05 February 2008

Voices Carry...

...see, because I waited 'til Tuesday for this post responding to reader comments. I know! You were expecting some cheesy Super Tuesday joke, not an Aimee Mann 1980s anti domestic violence sub reference. I shall leave the Super Tuesday type posts to those more fit to make them.

I like to highlight disagreements with me, or at least perceived disagreements with me, in this post, simply because I enjoy the lack of group-think. That's what this site is somewhat dedicated to. We do our analysis, we make up our minds. If you look at things and reach a different conclusion, well, that's just as good in my book. So, regarding the "Latin Flair" (a loaded term in and of itself) and what it means for United and MLS, let's address some of the comments from Friday's post.

First, to everyone who wrote in either agreeing, or at least saying how they enjoyed the analysis, thank you. I value those comments, especially when, as on Friday, I was a bit unsure of my territory. Sometimes it just helps to hear that I'm not utterly over-reading, or insane. Really, I get insecure. You may have noticed.

Now, to the critiques. JCM, of the most reputable Poplar Point Perspective, noted one concern: "...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." This is a valid point, and the fact is that the Salary Cap constricts how we pay players, especially draft picks. Now, when the players' Collective Bargaining Agreement comes up for renegotiation, we should watch closely. If MLS suits take a hard line in keeping minimum salaries low, and stringent caps in place, then MLS may well be shooting itself in the foot when it comes to retaining domestic talent. The departures of Needham and Jacobson represent a trend which is good on two fronts - it allows these players a chance to get more for their services than they would in MLS, and fires a nice warning shot across the bow. For years the Collective Bargaining Agreement was simply about cost-containment for MLS, and minimizing the losses. Now with the movement towards more profitable franchises, these austerity measures begin to look extreme. If there is new wealth coming into the league, some of it must be shared with players other than the Designated Player signings. Watch the CBA negotiations in a year or so.

Tarheel Tom takes issue with my tone: "Throwing out the accusations of racism was a bit hasty don't you think?" Tucksider echoes this in one of his comments, "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." This is fair, and it stems from an odd situation. Let me take this opportunity before someone big sees this and gets angry to clarify -- I do not want to accuse Ridge Mahoney or Slow Francis of being racist. Mr. Mahoney is an excellent analyst, and Mr. SF is an excellent court jester. They do their jobs well. However, both I felt were loading the language in unfortunate ways. Mr. SF did it because sometimes to bring the funny, you need to bring the discomfort (which I'm fine with.) Mr. Mahoney was a bit more problematic, because I felt he didn't need to charge his writing quite in that way except to create a feeling of fear and foreboding that his analysis did not require. I disagree with his point, but his point was fine. The language was unnecessary, and while not hurtful, was drifting that way. The even more racist comments that are out there I think can be found through some easy google searches. I do not wish to link to them, so instead I went with the cases that were not nearly as offensive. That was a disservice to both SF and Mr. Mahoney, and I apologize.

Now, on the more substantive post, Tarheel Tom concludes his point with this:

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.

Now, this is a matter of perpective, and I think I disagree. While the majority of our audience is US Citizens, we do not bond to this team because of its American component. Emilio, Gomez, Etcheverry, Moreno, Raul Diaz Arce were loved by our US Fanbase on aggregate just as much, if not more, than Olsen, Pope, Harkes, Lassiter, or Boswell. Perhaps the hook for DC fans back in the day was the return of Harkes, but the bond that exists now is beyond that. I care about goals, tackles, and silverware, and do not care for nationality. I root for Ben Olsen not because he his an American, but because he provides the right attitude on the field and plays his heart out. When Ben Olsen made the US National team for Germany, I was happy for him and because I do root for the USA, but I was also happy the day Bolivia came to its senses and finally recalled Moreno to their squad.

Now, on to the issue of "building the National team." Kelly quite correctly notes that:

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.

I concede all of these points, but I feel they are irrelevant. The goal for each team is winning, and however MLS tries to create incentives for developing US players, the only goal for my team is winning games however they can. Now, you can argue, as Kelly and Mr. Mahoney both do, that MLS needs to do a better job with those incentives. Still, at no point should we ever mistake that the league's goals and the team's goals are, or even should be, the same. To goal of the team is to win the league, and its strategies for working in that direction should never be confused with the league's priorities. The league doesn't like dynasties that upset parity. I kind of like them, provided it is my team that's the dynasty. Teams love to be a dynasty. Just ask those crazy kids in Houston.

And that's the thing. When D.C. United was just doing its own thing, most commenters are correct that no one objected. The concern now is that D.C. has become the model, and now the objections are coming. That somehow it is unfair.

Now, the most fundamental point that I need to make is this. We are conditioned to view the influx of foreign players and the development of American players as a zero sum game. Certainly the salary cap and low developmental salaries bolster that view. So let me agree with everyone who says we must raise the cap and pay a (for lack of a better term) living wage to all of our players. I agree with all of you. We are now beyond the time when economic reality made it impossible for MLS to be expected to take care of the new developing players. And I agree with Kelly that sitting on the bench in Europe may be just as beneficial to a player's skills as sitting on a bench in Columbus (which is to say, not at all). But even the players have figured this out, looking to go places where they will get time on the field. Perkins is not the third string at West Ham, he is the starter in the European North. Adu is getting substitute time with Benfica, not rotting in Madrid's reserves. Needham wanted to start and earn more money in Puerto Rico. They have made smart choices all (the Michael Bradley example is also relevant, although he was playing pretty damn well in New York before Mo got rid of him). Even Benny Feilhaber realizes that benched for Derby sucks, and was willing to go to Israel.

Finally, one more point. I have carefully not said that I am sure that United's signings, or any team's South American signings, will bring success in 2008 or upcoming seasons. I don't know. I think I've been clear on that. If United is barking up the wrong tree, they will lose. I will say that looking at United's history shows that they have gotten good returns on South American talent, and to that extent I can understand the desire to double-down on that continent. But if they were wrong, and if another team shows that developing American talent is more effective in MLS, then United will lose for a few seasons... and then they will adjust. I am not saying that players are better simply because they are from South America, I am saying that United is better at identifying the right, affordable talent in South America than they are in the United States. We, to perhaps exaggerate a bit, suck at identifying talent in the United States that we can keep and use. And perhaps that will bite us. As I have said, this season may be more about the choices of the front office than the players on the pitch.

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At 05 February, 2008 14:43, Blogger Oscar M. said...

Food for thought - how many players does a team have to develop every year to be successful? What do we mean by "develop" players? Its one thing to make them credible MLS subs and players (ala Namoff, Gros, Burch) , its another to develop talent a national team calibre player. For a while, New England seemed to be the best at developing home grown talent, right? How does United compare to them and other teams in the league?

At 05 February, 2008 16:06, Anonymous Jeremy said...

Very little of the national team roster developed in MLS. At least the portion that starts real, maningful, international games. The players who are good enough to start play in Europe.

United has developed some National team talent: Convey, Olsen, to a lesser extent Adu, (can Pope be counted?). That's all I can think of at the moment.

I think that it is more a matter of perspective and semantics. United can develop some of the talent. However, United chooses not to retain the talent, preferring to find "bargains" elsewhere.

The past few years, however, are noticiably lacking in player development.

To an extent, I agree that US player development is not our problem and that United should primarily focus on winning. Not at all costs, though. The health and success of the league needs to be the primary objective of all teams, followed closely by individual success, ala "A Beautiful Mind".

At 06 February, 2008 12:55, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He wants me, but only part of the time.
He wants me, if he can keep me in line."

-Unidentified American, overheard at training camp

At 06 February, 2008 13:40, Blogger Oscar M. said...

Jeremy - I don't think its quite that clear to say that MLS hasn't developed guys for the US Nats, just because they're currently or mostly play for European teams. Off the to of my head, guys MLS has developed for the national team include:
- Eddie Pope
- Brian Mcbride
- Steve Ralston (yeah, more of a stretch but he helped us qualify)
- Clint Dempsey
- Clint Mathis
- Eddie Johnson
- Bobby Convey
- Tim Howard
- Chris Albright
- Eddie Lewis
- D. Beasley
- Brian Ching

At 06 February, 2008 16:53, Blogger Shatz... said...

I wouldn't necessarily say that New England is the best at developing homegrown talent. They only appear to be the best because they won't allow their talent to leave home! If United had taken the same perspective with Freddy Adu and Bobby Convey and kept them here at all costs, then we might be considering DC the best instead.

At 07 February, 2008 09:22, Anonymous bigkris said...

I think it's unfortunate that the story too often is someone trying to defend or justify a position, taken as fact, that DC specifically wants South Americans. I think this is a fallacy that should be corrected. DC United does not have a desire to recruit South Americans specifically or a bias against those not in South America. Greg Vanney, an American who had been playing in France, was someone DC had been coveting for years when they finally got him.

The point is you work the strengths you have. DC over the years has cultivated relationships with particular agents and teams. Most of these teams happen to be South American teams and most of the agents happen to represent mostly players who are South American in origin. (Case in point: we got Fred, who was playing in Australia, because his agent was someone DC worked with.) If one of their contacts, instead of coming up with yet another South American, were to turn up, say, a young, promising player of African descent currently playing in London, or a kid whose last gig was in the Vietnamese 1st division, would we go after that kind of player, too? Clearly the answer is yes. But as it happens, since DC has had the most luck or success with its contacts in South America, those tend to be more fruitful for us and we tend to pull in more players through that pipeline.

Note, too, the implications this has for the rest of the league: anyone who is dumb enough to assume that DC's success with bringing in foreign talent is simply a matter of signing any South American who is out of contract will get burned. The network we have was cultivated over years, and I think that means the advantage we have in recruiting will persist for a while yet.


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