first team from the recent World Cup DPs compliments the marketing effort MLS is making on the newly famous American players.

The ‘Here’ marketing effort for MLS needed Besler and Zusi to stay. With an upcoming stretch of regular season games, friendlies as well as the All Star Game ahead, this timeframe for MLS is one of maximum exposure. MLS is hoping that having American viewers witness American players they cheered mere weeks ago play for American teams at home will increase ratings and attendances — which continue to be on the uptick. However, not every attendance situation is consistent and the same can be said about television ratings. That will likely be the case for the rest of the season but with a new television contract and a new collective bargaining agreement set to take effect next season, MLS will be looking at this stretch of games to set the foundation for a pivotal season regarding the league’s business future.

Regarding the competitive future for the USA, Besler and Zusi’s decision does not really affect it too much. They are known commodities that will remain in Klinsmann’s plans for the foreseeable future. It is that fact, plus the marketing appeal the two players have, that ultimately makes this transfer episode reflective of the best interests of MLS and the USA — and how they differ.

Empire XI

  1. It is not too much to ask for New York City FC to share the actual number of season tickets bought instead of saying that more than 3,000 people have bought season tickets and the majority of them bought multiple tickets. If their figure is behind Orlando City’s or Atlanta’s, it’s not a big deal since they still have seven months of roster-building and marketing to do.
  2. It is also understandable why NYCFC are keeping things very close to the chest. This is a club that has its eager critics and a club that needs to get things right in a high-risk, high-reward city. As a result, the club will be timid about how it releases information that is not inherently positive. Yes, all clubs are like that but NYCFC are a little more timid.
  3. One tactical idea for the New York Red Bulls that may fix their problems would be to go into a diamond midfield. Dax McCarty at the base would shield the fledgling center backs and give them an outlet to pass to while also limiting the workload for McCarty who has seen injuries and overwork catch up to him. Lloyd Sam and Eric Alexander can play as wide midfielders and Thierry Henry would be up top to serve as playmaker. Tim Cahill and Bradley Wright-Phillips would be as dangerous a forward pairing as any in MLS.
  4. DaMarcus Beasley is in talks with MLS to join as a designated player per the Washington Post’s Steven Goff. Beasley is 32 and out of contract after a three-year stint with Puebla. Had it not been post-World Cup, it would be really difficult to justify making Beasley a DP given his position as a left back and also because he was never really a prominent star in American soccer despite a truly successful career. Goff adds that ‘NYCFC, Orlando City, Chicago, RSL, DC United and all three Canadian teams are not interested.” If the number of interested teams drops more, it will be intriguing to see Beasley can still enter the league as a DP instead of through the allocation order which is something he may not be totally onboard with.  As a result, Beasley’s future would remain uncertain and if the top-flight teams in the USA, Canada and Mexico do not want to give him the contract he wants, the door may be open for NASL teams to overpay and make a coup.
  5. I think Tommy Thompson is ready to play for at least two minutes with the San Jose Earthquakes. Here’s my proof.
  6. Points 2-5 are valid points by Austin Fido on how to improve MLS’ chances at winning the CONCACAF Champions League but the first point is slightly naive. Until Champions League games draw the same amount of interest from fans and media as the summer friendlies do, teams in the upcoming Champions League will look to play in friendlies. Simply put, more people care about and will spend time and or money seeing the Red Bulls-Arsenal friendly than the Red Bulls-Montreal Impact Champions League ties.
  7. While Fido’s take on the MLS-CCL question was well thought out, Nicholas Mendiola’s take on a great weekend for lower leagues attendance was not.
  8. The fact of the matter is that attempting to make what was a convergence of positive, independent events into one narrative requires extensively narrow reasoning. Firstly, Sacramento Republic and Indy Eleven are both nascent clubs still playing in their inaugural season so the jury is still out on their long term success. Second, there needs to be constant growth across the board per team per league for there to be any serious rumblings about if the demand for soccer goes boom. Lastly, what does Liga MX have to do with the NASL or USL Pro teams potentially pushing MLS into expanding again?
  9. As for the pro/rel notion mentioned, (as memory serves) this would be the first time that topic is discussed here and it will be short. Until the loss of revenue from TV, attendance etc. is minimized to the point where relegation from one division does not financially cripple the relegated club, as it does now in a majority of cases around the world, promotion and relegation should not and will not be implemented in North America.
  10. I would gladly entertain a counterargument to that statement so long as the person making it does not insult me or question my journalistic integrity. Remember angry Twitterer; just because you disagree with something said about professional sports (an ultimately small part of any sane person’s life) does not mean you get to hurl insults at strangers about it.
  11. So with that in mind, stay safe and enjoy the upcoming six consecutive days of MLS action starting on Wednesday.

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  • Anonymous

    9 & 10 spoken like a true believer of our system, won’t happen because of X,Y,Z > a generation born into MLS that still follows the Lawyers running MLS ! What you should be doing is questioning the system & suggesting ways to make it better not telling us why it won’t happen is the way out of the conversation not a solution ! a little PSA thrown in > “Enjoy your upcoming six consecutive days of MLS parity action starting on Wednesday” Where all 6 games will drive you into sheer boredom.

  • Thanks for the shout out. Not sure “naive” means what you think it means, even when adverbed, but let it pass.

    • Andrew Bissonette

      Naïve is exactly the word for the 1st point about friendlies. Money talks dude. Sold out stadiums, huge national and international interest to see how MLS stacks up, National TV exposure, chances for entire rosters to play. It all adds up to a lot more than CCL does. Oh yeah, not to mention, these games aren’t even played during CCL at all, so one can’t take precedence over the other.

  • Andrew Bissonette

    Hey guys, just a thought on the pro/rel. I’d like to preface this by saying for pro/rel to happen, their needs to be some sort of merger between MLS and NASL/USL or all three.

    Anyways, keep this in mind if there is a merger…While yes, there would be difficulties when it comes to finances of a team being relegated, doesn’t that also mean that whomever gains promotion would see a great financial gain? Just because someone loses out doesn’t mean that its not okay to have pro/rel. There just has to be a sustainable model for clubs that get relegated so they don’t go under.

    The clubs that currently are in the lower divisions aren’t really having any major financial problems, so why would teams getting relegated from an “MLS 1” be in trouble?

    Also, just because it doesn’t exist in other sports(NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL) doesn’t mean it will hurt MLS because of people’s inability to understand it. People aren’t stupid and pro/rel is not hard to figure out for even the most casual of soccer fans. Nor, would it be a turn-off to those fans. In fact, it would probably be the opposite. It would give teams at the very bottom of the standings something to root for and go to the stadium for at the end of the season. We’ve all seen how crazy the race to get away from relegation is in England the last 5-10 years. Its incredibly exciting.

    Now, this sort of thing is at least 15-20 years off, because we need to make sure the lower level AND MLS level attendances figures are steady and that expansion is over to make this work. However, this is something that will bring added excitement, not anguish, to MLS. Pro/rel needs to be seriously taken into consideration and not discarded with such naivety.

  • Drew

    The whole regulation debate to me always misses the fact a playoff system is similar. So instead of dropping the bottom teams to replace them with other bottom feeders, a playoff system is taking the top teams and putting them in a playoff in the same season. To use a golf analogy these are the teams that make the final cut with a chance to win the championship. This works out pretty well for every other sport in North America.

  • WSW

    Regarding pro/rel..which will develop youth faster? Closed league with 24 academies or Hundreds of academies in open league system?

    and if you are worrying about expenses here is food for thought: MLS team averaging 10k loses money a NASL bteam with 5k attendance is making money.

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