Fresh off of their World Cup campaign with the U.S. MNT Matt Besler and Graham Zusi have signed Designated Player contracts to remain with Sporting Kansas City.
Besler, in particular was a hot property following the Cup, with as many as 10 European clubs, primarily in England and Germany, said to be competing for the center back’s signature. Midfielder Zusi was also said to have offers to try his luck overseas, but the two close friends instead elected to tie their future’s to SKC and Major League Soccer.
With 10 MLS players making Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23 man World Cup roster, this World Cup was seen by many as a referendum on the league. With no less than four players from the league starting any match as the U.S. advanced from a very tough group, respect for the league increased around the world and at home.
Besler and Zusi have already heard the criticism that they should have been willing to take on the challenge of playing in the more demanding, top leagues. The argument, and it certainly has some validity, is that players improve by playing with and against tougher competition.
A leading proponent of this philosophy is none other than U.S. MNT coach and Technical Director Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann once infamously said of Clint Dempsey, that despite succeeding at Fulham, Dempsey had accomplished “s#&%.”
Here is what Klinsmann told the Wall Street Journal in January 2013.
“What we’re trying to do is to give (U.S. MNT players) messages in order to challenge them, in order to make them understand to take your own career in your own hands.” “Make the next step for yourself, get to the next tier of club if you can. Try to play Champions League one day, go as high as you can.”
Soon after, Dempsey moved from Fulham to Tottenham, a bigger club, but when that didn’t go quite to plan Dempsey made his shock move to Seattle. Michael Bradley followed suit, leaving Italian club Roma for Toronto FC.
Dempsey and Bradley, Klinsmann’s two most important field players had flatly rejected Klinsmann’s philosophy. Klinsmann was clearly conflicted saying on ESPN that it was, “exciting,” and “huge for football in the United States.” In that same conversation the coach said that it was a problem for the national team that his players weren’t playing against the best players in the world.
This is what Klinsmann told the New York Times before the World Cup, regarding his most notorious roster omission.
“[Donovan] came back, and he was playing in MLS, and people say, ‘Oh, he’s playing well,’ but what does that really mean?” Klinsmann said. “This is where MLS hurts him. He was playing at 70 percent, 80 percent, and he was still dominant. That doesn’t help anyone.”
All of which is to say that Klinsmann is unlikely to be happy that Besler and Zusi have decided to stay put. Realistically, Zusi, a 27 year old midfielder has less of a shot at a 2018 World Cup roster spot than Belser, also 27, but a center back.
Although he collected two assists in the World Cup, Zusi was also less of a hot property coming out of Brazil than Besler, who impressed before his bad experience against Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku in the American’s Round of 16 loss.
Despite the fact that Besler emerged from MLS to start all four U.S. MNT games at Brazil 2014, pundits across the media, social and otherwise, have already consigned Besler to backup status behind John Brooks for 2018. Brooks plays for Bundesliga club Hertha Berlin.
Robb Heineman is Kansas City’s CEO and a team owner, and not surprisingly he rejects any speculation that Besler and Zusi have hurt their international careers by re-signing with SKC.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff on social media around – ‘Oh, you know, this is not a good decision for the guys from a national team perspective’ – and to me, that’s complete BS,” he told reporters. “This is one of the best clubs in the world from a development perspective. The opportunity and the tools that are available here, including Peter (Vermes, KC coach) and the way he trains these guys, is world-class. So any reference or thought that it’s not a first-class opportunity for these guys to be here, to me, is just complete crap.
“This club has the desire to be one of the greatest in the world,” he continued. “I think right now, we’re the greatest in MLS. Frankly, I think there’s no question that we’re the greatest in MLS. And we’re going to do everything that we can to try to continue to advance the vision of the club over time.”
Hometown hero Besler, grew up just a few miles down the road from where Sporting Park now stands, and says this about the issue. “I’m not worried about that anymore.” “I don’t care, really. People can say what they want and they can judge. They can have opinions on where I should be playing, but no one really knows the true story. No one knows what it’s like to be here, to be in my shoes. I’m so confident and comfortable with my decision that none of that matters.”
Players will continue to make these decisions as they see fit. First Dempsey and Bradley came home, then Besler and Zusi stayed. DeAndre Yedlin is up next, and maybe Omar Gonzalez.
Some will defy Klinsmann and stay, some will listen and go. Klinsmann may not like all of the decisions potential U.S. national team players make, but with his dual titles of coach and Technical Director running through 2018, it is clear that Klinsmann will have to make his peace with MLS.