In a global labour market like the one in professional football, the slightest change in workforce composition can have big implications for how organisations compete with one another for resources. This weekend, the conclusion of the Western Conference semi-final first leg between Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes proved an outstanding example of Major League Soccer’s changing labour supply. With David Beckham sitting on the bench and American hero Landon Donovan mulling his interest in the sport, San Jose’s Honduran international Victor Bernárdez lashed a 30 yard free kick under the legs of a jumping Omar Gonzalez and past a desperately flapping Josh Saunders to give San Jose a stoppage time victory. The percentage of players from Honduras, Jamaica, and Canada has been increasing in the MLS player pool. And, the league initially intended to be a development vehicle for the United States is supplying a professional environment for key players for the Caribbean and Central American members of the CONCACAF region.
Honduras’ increasingly impressive national team (by CONCACAF standards, anyway) has 5 national team players based in MLS. All 5 Honduran internationals have more than 20 caps, with 23 international goals between them. Panama’s group stage upset of the USA in the 2011 Gold Cup was won on a penalty taken by Philadelphia Union’s Gabriel Gomez. Costa Rica has 3 internationals playing in MLS, including national team top scorer Alvaro Saborío. Of the eight members of the Jamaican national team playing professionally in MLS, only four of the eight play on MLS clubs actually based in the United States, while the other four ply their trade for the league’s three Canadian clubs.
As Major League Soccer continues to develop, the surrounding CONCACAF nations are taking advantage of the league’s need for decent players at comparably low wages on the global market. MLS uses this cheap labour force to get better play for its dollar, and in return national teams have players who get the experience of the long MLS season plus a diminished “wow factor” when they play matches against the United States. In turn, as the national set-ups in CONCACAF improve, the player market for Major League soccer diversifies, allowing the league to acquire better players the next year at the prices they paid for wages this year. In short, the available labour supply of MLS football jobs is driving the growth of CONCACAF’s international player pool, and the better supply of football labour in CONCACAF is fueling the growth of Major League Soccer as a competitive league.
The trend raises questions as to whether the United States is doing itself any favours by having Major League Soccer serve as a developmental league for all of CONCACAF. Given recent qualifying difficulties against Jamaica and the aforementioned upset at the hands of Panama in the 2011 Gold Cup, concerns grow that MLS helps the regional competition more than the United States itself.
True, the United States national team has as many current Major League Soccer professionals on its squad as does Honduras. But Major League soccer tends to be the weakest league represented in the national team setup, whereas MLS is one of the strongest leagues on the roster for most, if not all, of the other non-Mexican CONCACAF nations. In this regard, the lack of MLS players on the US national team roster is not an indication of the League’s failure to develop talent, but its success. The number of Americans playing in Europe and also in the Mexican first division demonstrates both the strides made by top tier American professional talent, but also the job that USA Soccer and MLS have done in raising the credibility level that success in their competitions translates to value in the European labour market.
If we think back to the time before the 2002 World Cup, Major League Soccer was loaded with American-based talent. In retrospect, Europe had undervalued many of these players’ abilities, due to the lack of success of American players in Europe historically and because Major League Soccer had no track record in producing players. After the United States’ quarterfinal run in 2002, a large percentage of the MLS contingent on that squad found their way into European clubs interested in bargain hunting. Enough of those bargains worked out and changed the general impression of the American footballer. In one decade, the list of Americans playing professionally abroad on the weekend went from numbers you could count on your hand to a list of over 50 Americans playing weekly and for the most part getting regular playing time at that.
The talent deficit created by European and Mexican purchasing of the United States’ top domestic players has been filled by shrewd buys from Latin America. While clubs in trendy American (and Canadian if we count Montreal Impact’s signing of Alessandro Nesta) cities have spent enormous sums to recruit big name talent from abroad, the League is equally populated by clubs who have succeeded by offering veteran players from Latin America a stable professional life in the United States and younger Latin American players the possibility of using MLS to springboard into European football.
The question of whether Major League Soccer should be developing region-wide talent is practically irrelevant. Major League Soccer’s profits are surging from the construction of soccer stadiums, increased ticket revenues, genuine domestic competition between television networks for broadcast rights, and even the emergence of a market for overseas television rights. As such, MLS will never seriously entertain any idea that constitutes the watering down of the product it places on the field. The talent MLS develops from rival CONCACAF nations keeps the player pool as robust as it can be for the price point the league offers for player wages.
Going forward, Major League Soccer should not worry that it is making Panama too competitive in world cup qualifying. Instead, the League should think about a future decline in its product quality if and when Honduran, Panamanian, Costa Rican and Canadian players start getting their transfer requests to Europe. How will MLS cope with that trend when Europe finds this potential value in non-American MLS players?
Perhaps the League can generate enough revenues to offer more competitive wages to keep its regional contingent in the States and maybe even buy back Americans playing in some of the lower paying leagues in Europe. But as it stands right now, Major League Soccer is sitting on a cheap, bountiful resource, and the League needs to make enough money before its gone to be able to afford whatever comes next. This leaves little room for error for the League’s finances, but it also means that there’s no way that they are going to shut down the CONCACAF pipeline just because the national team is finding it harder to win football matches.
Steven Maloney writes about football and politics. He also holds a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Maryland and is a political science lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. You can follow him on twitter here.