It Seems To Me. . .
Designated players help MLS quality, but homegrown development has a way to go.
By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, May 12, 2015) -- Major League Soccer, in its 20th season, continues to grow, this year adding two new teams. Beginning play this year, Orlando City SC and New York City FC, a second New York area franchise -- brought the total to 20 clubs.
This season, MLS has more owners willing to open their wallets and spend money, big money, on so-called designated players, whose salaries are well above league maximums. Given MLS's single-entity ownership scheme, all players still are owned collectively by the league as a whole, but with designated players, MLS pays each its maximum allowed salary (about $350,000) with the rest -- in some cases involving millions of dollars -- coming out of the their teams budget. Each club is allowed up to three "DPs."
This somewhat complicated arrangement has brought new players into the league, including such stars as Orlando City midfielder Kaká and NYCFC striker David Villa. It allows owners to continue to pay top dollar to players like the Los Angeles Galaxy's Irish forward Robbie Keane, Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley and striker Jozy Altidore, and Steattle Sounders midfielder Clint Dempsey -- the latter three being mainstays for the United States men.
As happens at the start of every season, the debate begins anew: how good is MLS in terms of the greater soccer world? How good is the overall quality of play within the league? How is soccer developing in the U.S. One person who is well qualified to provide an objective answer is Oka Nikolov, who brings some unique qualifications to the table.
To start, Nikolov grew up in the German youth system. After youth play, he was drafted by Eintracht Frankfurt of the German Bundesliga and spent 11 seasons in goal for Die Adler, playing in 370 Bundesliga matches. He also played for Macedonia as he carries dual German-Macedonian citizenship.
Then, his career took an interesting turn, one which rendered him especially qualified to talk about the current level of play in MLS. He played a season for the Philadelphia Union and then a season with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the second-tier North American Soccer League. So he understands American soccer and American players, and can view the current level of play in the professional leagues in this country.
"There are some very good players in MLS," Nikolov said, talking about the Kaká's and David Villa's, "These players and a few more could play in most leagues in the world."
"But" and he admitted this was a very big but, "the average player in MLS is not the same quality as the average player in the Bundesliga (and by reference average players in the English Premier League, Italy's Serie A, Spain's La Liga, and France's Ligue 1). "Every day," Nikolov explained, "those players train against the best players in the world and this makes them better. It's this level of training and competition where American leagues fall behind."
Where would MLS teams fit in the scheme of things in European leagues? Nikolov believes that the best MLS squads could more than hold their own in some of the secondary first division leagues in Europe, say in Scandinavia, but in the major soccer countries, MLS might only be competitive only in second divisions. "MLS teams could be successful in the 2. Bundesliga," he said.
Nikolov shares some interesting views with his fellow German, U.S. men's coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann has been outspoken in his belief that young American soccer players, even those at high elite levels, do not develop the technical abilities their counterparts coming up through youth ranks in Europe do.
Nikolov shares this specific belief and he is able to make this judgment because currently he is an assistant coach and youth national team scout for the German Football Association (DFB). He is also director of coaching for the Frankfurt Youth Soccer Club. This gives him a special insight into the high level of youth soccer being played around the world, as well as in the U.S.
"When I was in Philadelphia, I saw all the young people playing soccer in the area," Nikolov said. "I understand youth soccer and just the number of young people playing soccer in this country almost assures that eventually the talent level in this country will grow so it rivals the soccer being played in Europe and South America.
"It may take 10 years, but I am absolutely sure it will happen."