For roughly the past two decades, the CONCACAF region has been the United States and Mexico followed by everyone else. They were the two teams you would expect to finish at the top of the Hex, the two teams that were expected to go the farthest, and the two teams that were winning nearly every Gold Cup.
As we now know, that is obviously not the case anymore. There were plenty of ignored warning signs that this was coming and there are plenty of reasons as to why it’s happened. But there’s one reason that’s bigger than them all.
Major League Soccer.
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over as manager of the USMNT, one of the first things he did was change the way the United States played friendlies. Klinsmann set out to play the best teams as often as possible, playing games against Spain, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands to name a few. Sometimes the U.S. got positive results, sometimes they were run off the field. Neither of that mattered.
The point of this was to get the United States on the field with the best players as often as possible. He wanted to embed into his players that they can play with these guys, that they belong on the same field as the best players in the world.
Did it work? That’s hard to say. The U.S. scored wins over Italy, Germany (twice), and the Netherlands. But all those victories came in friendlies. When the U.S. took on Germany at the World Cup, or Argentina in the Copa America, they went back to looking shell-shocked and were run off the field. Having said all that, this was not a goal that could be accomplished overnight, or in a year, or even in four years. It takes a lot of time.
That’s where MLS comes in.
After launching in 1996, the league took a while to really establish themselves. Their growth was slow, but deliberately so. They started developing strong American players like Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, and Michael Bradley, who would eventually be snatched up by European clubs as the players looked to expand their careers.
In 2007, a major turning point happened for the league, David Beckham signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy and thus the designated player era was born. Since then, the league had much higher growth. The talent in the league has gotten better and teams started handing out big contracts to USMNT players as they hoped to capitalize on their newfound fame, especially after the 2014 World Cup.
Outside of the headlines, something else was also happening in MLS. Players from Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Trinidad & Tobago and many other countries in the CONCACAF region began signing with MLS teams. They lacked the fanfare of the designated players, but they were there and were crucial pieces to many MLS teams.
It’s important to remember, while US Soccer has made proclamations about trying to catch up to the Germanys, Spains, and Frances, of the world, countries like Costa Rica and Honduras were trying to catch up the United States and Mexico’s of the world.
The best way to catch up to other countries is not only to get your players into better leagues, but get them into the leagues where those players are playing! 15 years ago, top Americans could go to Europe, but for the most part players from the other CONCACAF nations had nowhere to go. These days, playing in MLS is a major step up from what their country has to offer.
Now add in that over the last four years, not only have the top U.S. players for the most part stopped going to Europe, but a lot of the ones that were there have come back! Suddenly, if you look around MLS, all of the best CONCACAF players are there.
In previous years, the U.S. had the advantage every time they faced another team in CONCACAF. The US may not have the intimidation that Mexico has with the Azteca Stadium but they didn’t need it. The U.S. was better, they knew it and their opponents knew it too. Before the game even started, everyone knew the U.S. was going to win.
But these days, it’s a totally different ball game. Costa Rican players no longer fear the United States. Five years ago, a Panamanian player would only see Clint Dempsey twice every four years. They’d line up against him and see a player who next week would be lining up for Fulham and scoring against Manchester United. Or a player who led his small club to a Europa League final. These days, he’s the player they lined up against last Saturday while they were playing for their club.
You can argue that the USMNT’s top players returning to MLS has hurt their game and made the national team worse. You can also argue that’s not true. What can’t be argued is that it has made the rest of CONCACAF better. This is what Klinsmann wanted for the United States. The more often you’re on the field against Thomas Muller, the more you’ll feel like you belong on the field with Thomas Muller. That’s what the rest of CONCACAF is getting with their players in MLS.
The gap between the rest of CONCACAF is getting narrower, while the gap between the US and the European giants they claim to be chasing is only growing wider.