it’s crunch time for most world cup hopefuls. for most traditional soccer nations, almost all of their players are looking at the second half of their seasons as the make or break period of the world cup aspirations. play well, and they could earn themselves a seat on the plane to south africa. play poorly, and they’ll be watching next summer’s finals on tv like the rest of us poor schmucks. so the pressure to perform is obviously intense.
of course for MLS players, the story is a little different. the league’s continued insistence to not adhere to the international calander means that, for a majority of it’s players, the six months leading up to the cup completely lack any games. up until the MLS season starts in march, the absence of any way to keep match fit and prove themselves to their national team coaches means most players are left with tough decisions to make.
for many of the american’s in the USMNT player pool, this decision making process can have profound effects on not just their chances of making the world cup squad, but also on their career.
the first option, and the most likely scenario, is that the player waits it out until the beginning of the MLS season. they do their best to keep in shape, working out and playing in pick up games in their home towns to keep up their touches. this isn’t exactly an ideal situation though. how do you go about impressing your national team coach if you’re playing in a university gym, or at a local indoor facility? you don’t.
as is becoming increasingly more common, some players have sought loan moves to european sides (beckham and donovan being primary examples). this is a good temporary solution, but often means that a player will be playing continuously from the previous march through the end of the world cup… that could be up to sixteen straight months of constant games and training, depending on how far their team makes it in the world cup.
the other option many hopefuls have is to secure a permanent move across the pond. i’ll be honest: most players with serious aspirations as a pro player want to end up in europe at some point. i certainly dreamed of playing in europe as a child, but i suck and this story isn’t really about me. but it is for this very reason that this is what most players set their sights on. and considering the USMNT coach bob bradley seems to prefer european based players to their MLS counterparts, and the draw of old world football is strong.
so what is a player to do, especially in this world cup year? that’s the exact question that stuart holden is asking himself this winter.
the houston playmaker is out of contract as of the first of the year, and has been living on a very meager, low-level MLS salary (some say as low as $400/week!) for the last four years. after the departure of dwayne de rosario to toronto, holden more than filled the large shoes left vacant by the canadian, contributing six goals and four assists. his stellar play not only earned him an MLS best-XI nod for the 2009 season, but also earned him a regular place in bradley’s national team where he continued to impress during the qualifying campaign. in my opinion, holden (along with columbus’ robbie rogers) was one of the breakout stars for our country over the last year.
his run of form didn’t go unnoticed. rumors have circulated that scottish giants rangers are very keen to sign him, as manager walter smith would make him one of his top transfer targets. this would make stu just another of the american contingent already playing in glasgow, demarcus beasley and maurice edu being the others. there are persistent rumors that aberdeen are also interested in the central midfielder, in addition to interest from the premier league duo of burnley and blackburn rovers, and perhaps a sniff from holland as well.
in addition to his obvious talents, what makes holden especially attractive to european sides is his dual-citizenship status. he was born and raised in aberdeen, scotland, until the age of ten when his family relocated to texas. since he already has a UK-passport, there won’t be any lengthy delay in getting him a work permit. not only that, but since stuart will be out of contract, any club wanting to sign him won’t have to pay a heavy transfer fee to MLS for his signature. this makes him both cheap and easy to acquire, making him an ideal transfer target for many british based sides.
let it be clear though that houston, and for that matter MLS, know that holden is a key asset to the league. he’s one of the league’s best players. he’s extremely active in the houston-area community. he’s got a marketable face. so it wasn’t surprising that in early december the league personally flew him in to new york for a round of negotiations on a long-term contract extension. word is that the league offered to increase his weekly salary tenfold, a drastic increase that even holden realizes is a staggering belief in him:
i was pretty flattered to be honest. it shows to me the commitment MLS has in keeping me in the league.
regardless of what MLS offered him, whatever offers he get’s from europe are likely substantially larger. so, if he is to stay, it will be for reasons other than money.
this decision is by no means an easy one for him, and i get that. but i have to be a little concerned about him moving to europe, if for no other reason than the timing.
beasley, at least until recently, has had a very hard time cracking into walter smith’s starting line-up at rangers. maurice edu spent the better part of a year attempting the same thing, only to have a serious injury knock him back once he started to get regular time. jozy altidore has found it nearly impossible to see the field at hull city, despite being one of the “best” players on the USMNT and hull being one of the worst team’s in the premiership. the shell of a player formerly known as eddie johnson has (rightfully) been buried on roy hodgson’s fulham bench.
point is, american field players find it tough to see the pitch in great britain. holden isn’t going to show up at ibrox, where the club are annually competing to be scottish premier league champs and aiming for progress in the champions league, and walk right into the ranger’s starting line-up. he’s going to face serious competition from a multitude of players, all of which with international credentials and european experience.
burnley and blackburn might both have starting line-ups a bit easier to break into, but it’s still not going to be easy. both of those clubs are knee deep in a relegation battle, so experimenting with an american with no european experience might not be in the clubs’ best interests. not to say that he couldn’t help them; he definitely could. but i doubt those clubs would be willing to take that risk.
holden will definitely benefit from the higher level of training he’ll receive at any of those clubs, but i worry that he won’t get the first team experience that this move would be driven by. there is no real substitute for game action, regardless of how good the training is. his psyche and confidence could take a huge blow by being stuck in the reserves. he could be completely overlooked by bradley for not getting in any first team time, something i don’t think the national team can afford to do.
in houston though, he’ll be an automatic first team choice. he’ll be a veteran leader and star on a title challenging team. he’ll be one of the primary face of MLS, helping to prove that the league is much more than just a breeding ground for potential european talents.but he’ll also have to face fourth months of sitting idle, especially since he turned down the US national team camp in january. although i’m sure he’ll probably get called into the pre-world cup warm up friendlies. but is that enough to sustain in-game form he could keep if he sees the field in europe? i don’t know.
it’s a tricky predicament that stuart finds himself in at the moment. i think he’s the type of quality player that needs to be playing in europe, especially at this stage in his career. but with it being a world cup year, there is a lot more on the line.
maybe his best option is to just sign a one or two year extension with MLS, make a playing statement in south africa, and then make a much pricier move to europe in a year or so. that way, he keeps his confidence and playing time and won’t be burned out from an 18-month-straight playing spell. however, a high price tag might make him much less attractive to european sides.
what the hell do i know though? there’s probably a good reason why i’m not a player agent.
either way, take your time making this decision stu… there’s a lot more to life than just playing in europe.