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Altered States

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Searing heat, questionable kick-off times and Diana Ross’ penalty. Football’s rebrand in the US, starting with the World Cup and closely followed by the inaugural season of MLS, could easily have been as short-lived as Romanian Ion Vladoiu’s USA ‘94 substitute appearance in the group stages against Switzerland, where he lasted a grand total of three minutes.

For English fans, without their national team to support, the tournament felt distinctly alien and, in their eyes at least, failed to achieve FIFA’s primary objective of awarding the tournament to boost interest in the upcoming domestic, professional game that had been previously disbanded in 1984.

The MLS similarly struggled to gain much English interest, with former Norwich stalwart Ian Butterworth and ex England goalkeeper Chris Woods the only English players involved in the inaugural season, both making appearances for Colorado Rapids as they finished bottom of the Western Conference.

On a personal level, my interest in the US was two-fold. As a sixteen-year-old who knew he was running out of options and routes into English professional football, Project 90 had serious appeal. But this was the early days of the internet, and betting it all on a move to an unknown US college with very little research sounded a stretch too far - as did the chances of being identified as one of the top 90 college players to be drafted into the MLS.

A few years later, Notts County hosted an under 17 international tournament (thanks largely to former FA Technical Director Howard Wilkinson’s return to Meadow Lane) and the US were pitted against England, Portugal and Brazil, devised on mutual kit sponsorship rather than a reflection of international standing. Pre-tournament fever focused on the likelihood of an appearance by the prodigal Freddy Adu, then still a teen but making headlines with proposed moves to Europe’s elite clubs. As a sad metaphor for his remaining career, Adu didn’t show and only increased his profile as a poster boy for European cynicism about the standard of soccer in the US.

But I felt everyone was looking in the wrong place.

If Adu was the media circus, they missed the much better sideshow. And that came in the form of Danny Szetela. With voluminous Sideshow Bob-style hair, he effortlessly controlled the midfield against sides traditionally expected to dominate possession in a subtle but solid statement of US soccer’s healthy status. I couldn’t help but hope that Notts’ own hierarchy would notice his performances but, with the distinctive and legendary Ajax scout Ton Pronk in attendance looking for the next John O’Brien, my hopes weren’t exactly high.

Szetela in action against England at Meadow Lane from his own Twitter account – thanks @DSzetela14 !

Turns out I wasn’t the only one to notice. After breaking through to the MLS in 2004 with Columbus Crew, Szetela moved abroad for spells in Spain and Italy before returning to the US with the likes of D.C. United and New York Cosmos.

But Szetela’s move held more significance than just my frustration at a missed opportunity for my club to recruit a promising prospect (as there’s been plenty of those over the years). Szetela embodies a recruitment opportunity that, in a post-Brexit landscape, English clubs can no longer refuse to ignore. With Polish heritage through his parents and his own Polish passport, Szetela faced less barriers than his US peers with restrictive non-EU quotas in most European leagues.

While post-Brexit rules mean the likes of Szetela would still struggle to obtain clear pathways to English football, the value of players with British heritage, or the growing number of British youngsters opting into the US college system, begins to grow.

One good insight into how beneficial deeper knowledge of this market could be is the MLS Superdraft. Starting from 2000, the presence of English players in the draft has increased steadily, as has their impact on the MLS. Between 2000 and 2015, 13 English players were drafted, with early highlights being Stephen Armstrong (2000), Andy Dorman (2004), Andy Iro (2008) before 2012 saw former Staines Town striker Dom Dwyer achieve legendary status with Sporting Kansas City and Orlando City, winning both domestic honours and a CONCACAF winner’s medal for the US.

From 2016, we see a noticeable uptick in the number of English players in the draft, with ten in three drafts, including current Leeds United winger Jack Harrison selected as the number one pick for the 2016 intake and taken to Manchester City-backed New York City for their inaugural season.

The presence of English players in the MLS is now profound, with viable options for English clubs to capitalise on. Ex Southend and Brentford midfielder Dru Yearwood continues to make progress at New York Red Bulls. Jack Elliott is now in his fifth season with Philadelphia Union after being a fourth round draft pick in 2017. 20 year old striker Jackson Conway plays alongside ex Portsmouth defender Anton Walkes and Nottingham’s Mo Adams at Atlanta United. Winger Calvin Harris is in his inaugural season with Cincinnati after progressing through New Zealand’s system - a fair few miles from his Middlesbrough birthplace! Ex Manchester United defender Laurence Wyke is at Tampa Bay, while fourth pick in 2021 SuperDraft Kimarni Smith continues to develop at DC United after 26 goals in 43 starts for Clemson.

Using data to bridge the divide – Jack Elliott’s positional heat map (above) from Wyscout.

And it’s important to remember that these are only the English players. Former Sheffield United and Ireland youth international Jordan Doherty is currently enjoying his second spell at Tampa Bay Rowdies while the pool of players widens much further when you consider the prospect that any player in the US college system from the British Overseas Territories would qualify as domestic in the English market.

Critics of this idea might look at the destinations of English players returning from spells in the US as evidence of the perceived gulf in quality remaining, despite the heavy investment in soccer-specific facilities and the continued progress of the US international side as evidence to the contrary (particularly winning the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup with a largely US-based squad). Critics might point to the likes of ex Sheffield United player and 2017’s fourth round draft Danny Deakin now at Rossington Main or Oliver Shannon from 2018’s Superdraft at Bala Town. But this could also be symptomatic of a logistical issue, rather than a technical one. Players who leave for the US are very much off the radar of the domestic game and, on their return, many of their previous coaches and peers have moved on or away from the game entirely. The players themselves, many benefitting from a quality academic education as well as footballing experience, may simply have other ventures that interest them more than English football when they return home.

Data and analysis can go some way to bridging the gap that many expat players fall through, with providers such as Wyscout offering data that ensures the narrative is not lost with interested parties back in England. There are other fantastic sources too, should clubs wish to explore them, with the likes of @CarlonCarpenter experienced in both US and English markets. British journalist @CJSmith91 also offers knowledgeable insight into the MLS that could provide invaluable context to the data available. And not many people are more qualified to tell you just how much the States have altered than experienced expat coaches like Darren Powell.

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The MLS has come a long way and could be a happy hunting ground indeed!

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