August 12, 2013
By Michael Lewis
WHERE WILL THE PLAYERS COME FROM?
Proposed MLS expansion raises question from director of player programs Mondelo
It's a question of numbers.
Major League Soccer has some 2020 vision as it wants to add four more expansion teams in seven years.
There are plenty of candidates, but the big question is whether there are enough players -- Americans -- to stock these new sides.
Finding them could be easier said than done.
MLS director of player programs Alfonso Mondelo asks some valid questions as to whether there are enough players to make up four viable teams.
"That's the big question," Mondelo said in a recent interview. "Would we have to import more talent to the league? Or will little by little all of the youth academies really begin to develop quality professional players. I still think we're a bit away from that."
MLS has 19 teams, with NYC FC primed to join the league in 2015.
Mondelo admitted there was no easy answer as to making sure the new teams have quality players.
"I'm not sure. Really I'm not sure," he said. "Right now, there's not enough depth on our teams. Once you go past probably the starting 11 or 12 players, there is really a drop of the quality of players. So where are those players going to come from? Maybe the ownership group will invest in bringing in more international players for the time being until the American players are truly ready to fill those spots.
"I think it is quite a lot to expect them to bring four teams in. we're going to have to wait and see. I still don't know. I'm not sure. It's good that we have more franchises. Really the last few franchises coming into MLS have been great additions, a shot in the arm for the league. Probably the next four that come in will have similar fans, with stadiums and a fan base. That's important. I think the quality of play comes extremely important. How that will be done?"
No matter what the sport, it is always about the player.
"No question," Mondelo said. "That's what the fans pay to see. We had a questionnaire a couple of years back. It was a surprise to me. The fans didn't think the quality of play of the play in the league was that bad. They weren't that concerned about it."
But if MLS wants to become one of the great soccer leagues of the world, quality of play will be the No. 1 priority -- for at least two reasons.
The league not only wants to compete with other leagues for players, but with many leagues on American television, MLS is vying for ratings against these European and South American leagues. And the only way to become more attractive is to have better play; hence, better players.
"Right now you can watch the EPL, you can watch La Liga, you can the French First Division, you can watch almost anything in the world," Mondelo said. "You know that the level of play in MLS still has a ways to go. It certainly has improved quite a bit the last few years, but it's not what we would say is top-level competitive. You could see it in the [all-star] game ... the tactical awareness of the players from Roma and the players from MLS. Granted, they had one practice together and itís a team that was thrown together. I think overall, our teams are not there yet. So while that's improving, we're still not where we need to be.
"Now if we bring in more teams, we're going to dilute because naturally some of those players who are not starters on some of those teams will wind up becoming starters on the new franchises. It's a Catch-22. Yes, you want to have more teams. Yeah, you want to have more attention and more markets being involved in the sport. But you also want to improve the quality. It is something that we have to tackle over the next few years. It is something that we talk about a lot. We are thinking of ways that we can improve. And hopefully in the next few years, that will be the case."
The USL PRO has some usable players, but probably not enough to stock the four new teams with the level of players needed to compete.
The league will have to wait for the ultimate solution -- waiting for players to develop through the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, and that doesnít happen overnight. The academies, which have raised the level of player of many teenage players, have been around since 2007. The program is still growing and developing.
"It's going to take more than the next four or five years -- or 10 years -- before our academies really begin to function," Mondelo said. "I think they're beginning to find their way. Developing professional players in this country, that has never been a focus here. It's been developing players to get into college. If they were to play professionally, great. They were not being prepared or groomed from the ages of eight-, nine-years old to become professional players.
"It has been a big switch in the last five years, especially with the MLs clubs. They have a vested interest in looking to improve the product. Now trying to polish these guys, putting them in a good environment, giving them good experiences and hopefully, by the time they're 18 or 19, instead of going on and being college players, we can get the pick of the litter and make them professionals. I think that's the next step of soccer in the United States."
For MLS, it can't come soon enough, not with more expansion looming over the horizon.