About ten months ago, the New York Cosmos made some headlines with the signing of United States youth international, Haji Wright. Haji was (and still is) one of the most highly regarded youngsters in the US youth setup, largely due to his rare combination of size and athleticism which just can't be taught. Poaching the youngster from the Los Angeles Galaxy academy before he ever signed a professional deal was a bit of a coup, and had many American soccer fans wondering what it was that made him choose the North American Soccer League over the better competition in Major League Soccer.
As it turned out, that decision came down to eventually facing far better competition than MLS has to offer, and making a move to Europe. MLS was always likely to make that move more difficult than the Cosmos would ever dream of, which is something Head Coach Gio Savarese noted last week when discussing Wright's departure:
"There are two things that are important. One, is that we care about Haji. We care about the development of the sport. We believe that some youngsters need to be professionals early enough in order to be able to be successful. With Haji, we knew he would have the possibility to move on into a team in Europe, so we felt that we could be a team that could help him be successful there and we wanted to participate in his success."
"The second thing is that this will open a trend. This will open a belief that all the players can do it. It has paid off with Alexis Velela and with another player coming in. Many other players see that we do right by players and it shows that we’re willing to do deals that, in essence, economically, at that point, they don’t benefit us, but they benefit the player. We’re willing to do this for the growth of the sport. We are patient in doing the right things. I believe when we do the right thing, eventually, we will grow the trust from the players. When they sign, they will know we mean well for them."
Following the initial rumors of Wright's deal with Schalke, we speculated that more young talent would likely take note of the way the Cosmos acted, and pass on the chance to sign with MLS as teenagers. Instead, we saw them opting to make the short-term move to the NASL, leaving their options open for a future move to Europe. That speculation appears to have been accurate, as on Friday, the club confirmed that U-17 star Eric Calvillo has followed in Wright's footsteps, and signed with the Cosmos.
At leeast one MLS owner is of the opinion that young players staying in the United States, as opposed to heading to Europe, would be in the best interest of the national team. Frankly, that's foolish, and if these owners didn't have hundreds of millions invested in their franchises, they'd almost certainly admit as much. After all, have you ever heard anyone argue (with a straight face) that the Ivory Coast would be better off if Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, and others had stayed at home, instead of developing in Europe? Would Sweden's national team be more competitive if Zlatan Ibrahimovic played for Malmo? Would Lionel Messi have been better off staying in Argentina, never pulling on a Barcelona shirt?
Obviously, every one of these national teams is far better off because those players were exposed to elite competition on a regular basis, early on, and for the bulk of their careers. The same will hold true for Americans, as while the level of competition in MLS has increased significantly over the past decade or so, it's still nowhere near what these kids will encounter overseas. The suggestion that the USMNT's future success should be tied to MLS is farcical, at best, and self serving from MLS ownership.
What the Cosmos are currently doing is helping young talent in the United States to make the best decisions for themselves, as opposed to trusting Don Garber and MLS owners to have interests other than their own in mind. As long as the MLS CBA is structured as it is now, the Haji Wrights and Eric Calvillos of the world who have interest in a European experience will continue to see the NASL champions as a real option, because of the flexibility it gives them going forward. With any luck, many more will follow the road Wright took to the Bundesliga, and the next MLS CBA will be somewhat player friendly, something that would actually help the USMNT far more than keeping Americans stateside ever will.