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- It Seems To Me. . .-

FIFA must examine World Cup policies.

Referees might have been harsh, but U.S. was not cheated against Italy.

Injuries have trashed conventional wisdom on Cup Group E.

Injuries have trashed conventional wisdom on Cup Group E.

At the World Cup, Arena chooses to do things his way.

With U.S. team in Germany, Adu makes gains at home.

MLS should lead the way by using second referee.

Arena's World Cup selections were made with a purpose.

Arena's selections for World Cup roster are fairly evident.

Arena needed to make no apology for loss to Germany.

Contiguglia presided over U.S. Soccer period of progress.

MLS business model is being eyed by European leagues.

Arena selections for Poland game give hints of World Cup roster.

Arena still doesn't get the respect he deserves.

It Seems To Me . . .

MLS ability to develop top players must be examined.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Saturday, July 1, 2006) -- Can you imagine the temerity of United States men's manager Bruce Arena in suggesting that Major League Soccer might not be the best place for a young player to develop his skills for international competition?

In the wake of the U.S. elimination from World Cup 2006 in Germany, Arena suggested that for the American program to improve, more young players need to gain experience in European leagues.

"The way for us to get our players to get better is that we need to do more to get more of our younger talented players to Europe," Arena said. "We need them in a year-round soccer environment. We need them playing in more intense games to help develop them mentally, as well as soccer-wise."

The immediate response from some quarters was that Arena was blaming MLS for his team's failures. Several commentators, who incidentally are either being paid by MLS or who have close ties to the league -- jumped on Arena for the comment.

Then MLS commissioner Don Garber ratcheted up things a bit by saying, "I think it's ridiculous. If I were him, I'd take a deep breath and think about what I say before I criticize anyone in American soccer."

Obviously, blaming MLS for the U.S. performance in Germany would be silly because only six players from the 11-year-old American league -- Landon Donovan, Eddie Pope, Pablo Mastroeni, Jimmy Conrad, Ben Olsen and Clint Dempsey -- had significant playing time in any of the three World Cup matches. Of that group, certainly Conrad, Dempsey and Olsen did not play badly.

What Arena said was nothing new. Reporters who regularly cover the national team and its manager have heard it many times -- those in MLS do not play year-round, as most European teams do, nor is the competition for jobs as intense in MLS as it is overseas. In Europe, players must give 100 percent and compete for their jobs every day, in practice and in games, or else there is someone ready to take their place, while in MLS, there is no one waiting in the wings to replace top players should they not give their best effort.

Just ask U.S. reserve goalkeeper Tim Howard, who went from being the toast of Manchester United to a permanent spot on the bench before being loaned out to Everton next season following just a couple less-than-sterling performances. When United management began to believe it could not absolutely trust Howard, it quickly went out and acquired Edwin van der Sar, a world-class keeper, to take Howard's place.

Donovan is a perfect example of what Arena is talking about. The striker-midfielder for MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy twice tried to play in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen and twice came scurrying back to MLS where he was welcomed with opened arms. The first time Donovan failed in Germany can be blamed on youth and immaturity, but the second time came down to the simple fact he was not willing to work at the level necessary to win a place in Leverkusen's starting team. He would not sit quietly on the bench and be criticized, so he returned to the safety of his home in Southern California -- forcing a trade from the San Jose Earthquakes to L.A. -- so he could play for a team and a league that would let him skate along, giving whatever effort he wanted to on a given day, a level that still makes him among the best players in the league.

Quite a few people believe the whole U.S. development system needs to be revamped. One is United Soccer Leagues president Francisco Marcos, who has wide experience at the international level and who has been in Germany since the start of the Cup.

"I'm sure (U.S. Soccer Federation president) Sunil (Gulati) will be very introspective," Marcos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Charles Gardner. "He'll examine everything, not just the national team. It's the whole development process. MLS has some serious soul-searching to do. This old business that our stars should stay at home is totally ridiculous."

Marcos, whose USL contains the American second, third and fourth divisions, is very open in discussing his belief that the best of young American prospects should not head down to the U.S. under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., but rather must go to Europe during their teenage years.

"The under-17 residency program has basically outlived its overall usefulness," Marcos said. "It can still be used if it's simply step two, with step one being the actual development of players with their clubs. Right now it is the end all and be all. They go to Bradenton and then they get drafted by MLS. It is an unreal environment. They wake up at seven in the morning in Florida, the sun is shining and a great breakfast is waiting. There's no rain (such as) in Newcastle, falling like cats and dogs. It's beach soccer, so to speak."

Several others have now come forward to essentially agree with what Arena said, or at least to tone down some of the rhetoric. "I would've said a couple things differently, but I had no real issues with what (Arena) said," his boss, Gulati told The Washington Post. "(Comments, such as Garber's are) misplaced anger and it's just frustration on everybody's part."

Interesting responses came from two of MLS's most experienced and knowledgeable persons -- deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis and Columbus Crew coach Sigi Schmid.

"The truth is the answer is more complex," Gazidis said. "We'll take time to analyze this. I do think we're not producing the type of player with quality, the skill and the imagination of a (Juan Roman) Riquelme or a Ronaldinho. We have the ability to do it, but we need to reach deeper into the Hispanic and African-American communities, look at South American player development."

Schmid, who served as an assistant to Arena and been coach of the under-20 national team, said: "For sure, playing in Europe gives you a hardness, a coolness. There's more of a microscope, more pressure to perform as an individual. We have to be better at re-creating that in MLS."

This dust-up between Arena and Garber does once again bring up a point that many in the U.S. soccer community try to gloss over or ignore -- that what's best for MLS is not always what's best for U.S. national team, and vice-versa. This is something I have been writing since MLS was born a decade ago, but it is worth examining again, which I will do in my next column.

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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