The recent January transfer window saw Major League Soccer rise to prominence in a major way.
With Financial Fair Play on the minds of all the Premier League’s big-spenders, loan moves were the order of the day for many, with England’s elite looking to America for some short-term success.
The advantages are obvious, with players looking to gain valuable match-fitness before the league’s big kick-off in March. The standard of player has also improved greatly in recent years.
After David Beckham’s move to the LA Galaxy, Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane both added some star power to the ever-growing league. Unsurprisingly, all three were in demand this winter, with Henry and Keane both returning to England. Beckham, with his contract up in California, opted against a move back to Europe not just on loan, but permanently.
His two-year contract extension is another major boost for the MLS, which has grown in popularity since his arrival in 2007.
It’s not just these big foreign names that have been in Premier League demand though, with USA internationals also on the wanted list. Landon Donovan, who returned to Everton for a second loan spell, had a major impact during two months at Goodison. His arrival coincided with an up-turn in fortunes for the Merseysiders.
The list of American players spending time in the Premier League is long, but few have enjoyed major success. Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, Marcus Hahnemann, Stuart Holden, Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, Claudio Reina and Brian McBride are the pick of the bunch, with four goalkeepers in that list highlighting their prominence in one particular position.
But, things could be about to change, helped largely by a change in mentality and approach that has helped transform the MLS.
Dempsey, who is enjoying his finest season in English football with Fulham, admits he was late committing to the game as a youngster, an understandable problem when you consider the prominence of American Football, Basketball and Baseball in the States.
But, the rise of academies is providing a professional element to football across the Atlantic, and Dempsey is confident it will lead to serious improvements to the caliber of players produced.
“Things are a lot different now in how players develop in the USA with the academies. The new system is good because when you’re playing in the best environment possible, around the best players week in week out, it’s always going to push you to be your best,” noted Dempsey.
“By being in academies that MLS clubs are running, hopefully it’s helping players get better coaching without having to pay top dollar for it. It also helps them get looked at and to have a chance to make that jump to being a professional.
“Players are now in a position where they can go straight from the academies to the pros, and if that doesn’t work out they can still go to college. But, if you want to make it at the top, you have to put everything you have into it to achieve that goal.”
We’ve got excited over American ‘sensations’ in the past, of course, with Freddie Adu the highest profile player to mention. At 14, every club in Europe wanted ‘the next big thing’, but eight years later the youngster is re-building his career with the Philadelphia Union.
The names Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson will stick in the minds of some fans, but both showed they weren’t up to the standards at the highest level when given their chance at Hull City and Fulham respectively.
But, a new breed of player seems to be emerging in the States, with two youngsters in particular leading the charge.
“The earlier you start getting into matches at the professional level and playing regularly, the earlier it will be when you start getting looks with the national team. That’s what we’re starting to see now in the USA with guys like Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea,” added Dempsey.
“We’ll see where they can take it and hopefully it will lead to big things for them and for the sport in America.”
Agudelo, a 19-year-old striker, is Henry’s strike-partner at the NY Red Bulls, and already has 15 international caps to his name. He spent a few weeks on trial at Liverpool pre-Christmas, and thrived on the spell at Anfield.
Shea has been earning rave reviews at FC Dallas, and followed his international teammate to the UK for a trial at Arsenal. “It definitely showed me what is needed to play at the next level,” he said on his time with the Gunners.
The improvements Stateside have left Arsene Wenger in no doubt that the USA will have a major influence on modern football in the not too distant future.
“Two aspects of the development of the game that will certainly influence the modern game. One will come from the States, where football is becoming more and more popular and the quality is raising. That’s one part that will interest the modern game,” claimed Wenger in November.
The Premier League’s gain could well be America’s loss mind-you, with the financial benefits, global appeal and competitive standard in England likely to lure the cream of the young crop away from the MLS.
As was the case with Dempsey, eyes will be on those youngsters who make the SuperDraft move to a professional club, and then show signs of further progress in the professional game – Agudelo and Shea the perfect example.
Given the stature of the English game, clubs have been given their chance to take a closer look at the best players on a trial basis, and whilst that can only serve as a benefit for the young players, it could stop if teams look to make these moves more permanent.
One thing’s for sure – the American game has come a long way in recent years, with growth in the popularity of the MLS showing no signs of stopping. That can only mean more kids taking up the game, which in-turn will mean more players developing through the ranks. It isn’t only good for the USA national team, but potentially for the Premier League too.