Note: This is the first of a two-part series analyzing the effects of MLS on the U.S. national team and the CONCACAF region. In the second part, Soccer Perspectives looks at declining percentage of minutes for Americans in MLS.
If you have noticed a distinct Major League Soccer flavor during the recent World Cup qualifiers in CONCACAF, there is a reason. MLS players have had a major influence on every team that has advanced to the hexagonal with the exception of Mexico.
Six MLS players saw action for Honduras during the third stage of qualifying. Marvin Chávez and Víctor Bernárdez of San Jose, Jerry Bengtson of New England and Mario Martinez of Seattle scored nine of 12 goals for Honduras. The other three came from Carlo Costly, who recently played for Houston, and a Canadian own goal.
Ten Jamaicans from MLS were called up for the last two national team camps, and eight MLS players saw action Tuesday night against Antigua and Barbuda. Vancouver’s Dane Richards scored the final two goals that secured Jamaica’s spot in the final stage.
Real Salt Lake’s Álvaro Saborío scored six of Costa Rica’s 14 goals with five MLS-based Costa Ricans receiving call-ups. Blas Pérez of FC Dallas scored three of Panama’s six goals.
Among the teams eliminated this week, nine Canadians from MLS were called up during the third stage. RSL’s Will Johnson and D.C. United’s Dwayne De Rosario scored two of Canada’s six goals. Carlos Ruiz scored five of Guatemala’s nine goals in the third round of World Cup qualifying. Ruiz most recently played in Mexico but spent much of his career – eight seasons – in MLS.
With the United States struggling at times during qualifying, some have questioned whether MLS has helped close the gap between CONCACAF’s top teams – Mexico and the U.S. – and others in the region.
The first question is whether CONCACAF as a whole has improved. One way to compare is the unbiased but flawed FIFA rankings. In 1996 when MLS began, the top six CONCACAF teams other than the U.S. and Mexico had an average ranking of 62.2. The top six CONCACAF teams other than the U.S. and Mexico now have an average ranking of 59.0 – a small improvement. Since smaller nations usually play other teams within the region, the FIFA rankings do not provide the most accurate picture.
Another measure of success is performance in tournaments. While Mexico won gold at the Olympics during the summer, Honduras also made an impression by reaching the quarterfinals. MLS players scored all five goals for Honduras in the tournament that included a 1-0 win against Spain. The Hondurans lost 3-2 in the quarterfinals to Brazil, although many neutral observers felt the Central American team outplayed the Brazilians.
Other than Costa Rica reaching the quarterfinals of the 2004 Olympics and getting destroyed 4-0 by Argentina, CONCACAF teams have generally struggled at the Olympics.
At the World Cup, Honduras failed to score in 2010 but only conceded three and remained competitive against Chile, Spain and Switzerland. Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago finished last in their groups in 2006, although Trinidad did hold Sweden scoreless. Looking through history, smaller CONCACAF teams have primarily finished at the bottom of their groups with the exception of Costa Rica advancing to the knockout stage in 1990.
The rankings and results indicate CONCACAF has improved marginally at best, but whatever improvement has been made can likely be attributed to MLS. There have not been many options for Central American and Caribbean players in the past. Most remain in their domestic leagues or other small leagues in nearby countries – none of which are at the level of MLS.
Mexico has not been a great option as Liga MX coaches generally choose South Americans when they look outside the country, so Central Americans mostly played in the lower divisions. Only two Liga MX players have caps for CONCACAF countries other than the U.S. and Mexico. More than 60 players in MLS this year have caps with CONCACAF teams other than the U.S. and Mexico.
Recently, MLS has also provided exposure to young talent and served as a gateway to Europe for players like Richards, Guatemala’s Marco Pappa and possibly Honduras’ Roger Espinoza, who has been strongly linked to Wigan Athletic.
Vast improvement will not usually happen overnight for smaller countries. Even with players facing better competition, the resources, depth and coaching are not always there. However, the sudden rise of Honduras almost exclusively based around young MLS talent has shown what may be possible.