The political landscape surrounding US/Mexico borders and legal and illegal immigration is surrounded by strong emotions, loud arguments and both educated and ridiculous opinions.
Luckily, this is a soccer blog, not a political blog. My opinions on the US/Mexico immigration issue are not the focus on this post.
I won’t be talking about whether Arizona’s attempts at a stricter new State law should mean they never see an MLS team or that we patriotically move them up to next in line for expansion and award them the Arizona Cosmos tomorrow.
I won’t discuss whether lettuce will cost us $24 a head if we cut off the cheap labor influx or if finally jobs will open up for hard working Americans.
Well, actually, there are some cross-border jobs worth discussing here.
That of Mexican soccer players coming to MLS, and (more importantly) the American players heading to Mexico to play professionally – potentially as the Mexican Football Federation’s version of cheap imported labor?
Mexican players have always played a part in MLS as those of us around that first season remember Jorge Campos and his acrobatic and unpredictable goalkeeping. But starting with Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and now followed by Nery Castillo and Rafa Marquez, and Omar Bravo in 2011, it feels as if MLS has gained a new relevance for Mexican players.
On the flip side, more American players are finding options in Mexico as attractive. This too, is nothing new. In fact, Tab Ramos, Mike Sorber and Marcelo Balboa all had stints in the Mexican first division before MLS was even up and running.
But with American World Cup players José Francisco Torres and Herculez Gomez playing in the Mexican first division, USA’s Jonathan Bornstein having decided to play in Mexico after this season, and the USA going as far as to persuade former Mexican player Edgar Castillo to switch allegiances and play for the USA, things are getting more and more interesting with this cross-border soccer trade.
I like having the best American players playing in MLS –among other reasons, this is because most (not all) international experiences don’t seem to bring as much development as they promise. But I certainly do not get upset by players trying their luck elsewhere, and find it interesting that so few end up in Mexico, especially give the nearby location, easier travel to US National Team’s home and CONCACAF games and historically good pay ranges.
The question then becomes: When does it make sense for a US player to look to play in Mexico, as opposed to MLS or whatever European options are open to them?
Obviously, there is no black and white answer here. I think there are a number of interesting reasons that American players might choose the Mexican league. Including the fact that they:
- can often make more money than other options, like MLS.
- simply want to try something different.
- have gotten overlooked by MLS.
- think their skill sets are more suited for the Mexican league game.
- are looking to better develop (or round-out) their skills.
For this discussion, I think the last reason is most interesting.
Comparing league skill and style is certainly no simple task, but to move forward we can at least make an assumption or two that seems reasonable. Here are two that seem to be generally accepted:
- The soccer played in the Mexican first division is more tactical, patient and (often) skillful than MLS.
- The soccer played in MLS is typically faster, more physical and more direct than in Mexico.
- Mexican first division rosters tend to be “deeper” with talent than their MLS counterparts.
If there was more of an MLS / Mexican league melting pot, one might think the ingredients exist for better player development by combining the strengths of each individual league. This development would help prepare players for the rigors of National team duty or for grooming future stars that want to head to Europe and conquer bigger challenges.
For instance, what if some of our current crop of young players, whose pace outweighs their tactical awareness or ball skills, had spent or would spend a couple years in Mexico.
If there was a program (either between clubs or leagues) that would allow players like Robbie Rogers, Kevin Alston, Corey Ashe, Robbie Findley (and we could go on) to spend time on loan, or otherwise, playing in the Mexican league I would think they would all end up better players for the experience.
Even better could be a program that swapped young Mexican talent with young American talent for a year. The Americans would hopefully get the tactical skill development they need, and the Mexican players would get a taste of a more rough and tumble game that would prepare them for different experiences they might see in Europe or elsewhere.
Of course, the challenge is that none of these players would be guaranteed playing time, or to break into a starting lineup in Mexico. But if the program was a rotational program and the player knew he wasn’t “stuck” in a bad situation, they would likely be less disheartened by such struggles.
A much more out-of-the-box idea for overcoming the playing time challenge – and one undoubtedly fraught with countless issues, but nonetheless interesting – would be to find a way for a “traveling only” (no home stadium) club of young up-and-coming stars to play in the opposite country’s league for a year. They would dually represent their country (USA) and their MLS club.
Sure, there are countless reasons why this might not work, but even if you inserted an “MLS Junior All Star Team” into the Mexican league only once every four years (pick any number, since we are out to lunch anyway) and did the opposite insertion of a “Mexican Junior All Start Team” into MLS it would be rather interesting for player development, interest in MLS from the Mexican population in the US and increased rivalry between the leagues.
I know this will never work.
I know we want to grow our own development capabilities (and need to.)
I know I’m alone on Mars here.
I just hope other people are thinking outside the box on how to leverage these two differing skill sets, interest levels and marketing potential in new ways that do make sense.