Priority and Strategy
Or, why I don't give a damn about Nationalism when thinking about United's starting XI.
Emphasize your strengths, minimize your weaknesses. It is one of the most fundamental rules of achieving success in any endeavor, and it is true of soccer as well. It is true in terms of how an individual plays his game, how a team adopts tactics for another team, how a manager plans for a season, and how a front office establishes a long-term plan. D.C. United has, in this off-season, placed this plan into overdrive with its acquisitions from CONMEBOL countries. At first, United was thought to be working a primarily Bolivian connection with Etcheverry and Moreno. But the scope expanded from country to continent with the arrival of Christian Gomez (Argentina), Luciano Emilio (Brazil), Fred (Brazil), Facundo Erpen (Argentina) as well as some of the non successful plays with Matthias Donnet (Argentina) and Filomeno (Argentina). Not that United abandoned other locations for players. Casal came from London, Steve Guppy was an English International, Rod Dyachenko may be from the East but we only knew him because he played college soccer in Las Vegas. Still, the largest return on investment is from South America.
United's South American focus is inherently logical from a business perspective: It works for us, it makes sense. Yet we can tell that people are not entirely comfortable with it. SF at The Offside Rules wrote the following:
DC has always had an international line-up that matched the city's multicultural populace. But being that they operated under the league's strict policy regarding foreign players it never seemed over the top. But looking at the names linked to the team in the transfer rumors this off season, it's almost like Tommy Soehn & co. have forgotten about the leagues role in developing American players entirely.
Well, yes. Kasper, Soehn, and Payne probably don't care about developing American players. That's a method to success, not an end in and of itself. And, to be frank, we're not particularly good at it. Some, such as Steve Nicol in New England, are rather good at taking their college picks and putting them on the field, developing their talent. We're not. But the important thing is that at the end of the day, for all that development, the only thing the Revolution have won is a U.S. Open Cup (fittingly enough.) I will not engage in the cliched United fan's behavior of reciting our trophy cabinet.
Still, there is a sense being promulgated in various places that somehow this is unamerican, that somehow we are off-shoring jobs to South America. In most places, writers have the good-grace to not openly engage in race/nationality-baiting on the issue. SF writes "I don't think it's a bad thing, just a curious development in the the leagues evolution," which is perhaps one step up from "not that there's anything wrong with that." Ridge Mahoney in MLS Confidential is willing to go one-step farther.
...in MLS, if Chivas USA wants to field eight Mexican players, plus however many more it can sign by trading for additional slots, it can do so. FCD could load up on South Americans. Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio could open a pipeline from Medellin to the Meadowlands. “Trader Mo” Johnston could invite a slew of British retreads to represent TFC.
There is a panic one can hear in these words, "the foreigners are coming!" I do not think it is an accident that the words "pipeline" and "Medellin" are used so closely together. While SF at the Offisde Rules was simply making a jest with "DC United Love South America More Than Drug Dealers," it seems Mr. Mahoney is almost taking it as a serious concern. Am I being oversensitive? I think not. Mr. Mahoney continues:
Has the league gained anything by encouraging teams to sign cheaper foreign players, assuming they will be willing to play for MLS salaries, rather than Americans? And teams can certainly pay out more to additional international players while squeezing the Americans still further...Logic dictates if teams have more slots available for foreign players, who normally cost more than domestic players, and sign more of them, less money will be available for Americans, many of whom - even those on the regular, 18-man roster - earn the league minimum ($32,000 in 2008) or close to it. MLS contentions that the new international guidelines don’t impact American players don’t ring true.
The idea that MLS teams should operate a developmental system of U.S. Talent strikes me as naive. Certainly D.C. gained some valuable marketing material from John Harkes on patrol in the early days. But that was then, when the soccer crowd in the United States was much less sophisticated, and to the extent the average fan in the United States paid attention, it was to recognize the occasional world cup name from the 1994 campaign and might be able to identify the faces of Pele and Maradonna (but probably not Best, or Cruyff). After over a decade of MLS, and Fox Soccer Channel, and Gol, and Setanta Sports, the average soccer fan is much more sophisticated and we care about our league and teams not because they are here in America, but because we want them to win.
United's goals are to win trophies, and United has, as Oscar and Kinney have both written, a competitive advantage in South American scouting. So the Front Office has doubled-down on that theory. I am not rooting for a team to make the US National Team better, or to improve the general quality of U.S. players. I am rooting for a team to win. MLS, as well, may care about developing US players, but first and foremost it needs to put out a product that people will spend money on. And right now, with future expansion coming, and some fans a bit jaded when they compare MLS teams to the EPL, or La Liga, or what they see in Libertadores, they simply can't make developing US talent a priority over putting a non-amateurish product out on the field.
Am I disappointed that United has not done well in the draft, as we have documented on this site? Yes. Would I love it if some future US Nats came up through the academy of D.C. United? Oh yes. But when I think about my team, I care about them winning, and exploiting every competitive advantage they have in trying to win. For D.C. United, this is "nothing new", as Gregory Sica writes in a good overview at SI.Com. We have always been a team that has sought talent from around the world. Our early years saw Raul Diaz Arce and Etcheverry. Those years it worked. Some years it did not, as when Hristo Stoichkov came to United with his impressive pedigree at Barcelona. But we have always attempted to not simply be the US Under-23 team. Our goal was always to find a team that would win trophies. It worked more often than not, and now we see other teams doing the same (RSL) or being urged to do the same, as Bernardo Fallas urges the Houston Dynamo to look south, young men.
And perhaps that's why I detect the whiff of racism. Not with Ridge Mahoney, who I think unfortunately framed his language in his article, but otherwise shows every indication, but in the larger gestalt about how it might be easier for D.C. Untied to "Move to South America" as one writer put it, or the not so subtle slanders that somehow La Barra Brava will blindly cheer any South American (ask Filomeno about that). When Europeans are coming into the league, that's one thing. Hooray for David Beckham, and rule change that brings him here. But when the people aren't quite so white, or perhaps are motivated because of unstable economic conditions, well then suddenly we're bankrupting Mom and her Apple Pie business. It's unsavory.
Now, at some point, there will be no competitive advantage for United in South America. Everyone is hip to the gig now, so in ten years perhaps the draft will be the great overlooked deciding factor. Markets, and there is no truer global market than soccer, find ways of taking economic advantages that one team, or corporation develops, and exporting them elsewhere, so suddenly the tallest tower you built is hemmed in by sky-scrapers on all sides. And so we will look to the next place for an advantage. No doubt at some point, a strongly developed youth system will play a bigger role than it does now, and I hope we can keep our advantage long enough to figure out what we're doing wrong when it comes to developing players, and then turn that to our advantage.