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MLS players' World Cup showing worthy of praise amid much scrutiny

U.S. national team stars Clint Dempsey, left, and Michael Bradley are helping carry the flag for MLS at the 2014 World Cup. Photo: Stuart Franklin/FIFA/Getty Images

U.S. national team stars Clint Dempsey, left, and Michael Bradley are helping carry the flag for MLS at the 2014 World Cup.

SÃO PAULO — The U.S.' second goal against Portugal on Sunday was a thing of beauty and a testament to team play. The scoring sequence involved a run down the right side by DeAndre Yedlin and smart passes from Yedlin, Michael Bradley and Graham Zusi before Clint Dempsey, barely staying onside, provided a classic scorer’s finish.

But there’s something else about the goal that stands out: All those players hail from Major League Soccer. The passing sequence wasn’t just a U.S. national team strike, it was Seattle Sounders to Toronto FC to Sporting Kansas City to Seattle Sounders.

Let’s be honest: MLS got a bad rap heading into the World Cup. When the U.S.’ two best players, Dempsey and Bradley, made surprise big-money moves back to MLS in the past year, coach Jürgen​ Klinsmann said he wished his players would challenge themselves at the highest level possible (meaning, in his eyes, Champions League). Klinsmann’s not-unreasonable view is if you’re playing against the best players in the world on a regular basis, you’ll be better prepared to do it at the World Cup.

Had the U.S. gotten blown away here, you can be certain MLS would have drawn heavy criticism for it. So with the Americans off to a four-points-in-two-games start, we’ll say here that the domestic league deserves a little credit.

Clearly, playing in MLS doesn’t prevent you from having a good World Cup. Landon Donovan showed that in 2010, and now several MLS players are enjoying terrific World Cups, none more so than Dempsey (who has two goals in two games). On Sunday, five of the U.S.’ starters were from MLS: Dempsey, Zusi, Bradley, Kyle Beckerman and Matt Besler. All three of the U.S. subs were also MLS’ers: Yedlin, Chris Wondolowski and Omar González.

MLS players aren’t just performing well; their numbers are also up at this year’s World Cup. At World Cup 2010, only four of the U.S.’ 23 players came from MLS. This year the U.S. has 10.

MLS commissioner Don Garber is, understandably, pleased with the output so far.

“The big payoff of the $100 million investment that we made in guys like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Omar González, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and others is that we want 21 players waving the flags of not just their country but also for our league while they’re playing in Brazil,” Garber told SI when reached by phone from New York on Tuesday. “And I believe we’ve been able to achieve that.”

As Zusi explained on Tuesday here, “You take some pride in [MLS], in seeing your local homegrown guys making an impact. The respect level for our league is growing internationally, and we’re proving ourselves now at an international level.”

USA rues missed World Cup opportunity after last-gasp Portugal draw

SI's Grant Wahl reports from Manaus, Brazil, where the USA was on the brink of qualifying for the knockout stage, only to concede a late goal and have its celebration put on hold.

Dempsey, the highest-paid player in MLS who is earning $6.7 million this season, remarked on how quickly Major League Soccer has exploded.

“The product on the field is better," Dempsey said. "You’re seeing bigger TV deals being done. You’re seeing more franchises pop up … I feel good for the games I’ve gotten to play and being able to get in a good run of form and get my confidence up [ahead of the World Cup].”

MLS’ World Cup contributions are not limited to the U.S. team. A league-record 21 MLS players — 22 if you include Spain's David Villa, who has already signed for New York City FC, and 23 if you include would-be Costa Rica and Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio, who was hurt right before the competition — are on World Cup squads in Brazil (see below), way up from the total of six at World Cup 2010. Tim Cahill (New York) scored two fantastic goals for Australia, Giancarlo González (Columbus) has started every game for surprising Costa Rica, and Júlio César (Toronto) is starting in goal for Brazil, the tournament favorite.

Klinsmann’s approach to MLS isn’t totally one-sided. After all, he picked more than twice as many MLS players for his World Cup team as Bob Bradley did four years ago. Klinsmann often says positive things about MLS and its growth, sometimes adding that the league has a ways to go to catch Europe. But when I gave Klinsmann the chance to praise MLS’ role at the U.S. press conference on Tuesday, he instead chose to focus on his entire team.

Garber has occasionally grown frustrated with Klinsmann saying he wants more U.S. players competing at the top levels of European club soccer.

“At times, Jürgen does support our league by picking players like the 10 that he took to Brazil,” Garber said. “It just feels at times that he doesn’t believe the best career path to greatness for an American player is to be in Major League Soccer as opposed to being overseas. Now I get that if they’re going to be starting and playing regularly at big-time clubs. I don’t believe that being on a secondary team or sitting on the bench in Europe is developing that player’s capabilities more so than playing day in and day out in front of packed stadiums in MLS. I heavily disagree with that theory.

“I have great respect for Jürgen as a coach, I consider him a friend, and I look to Jürgen as a partner in this project of growing the game in our country,” Garber continued. “As a [U.S. Soccer] board member I support him not just as our coach but also as our technical director. I know [U.S. Soccer president] Sunil Gulati and [CEO] Dan Flynn believe MLS needs to continue growing and investing in the sport, and it can be frustrating that we seem to be at times fighting against our national team coach with this important plan.

“We made a focused strategy to go out and ensure that MLS would be part of the narrative of this World Cup. We had faith from the very beginning that the U.S. national team would do well in Brazil, and we wanted our league to deliver players that would be the spine of the team: Dempsey, Bradley, Beckerman, Besler. We must be a league of choice for top American players if we’re going to achieve our goal of being one of the top leagues in the world. And we’ll do that with or without the support of our national team coaches, whether it’s Jürgen or guys who will be coaching in the future. We’re here every day investing massive resources in growing the sport in our country and trying to turn this nation into a passionate soccer market.”

MLS PLAYERS AT THE WORLD CUP

Australia

Tim Cahill (New York)

Brazil

Júlio César (Toronto)

Costa Rica

Waylon Francis (Columbus)
Giancarlo González (Columbus)
Roy Miller (New York)

Ecuador

Oswaldo Minda (Chivas USA)

Honduras

Jerry Bengtson (New England)
Victor Bernárdez (San Jose)
Marvin Chávez (Chivas USA)
Boniek García (Houston)

Iran

Steven Beitashour (Vancouver)

USA

Kyle Beckerman (Salt Lake)
Matt Besler (Kansas City)
Michael Bradley (Toronto)
Brad Davis (Houston)
Clint Dempsey (Seattle)
Omar González (Los Angeles)
Nick Rimando (Salt Lake)
Chris Wondolowski (San Jose)
DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle)
Graham Zusi (Kansas City)

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