Major League Soccer accepts the fact that the World Cup will be foremost in the minds of American soccer fans over the next few months. In fact, as kickoff of its 19th season nears, the league is embracing that distraction, for no domestic spotlight is as bright as the global game’s reflected glow.
From full-page magazine ads to the lights of Times Square, MLS is hitching its PR wagon to this summer’s World Cup. The marketing material is bathed in Brazilian yellow while three slogans set the stage for a 2014 season that’s about far more than the pursuit of an MLS Cup title. “For Club & Country” highlights players’ dual loyalties. “March to Brazil” targets a summer climax, not December’s championship final. And “It All Stars Here” reminds us that coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team may rise or fall depending on the performance of his MLS charges.
In 2010, only four of the 23 players who traveled to South Africa were on MLS rosters. This May, that number could more than triple, likely surpassing the 11 MLS players who made the 2006 and 2002 World Cup squads. Among those headed to Brazil will be three of the U.S. national team’s most recognizable and indispensable members – Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley – along with several potential starters like defenders Omar Gonzalez and Brad Evans, and midfielder Graham Zusi.
Those players must navigate their own "March to Brazil" carefully. Even though MLS hasn't proven to be a World Cup hindrance (since the league kicked off, MLS players have tallied 10 of the 12 goals scored by the U.S., not including own goals), questions about the league's effect on the national team will linger even after the Americans open against Ghana on June 16.
Does the rhythm of an MLS campaign, which rewards teams peaking in October and November, leave players at a disadvantage when facing a June Group of Death? Will potential World Cup debutants meet their MLS obligations without distraction, especially considering the hype the tournament receives relative to their league?
The answers will drive the external narrative of this MLS season, both during the build-up toward the World Cup and when assessing the results. And that’s just fine with the increasingly confident league. Meanwhile, the players say they’re committed to maintaining the habits and resolve that took them to the cusp of their sport's biggest event
. Some will have no choice because Klinsmann is watching closely and their minutes aren't guaranteed. Others, like Bradley, don't know any other way.
“I want to hit a peak every time I step on the field. Regardless of whether the World Cup is at the middle of the season or the end of the season, whether you’re playing through the summer or playing August to May, I’m still the same player,” said Bradley, who surprised many when he left AS Roma for Toronto FC. “I love to train. I love to play. I enjoy coming into work every day. I look forward to the weekend. I look forward to walking out on the field and playing and for me it’s always important to take it one moment at a time.”
Zusi, who plays a critical role for a Sporting Kansas City side eager to advance through the CONCACAF Champions League knockout rounds and then defend its MLS title, said, “Busy is good in this industry.”
He continued, “I don’t think we’ll really focus on [balancing national team and club demands]. I don’t think we’ll be talking much about the national team when we’re with the club and vice versa. I’m going to consider my time with the club as being as precious as possible I do have the potential of missing several games. I’m going to use each and every game I can to put the team in the best position we can.”
Gonzalez also is eager to get off to a fast start with the L.A. Galaxy, which fell short in last year’s MLS playoffs and faces a high-profile CCL quarterfinal series against Club Tijuana this month.
“I’m planning on just thinking about it the same way I’ve thought about my spring since I started here with the Galaxy. To stay focused and take it one game at a time and not look to far into the future,” he said. “I know Jurgen is going to be watching all these games, so I have to stay on my game because there are other players in this pool who want to be in Brazil just as bad as I do. So I can’t take my eye off the ball.”
Allowing World Cup daydreams to infect their focus not only could impact their club’s fortunes and their place on Klinsmann’s depth chart, it theoretically could alter the way they approach their craft. It’s not hard for an outsider to imagine a Brazil-bound player fearing fatigue during a tough training session, avoiding a late-game recovery run or pulling out of a hard tackle that might increase the risk of injury. There’s no worse time to get hurt than on the eve of a World Cup.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said there was zero tolerance for that sort of approach.
“The low-level athlete thinks that way. You think like that, you don’t belong playing in a World Cup. You’re out competing, out trying to make all the right plays,” he told SI.com.
U.S. and San Jose Earthquakes defender Clarence Goodson concurred, saying, “It’s just about being a professional and doing your best every day. Improve and get better. If you’re trying to not go into a tackle, that’s really where you get hurt. You have to play the way you do and play hard all the time.”
Said Australian icon Tim Cahill, one of several MLS stars who will represent other nations in Brazil, “You just play. That’s why you’ve got the best conditions, the best coaches, the prehab and rehab. I need to play as many games as possible going into the World Cup … A lot of people get injured. If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be.”
Left with no choice but to go full throttle, the players then must rely on their coaches to monitor their fitness for club and country. Sporting manager Peter Vermes, who participated in the 1990 World Cup and could send up to three players to Brazil, said he takes that responsibility seriously.
“From a physical and psychological perspective, it’s not easy,” he told SI.com. “I’ve already tried to give those guys some time off, time away, from the team and also just get them away from the game. I want to make sure we don’t overuse them, don’t over train them, that they’re not over traveled and they start to lose their hunger, and not only lose their hunger but we also risk the chance of injury. Those are the things I want to be very careful of because I think it’s important that they’re fit and healthy for both.”
He said he’s keeping an “open line of communication” with Zusi, Matt Besler and Benny Feilhaber and that he trusts them to be up front and honest about how they’re feeling and when they might need a change of pace.
“He knows what it’s like and knows the opportunities and the honor that comes with playing in the World Cup,” Besler said of his coach. “So he supports all of us, 100 percent.”
Arena argued that MLS players actually have an advantage entering the World Cup stretch run, despite the demands of a January national team camp and the league's preseason.
“MLS players aren’t an issue in terms of the World Cup. They’re actually kind of fresh. They’re reporting to camp in May and playing in June. The players you have to concern yourself with are the European [based] players," he said. "It’s much easier for the MLS players. They’ve had their break [over the winter] and they’re pretty rested. They’re just getting into form and will be peaking about World Cup time. They’re in great shape. It’s the players from Europe you worry about. They’ve just endured a long season. They’re exhausted.”
MLS players “are the least of [Klinsmann’s] worries," according to Arena.
And it is Klinsmann, Arena claimed, who will face the most stress over the next few months – not the players trying to avoid injury, distraction or drops in form.
“I think the people who are the most nervous and the most mental are the coaches,” Arena said. “All they’re thinking about is how to get better, but they don’t have their players. So they’re basically sitting at home for six months trying to figure out what to do to get their team ready for the World Cup. It’s a whole different phenomenon, and they have anxious energy and sometimes they’re overbearing to their teams when they do show up ... sometimes they transfer all their concerns on to their team in a short period of time. It’s really a balancing act.”
So that will be the story of the season. As Klinsmann works to find the right formula, his players will strive to represent their clubs, their league and their country at the highest possible level.
According to Donovan, MLS now affords them the stage they need.
“There’s a swell of momentum around our league and it’s really special and fun to be a part of,” he said. “You feel now every time you go somewhere there’s a real feel around every game, whereas you only get a few of those games a year in the past. Now you come to New York and it’s an experience. If we go to Toronto, it’ll be an experience. When they come to us, there’s going to be great hype around it, and obviously all of our Western rivals … [In the past] there were no story lines. There’s nothing to write about. There’s nothing to talk about. Now it seems like every game there’s some storyline and that makes it a lot more exciting.”