Editor's Note: Originally drafted by FC Dallas in the first round of the 2011 SuperDraft, Bobby Warshaw spent more than two years in Major League Soccer before moving to Sweden, where he currently plays for GAIS. A former academic standout at Stanford University, he has also written for Deadspin.com and PennLive.com. His viewpoints do not necessarily represent that of the editorial staff of MLSsoccer.com.
I’ve seen the promised land, y'all. And it’s not all the roses, butterflies, and girls in bikinis drinking mojitos on park benches many of you might think.
Americans like to imagine European football as a glorious amusement park because that's the version we see on TV. Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich. Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney. The best of the best, in giant stadiums with incredible crowds and mesmerizing play. Heaven on earth, just a short flight away.
It’s time to adjust our thinking a little bit. European football means a broad range of things, and 99 percent of them aren’t nearly as appealing as Old Trafford, the Zlatan goal you saw on YouTube or Balotelli’s Bentley. There might be a heaven here, but it’s pretty hard to find.
So when World Cup stars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi re-signed with Sporting Kansas City last week, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Going to Europe isn’t an automatic decision anymore. It’s a much more calculated assessment.
Don’t get me wrong. If a club like Arsenal calls, you pack a carry-on and get on the next flight. Then you text Arsene Wenger and tell him you’ll play for free. But the Arsenals of the world aren't calling about many MLS players. So our American players have a little more to think about.
When a player like me tries to move to Europe, he uses a CV -- a piece of paper, just like you would use if applying for a job as a sales assistant. Kinda anticlimactic, isn’t it? He writes his name, his previous clubs, his stats, and his attributes. Then his agent sends it to a sporting director or a friend with a connection to a club.
Bobby Warshaw has played in Europe for nearly a year, but it hasn't been easy. "I’ve been uncomfortable playing abroad," he says. "I’ve been lonely and confused in a foreign country. It’s really hard to play well. You have a bad training session and you go sit alone in your apartment, unable to distract yourself and properly move on." (USA Today Sports)
Sporting directors get thousands of CVs a year. On the off chance they like what they see on paper, they might look at videos or ask around. Maybe a trial follows, maybe it works out in the end.
But for right now – for any number of reasons, really – MLS resumes don't jump to the top of the stack for the big teams out there.
Of course, Zusi and Besler don't need to send out their CVs. Traditionally, a star player on an MLS club can garner interest from mid-level European teams, which means he would make the equivalent to a medium Designated Player contract, fight for playing time, and struggle with a language that sounds like parsel-tongue from Hogwarts.
It’s a long way from the glory of El Clásico.
The opportunity then is to succeed at the smaller club and move up. Think about Michael Bradley's path from Heerenveen to Möchengladbach to Chievo to Roma. Or Charlie Davies's pre-injury path from Hammarby to Sochaux. It can happen, but there's a reason only a handful of American players have had that trajectory: It's extremely difficult. For players of any country. I applaud anyone that goes for it, but it’s an incredible challenge.
Young players want that challenge, because when you’re young, you still think you can conquer the world. You'll go wherever because you believe that you can and will fight your way up. You've got time and development on your side. Anything – Roma, Chelsea, Real Madrid – is possible. You don't think about learning the language or fitting into the different culture, or a coaching change or an injury.
As fans, though, we should be wary of our young stars making big jumps. It’s exciting, but it’s risky. These days joining a lower-tier club in a big league or a big club in a lower-tier league is not necessarily an improvement over an MLS club. The next big star can be quickly forgotten – by fans and by Jurgen Klinsmann – if he doesn't see playing time against top competition.
For Besler and Zusi, the risk isn't worth the reward. They’re both 27 years old and established at their clubs, and the idea that they need to go to Europe to get better is wishful thinking. A few older players have seen success after transfering abroad -- Geoff Cameron at Stoke, Brian McBride at Fulham – but the rest of those who made it there – Claudio Reyna, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, Bradley, etc. – all went over at a younger age, when their games were still being shaped and when MLS was a very different league.
Warshaw says established, older players like Besler and Zusi might not see much improvement if they were to move to Europe: "The things that make a 27-year-old play better are sharpness and confidence. Besler and Zusi aren't going to go to Germany or England and get better at passing and shooting, especially if they’re not playing, which is a risk." (USA Today Sports)
The things that make a 27-year-old play better are sharpness and confidence. Besler and Zusi aren't going to go to Germany or England and get better at passing and shooting, especially if they don't get playing time, which is always a risk at a new club, both at home and abroad.
And more importantly, what will make them happy? Many US fans want to be able to say our players perform for the best teams in the world, but when you’re the player making the decision, you have to think about what makes you happy.
That’s not always easy to find.
I’ve been uncomfortable playing abroad. I’ve been lonely and confused in a foreign country. It’s really hard to play well. You lose a split second trying to think of the correct native word to communicate with your teammate. You have a bad training session and you go sit alone in your apartment, unable to distract yourself or let it go. There’s a lot to be gained – both personally and for football development – but I couldn’t tell you it’s more valuable than being comfortable and happy.
There’s something special about playing with guys you like, in front of people you care about, for a cause that means something to you. There’s a little extra drive in your step, conviction in your heart. When Besler talks about the importance of playing for the diehard fans in Kansas City or captaining his hometown team, that goes a long way in how he plays.
Ambition and seeking a challenge sound wonderful, but it’s a tough slope. Not playing and struggling to assimilate sucks. It makes you unhappy. It makes you forget what ambition is or why you wanted it in the first place. Why would you leave a place you know that you can succeed, where you are comfortable, for something that might not be better?
Arsenal? Hell yes! West Ham? Let me call you back.
San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski was linked to interest from club teams in Denmark and Germany, but chose to re-sign with the Quakes in 2013. Says Warshaw: "Why would you leave a place you know that you can succeed, where you are comfortable, for something that might not be better?" (USA Today Sports)
If the Besler and Zusi decisions tell us anything, it’s that for guys in that top tier of MLS, there just isn’t as much incentive to make the jump across to Europe anymore. It’s gotten to the point where the likes of Sporting KC, Seattle, RSL, etc., are as attractive as the European clubs that would consider MLS players.
Suddenly, players choosing to stay in MLS doesn’t say as much about the ambitions of the players as it does about the quality of the league.
Besler and Zusi showed at the World Cup that they can compete with some of the world’s best, and even though it makes some US fans feel better to say their players play in England, now we can watch Premier League level players in our own backyard.
Maybe the new challenge for American players isn't to thrive in Europe, but to help make MLS Europe's equal. Instead of being an export league, why not make it into a destination, truly shooting for the stars. That'd be pretty cool, huh?
Players I know in MLS are happy for Besler and Zusi. They got paid, and they got their respect. They deserve it.
I would have signed the deal to stay, too. And then I would have thrown a giant party. With Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue and Dom Perignon. Now that’s a promised land.