The Feilhaber Decision: How American Footballers Can Elevate MLS

Benny Feilhaber is not an American football superstar in the way of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey or Tim Howard.  He is a player with matinee idol looks and a remarkable talent, never more on display than in 2009’s Confederations Cup in South Africa where he thrived as Bob Bradley’s go-to substitution in the second half against world class opponents.  His decision to leave second-division Danish side AGF Aarhus and sign with MLS, entering the allocation pool reserved for U.S. National side members, could prove to be a pivotal move in the direction the developing soccer league must continue to travel.

(At the time of writing this piece, Chivas USA had until 5 pm to decide on whether they’d sign Benny Feilhaber at his cap number.  Grant Wahl estimated that number at around $300k.)

MLS, its success in the present and future, starts with American footballers.  If the league wishes to thrive with serious fans of football in this nation, they must maintain their second-tier talent at least.  No one wants Dempsey to leave Fulham, Howard to leave Everton, Holden or Spector to leave Stoke or West Ham – as long as they continue receiving adequate time on the pitch. (And these gentlemen are certainly not abandoning those paychecks.)  Steve Cherundolo, captaining Hannover 96, has them on the cusp of a Champions League berth.  The goal of US football must remain the success of the USMNT and the the better the competition those players face, the better the team will play.

But is Jozy Altidore really being served by his time at Bursapor?  Is Jonathan Bornstein really improving far more at UANL in Mexico that he could be at say Colorado the US? Is Maurice Edu thriving at Rangers in the dying SPL, a league that’s been reduced to the ready-to-depart Old Firm and some other sides?

The truth is no, they are not.  If MLS wishes to thrive as a world football league, they must convince American players that outside the obvious superiority of England, Germany and the tops of both Spain and Italy, the MLS can line up opposite any world club and compete.  Is it true?  Not currently.  Can it be true?  Absolutely.

And the USMNT must also realize that the more American club  players are suiting up for the national side, the more enthusiasm that side will muster out of the rank-and-file American football supporter.

It will take bold decision making on the part of current players fledgling throughout Europe.  It will take bold decision making from the Juan Agudelo and Tim Reams of the world who are sure to be courted by clubs in France and the Netherlands as their club and national star rises.  But Feilhaber is the start.  At 26 years old, he is the first in-his prime national team standout to to spurn Europe for MLS in modern time.  (I consider modern times everything since the ’94 group.)  But whether he is a trailblazer or enigma will go a long way toward determining the viability of MLS as a national league.

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