01 February 2008

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.

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At 01 February, 2008 11:57, Blogger Longshoe said...

Well done. That sums it up perfectly.

At 01 February, 2008 12:05, Blogger tucksider said...

perfectly put. i don't care where United gets its players, as long as they're putting more fans in the stands and more stars on the jersey.

it's ridiculous that these complaints come from people who follow soccer, of all sports. i also enjoy following baseball, which is supposedly as American as apple pie, and as a fan of the Cleveland Indians, i promise you it does not bother me that Fausto Carmona hails from the Dominican Republic... it just bothers me that he couldn't handle the evil Red Sox in the ALCS.

professional athletes come from all over, and we pay them money to represent our towns. that's how it goes. welcome to pro sports, haters.

At 01 February, 2008 12:36, Blogger Jeff said...

Agreed. If anything, we're starting to look more like the European leagues in terms of talent diversity. That might even buy MLS some credibility in the years ahead.

At 01 February, 2008 12:36, Blogger JCM said...

I agree with most of what you said. Still, it bothers me that United's top draft pick went to France because he would max out at a $30,000 contract. If United was a bit better with the home grown talent, they wouldn't need to look quite as far for the $100-300K players. And it's not just a United issue. You could arge it is an MLS issue first and foremost.

At 01 February, 2008 14:12, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's been fun hating DCU the last few seasons as they have failed time and again to win anything...the brain trust is continuing to struggle with these great signings and now the are getting guys that are beyond their expiration date. We haters will enjoy this season as much as the last several.

At 01 February, 2008 14:13, Blogger joaquin said...

I think is the way to go. You have to get big names to jump start it. Then we can learn and get our own.

At 01 February, 2008 15:51, Anonymous Tarheel Tom said...

Throwing out the accusations of racism was a bit hasty don't you think? Nobody complained when Jaime or Christian or Emilio or Angel or Blanco or or or (you get the idea)came to the league and did great. What makes people uneasy is the fact that DC brought in so many foreign players at once and suddenly it is very possible for them to put a first 11 on the field with 2 americans.

I understand economics and the idea of the market system very well, trust me. In that vein there is something to be said for the pulling power that native borns can have. They connect the team to the area and the country. We arn't a worldwide brand and we don't have millions of non-US citizens watching us who couldn't care less about nationalistic desires (like Arsenal or Chelsea). Almost our entire audience are US citizens. They follow and DC not only because of the team but because it is the premier american club in existence. The defining term being american, if it is simply a team of brazilians and argentines then it might as well be independiente or Corinthians.

At 01 February, 2008 16:18, Anonymous maxxx said...

A perfect example of why I cast my vote for DCenters for the best soccer blog. I can read news and rumors a lot of places. This is one of the few places where I can read interesting soccer commentary that makes me think.

At 01 February, 2008 16:25, Blogger The Manly Ferry said...

Are you being over-sensitive? Yeah, I think you are. Not horribly or unreasonably, but, yeah.

The thing is, you and Mahoney are writing very different stories. You're discussing building the best possible team, while he's looking at the impact league policies might have on employment for domestic players down the road. The only place where the discussion meets squarely is with the policy driving the shift.

Personally, I agree with your basic premise. I don't care where teams get players; they can come from under my left nut for all I care (and he's a great midfielder, good feet, good vision, the works). But that's a personal preference and my own comfort zone; that's putting my team over the national team. That's a valid goal and MLS's new policy goes some way to helping with that (though we'll have to see whether the latest signings are more Gomez than Filomeno). But it also probably does have consequences, intended and otherwise. Without rehashing Mahoney's points, I'd say he's defending a valid goal and fairly well.

The point is, it depends on what you want in the end. With what you're hearing said about the Barra Brava and that comment you flagged duly acknowledged, one can want to build a better national team absent closeted xenophobia or even unconscious racism. You acknowledged this in your post, but I think the aspect of end-goals is worth playing up a bit.

At 02 February, 2008 00:09, Anonymous Kelly said...

When MLS was getting off the ground, one of its stated objectives was, indeed, to develop "American" players. Given its dearth of youth programs, its worse than miserly salary cap and an utter disregard of international schedules, developing the "American" player yet remains one of the league's aims. And in no uncertain terms MLS has indeed raised the bar. However, as with all things MLS, there is vast room for improvement.

Increasing the number of foreign players is going to be a double edged sword at best. An insurge of talent might improve the level of play and perhaps expose domestic players to a higher standard. But in order for that particular benefit to be realized there would have to be actual American players on the teams. If MLS franchises are going to go to 8+ foreigners on a roster, any potential benefits of having these imports bestowing a saintly touch on U.S. talent is going to be negligible simply because there aren't going to be many Americans there.

In the days of the NASL and the first incarnation of the MISL, homegrown players were given very short shrift, many were on the rosters merely to pad out quotas, rarely got a chance to play and often relegated to practice squads. It did little to develop "American" players then and will do little now as well.

England is facing a similar situation, its national team, on the verge of being a joke, appears desperate for players. Despite being home to arguably the world's top league, the English can't groom even one above average goalkeeper. An over abundance of foreign talent, cheap or otherwise, squeezing out domestic players contributes to their plight.

Many complain that an American player riding a bench in Europe does nothing to improve the player. Making them ride a bench in MLS is no better. And pays worse.


At 02 February, 2008 08:09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The argument against upping the quota of foreign players is essentially a protectionist argument-- the US needs a safe harbor to develop talent. However, the US is a rich country with tremendous athletic resources. US soccer is developing rapidly. If US players are the best on the team, they will be on the field. There is nothing inherently different if someone was born in Caracas or Chattanooga, if they can play, they can play. If US players have to compete harder to be on the field, so be it. In the long run we'll end up with a stronger American player who can really compete in international play rather than a player who has been coddled and then shrivels before international competition. I'm not convinced that every starting 11 will go to 8 internationals. As noted before, the success of Houston and New England points to the fact that a US based team can be quite effective.

Further, I love it that DCU is trying to play with the big boys. It will make the team better, international and domestic silverware will continue to come and the Americans on the team will be pushed harder. DCU is thinking big with its actions without relying on empty words touting itself as a "Superclub"

Vamos United

At 02 February, 2008 09:30, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I mean really, developing American talent wins you nothing. I really don't see why we should develop American talent because when it does (as we have seen in our USMNT), it accomplishes nothing anyway except occasionally against Mexico or Costa Rica or Guatemala... and then we all hail South Americans e.g. Brasil & Argentina (who are at the top of the FIFA rankings, thankyouverymuch) as the kings of futbol but then we are like, "no thanks."

Well DCU doesn't roll like that!! We recognize talent when we see it. And talent is in South America.


At 02 February, 2008 11:20, Anonymous Kelly said...

It's not merely a protectionist argument but one pointing out that a large influx of foreign players is going to have consequences beyond simply winning a cup, even detrimental in the long run to U.S. soccer as a whole. Which adversely affects the local clubs, United being no exception.

As yet there's no proof that any of the recently added S.A. players are going to be a significant upgrade from those shuffled out. Gallardo, with the most impressive credentials, remains a question mark due to his age, a lack of recent playing time, communication difficulties, meshing with new players, adapting to a new league and battles with coaches. The others could be comfortably described as journeymen at best and carry many of the same difficulties as Gallardo. They could be better, they could be worse, more likely they will be a wash. For this to truly be a deal they would have to perform markedly better for a substantially reduced price - something that will be hard to achieve with the price tag on Gallardo alone.

Automatically assuming these guys are better merely because they hail from South America is a bit foolish, the other side of the blinders that automatically assume a player is sub-standard because he is American.


At 02 February, 2008 12:50, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Automatically assuming these guys are better merely because they hail from South America is a bit foolish...

Fair enough. So bring 'em on and let them compete. If Martinez or Paralta don't swing it in CD, McTavish will start... and so it goes. I don't have a problem with bringing in foreign players to compete for time and push the local talent. Some will succeed, some won't.

The bigger problem with fostering American talent in MLS is the insulting salaries at the low end.

Can't blame our best draft picks for going overseas where they can concentrate on the game and avoid having to work a second job.

Can't blame our best athletes for playing hoops or pointy-ball for the same reason.

You want professional level talent from the US? Start by paying them a full-time living wage. (Yes, that includes the developmental players, assuming you want them to develop.)

I think any argument over bringing in foreign talent is a distraction. I know MLS is conservative with the dollars, but it would cost far less than a DP to bring a team's low-end salaries up to a respectable level.

- rke

At 02 February, 2008 12:55, Blogger tucksider said...

no one is assuming a player is substandard just because he's American.

one of the new imports is a backup goalkeeper, brought in to challenge the American that we brought in to replace the American we developed and then allowed to move on for a better payday.

two of the others were brought in to shore up a significant weakness in central defense. Greg Vanney is not substandard because he's American, he's substandard because he's expensive and slow. clearly the front office thought he was an upgrade over the South American Facundo Erpen, though, right?

i will agree that the Niell acquisition seems superfluous, but...

Gallardo was brought in to directly replace another Argentinian. tell you what, Kelly: find me an American #10 as good as either of those guys, and then let me know if DCU has any chance of acquiring him. i'll be holding my breath.

the front office is not out looking to get rid of Americans. they're looking to put the best team on the field under a $2 million salary cap with one DP exemption.

At 02 February, 2008 13:11, Blogger tucksider said...

D, one of the few things i often disagree with in your writing is what seems like a tendency to assume the basest motives in other writers. :) i think Tarheel Tom is right that you were maybe a little quick on the racism accusation.

but the rest of your post is wack, Tom. yes, there's something to be said for the appeal of native players. but as a fellow North Carolinian i'd like to point you toward the UNC basketball roster. 8 of the 17 players are from NC, but none of the players who started the other night against BC are.

i haven't heard many people complaining about that. maybe UNC is exempt because it's a global brand, like Arsenal? or maybe it's just because a guy like Tyler Hansbrough of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, makes the team a little better.

At 02 February, 2008 21:50, Anonymous Jeremy said...

While the last two draft classes have been disappointing, I feel that United IS doing a half decent job of developing talent.

Eskandarian, Convey, Adu, Boswell, Perkins, and Olsen are a few of the recent names. OK, Adu is a stretch to say we "developed". Still my point is that United does have the ability to find the diamond in the rough and develop that talent.

Those players (except for Olsen) are all gone now, mostly to Europe. That is what happens in a salary capped league.

The only way to develop more American talent is to get more young people interested in soccer. That requires teams in the league to gain respect in the international circles, so that people no longer think of MLS as a joke.

At 02 February, 2008 23:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off I'd like to reiterate a point mentioned earlier and thank D and the whole commenting crew for making this blog one of (if not) the most interesting to read because it provides a venue for hearty digest and discourse.

The most cited complaint I've personally heard and battled about the MLS is about the level of play in comparison to other leagues. Whatever policy path MLS takes, in order to enact it there needs to be more money available. If the league wishes to attract more fans to encourage investment, it may be able to do so by increasing the overall talent level and better marketing itself to interested individuals and demographics.

For those who remember Houston's franchise naming dilemma, we can say this much - the current MLS sees American fans with national ties outside the US as part of its potentially expanding fan base and the source of greater revenue for a number of league-enhancing options. So these moves may not necessarily hurt youth development and in fact could help with new initiatives in coming years.

Also, the current MNT suffers from a lack of youth development in part because of the loss of many talented players in their building years to the NCAA system which seems to develop them in ways that do not necessarily add to their abilities to play at the international level, much less at the MLS level in some cases. While this is perhaps changing, the pressure on high school and middle school age youth is still to get into a school with a good program, not a club or league funded developmental system, which would require... more money.

At 03 February, 2008 14:23, Blogger Andrew said...

I think the comparison to the problems that England is facing with regard to developing players is inaccurate for one main reason, money. England is having problems developing quality players because their players don't like to leave their comfort zone to compete in other leagues. You take a situation like the Championship (English 2nd Div.) and players make more money playing there then they could make moving to mid-level first division sides in places like Germany, Italy, France, etc. What do you think helps develop players more, playing against Barnsley and Ipswich or playing twice a year against Bayern, Lyon, Milan, etc. and having the chance to make it into European competitions.

This is where it differs in the US. Our players-and not just the top players-for the most part and excluding Landon Donovan here, don't hesitate to move to European teams. Yes one difference is that they can get paid more by going overseas but they also develop their games more. Look at Michael Bradley moving to Heerenveen for Exhibit 1.

Ultimately the way you grow MLS is by improving the standard on the field so you can make more money and pay the players more so that they will stay. That way when Feilhaber or Eddie Johnson or Freddy Adu develop their game in Europe, they can come back and play in a better quality league.

At 04 February, 2008 22:12, Blogger Shatz... said...

I started writing a lengthy comment, then wound up posting it in my own blog instead. But here's my main point I think...

If your company hired a new tech support guy who just happened to be Indian, you would assume that they hired him not because of his race, but because he was the smartest, best candidate for the job. You wouldn't hold it against your company for not hiring a white guy who might not be as smart, would you? So when DC United signs, for example, Gonzalo Martinez, they are signing the best available center back, regardless of his race and nationality. DC United has no more obligation to hire Americans than any other company in the US. It's as simple as that.


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