As Mix Diskerud becomes the latest in a growing group of American internationals to leave Europe for MLS, it's time for Jurgen Klinsmann to throw the U.S. Soccer Federation's weight behind the league.
Mix Diskerud had flirted with MLS, and then rejected it, twice before. But he couldn't resist the pull of New York City.
"I can't wait to live in New York. It's almost too much to handle. I can't wait," Diskerud said in a short video posted Tuesday on New York City FC's website shortly after the expansion team announced the midfielder's acquisition.
The American side of Diskerud's transatlantic family hails from Arizona, but the 24-year-old has long had a fascination with Gotham. He's vacationed there and keeps a collection of Yankees caps that now numbers more than 75. The smile on his face in the rooftop photo released Tuesday says it all.
Diskerud considered playing college soccer in the U.S. — Boston College and the University of San Diego were the favorites — but he signed a pro contract with Norway's Stabæk instead. Back in 2008, that decision was best for his career. "I wanted to become a professional soccer player," he said. "That's what happens when you're 18 and you love soccer."
Last fall, Klinsmann made waves and elicited a furious response from MLS commissioner Don Garber when he said of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, "It's going to be very difficult for them to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It's just reality. ... Making that step [from Europe to MLS] means you're not in the same competitive environment as you were before."
Whether Klinsmann is right or not is debatable. But Diskerud's move to NYC cements another reality that the ambitious national team coach and the U.S. Soccer Federation must confront. The tide has turned toward MLS, and U.S. players are coming home. For some, it may be a step down. Rather than lament it, Klinsmann may find that his best course of long-term action is to wield his influence as USSF technical director and focus further on strengthening the home front — ask additional tough questions of MLS, offer ideas that might bolster the league and continue his deep dive into youth development. As MLS improves, any negative impact it might have on a given player will be reduced and eventually eliminated.
The trend is clear. MLS now is an American talent importer. Since Klinsmann took over in the summer of 2011, only four U.S. veterans of note have left MLS for Europe and not returned: Juan Agudelo, Geoff Cameron, Tim Ream and DeAndre Yedlin. Cameron (Stoke City) and Ream (Bolton Wanderers) play regularly, but Agudelo has been a free agent since the summer, and Yedlin only just arrived at Tottenham Hotspur. At this point, most Americans based in Europe either were born there or signed as a youth/academy player.
Meanwhile, the influx continues. The arrival of Dempsey and Bradley made the biggest headlines, but they're far from alone. Under Klinsmann's watch, the following U.S. internationals also moved from European clubs to MLS: Carlos Bocanegra (now retired), Edson Buddle, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Clarence Goodson, Eddie Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Michael Parkhurst and Brek Shea. Jozy Altidore reportedly is on the verge of a transfer from Sunderland to Toronto FC and rumors persist that Sacha Kljestan is on his way as well.
Reasons for returning vary from player to player, but two intangibles probably are a common factor: the fear that U.S. players rarely get the benefit of the doubt from European coaches and the sense that MLS' growth means living in the U.S. or Canada isn't detrimental to a career. In recent seasons, Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler, Brad Davis, Omar Gonzalez, Chris Wondolowski and Graham Zusi, among others, all chose to ink extensions with their MLS clubs rather than move abroad.
It doesn't sound like Diskerud signed with NYCFC for the money: He's not a designated player and was offered plenty by the Columbus Crew last year. He signed because he wants to live in New York, like Thierry Henry before him, and can do so while playing soccer at a reasonably high level. Like many of his U.S. colleagues, Diskerud will have the respect and responsibility that comes with being one of his club's key players. One could make a case, as Bradley and Dempsey have, that being your team's go-to guy can spur improvement as much as fighting for minutes in the Premier League or Serie A. And that's not to mention the off-the-field bonuses of family, familiarity, privacy and/or fun that can be found more readily on this side of the Atlantic.
Klinsmann realizes this. For some players, it's the right move. Following Shea's signing by Orlando City, the U.S. coach said, "I think it's exciting. It's exciting because he made that decision himself. It shows me he starts to grow. He starts to take things in his own hands. ... I think he understands that he has to play. The players need to play in order to be a part of the national team program. It's good news. It's exciting for MLS, having a younger player also coming back. But most important, it's good news for him in order to catch up again."
For others, it may fall to Klinsmann to help make up for a temporary gap in quality. He can push, prod and demand excellence from MLS players. He can force them to earn their international minutes. He can watch them more frequently in person, and he knows every MLS coach will take his calls. He and Garber each have affirmed that their public back-and-forth wasn't the sign of a private feud. That means Klinsmann's power and pulpit still might be used to improve MLS, from the style and substance at the senior level to the kids down in the Development Academy. Working to influence the quality of the league rather than hoping his players can succeed in Europe is, at this point, Klinsmann's best bet. Because his players keep coming.