I’ve been thinking a bit about Brek Shea’s move to Stoke City. I was moved to do so by this piece from the Oregonian (reprinted from The Sporting News) which purports to track the development of MLS into the sort of league from which talent can be drawn by sides further up the competitive ladder. Shea’s move is probably a good move for him, not only because it will burnish his résumé but also because he'll be making a lot more cash. But the article raises two questions. First, is the league really experiencing a rise in prominence? Second, is it a good thing if it is?
With respect to the first issue, it’s not clear to me from the evidence that is presented in the article that this is exactly true. Some of the examples brought up in the piece in addition to that of Shea are Andy Najar, Kei Kamara, Roger Espinoza, Carlos Valdés, Freddy Montero, and David Beckham. This looks on the fact of it to be a pretty considerable haul. But there are three distinct things happening here. There are the cases of Shea, Najar, Kamara, and Espinoza which confirm the main thread of the article. Three of the four were picked up by mid- or lower- table sides in the EPL. Najar shifted to Anderlecht, which is not quite the same thing. Although he’s likely to get more bread and better exposure playing in Belgium, the league there is not all that different than MLS in terms of competitiveness and the overall quality of football. But let’s count him as a win for the argument being made.
The next two, Valdés and Montero, both switched headed off to Columbia. And by “off” here I mean back, since both are native Columbians. This hardly looks like a case of the increasing prominence of the league leading to talent rising up the ladder. Rather, it looks a lot like two guys who have been successful in MLS heading back to get some home cooking. This says more about retention than increased attention, so to speak. The case of Beckham seems even less relevant to the point advanced in the Oregonian. Not only is it a matter the his moving out of a league in which he had accomplished pretty much everything that there was to do, the interest shown by other teams, and his subsequent signing by PSG would seem to have little to do with any sort of perception in terms of the quality of MLS. Beckham had established his quality long before he ever got to MLS and, while you could argue that his time in the league provided evidence that he still had marketable skills, to me that doesn’t really translate to a statement about the quality of the league. Ultimately, Beckham is a vanity signing. At his point, MLS or no MLS, he’s pretty much about taking free kicks and corners and picking out passes to people who have at least some pace (unlike himself). His signing by PSG, a club in the last stages of a spending spree of Abramovichian proportions, was really about bringing in a recognizable face and was the subject of some criticism in the media for just this reason.
Even if the evidence adduced did actually support the claim that is based upon it, it is not entirely clear to me what the implications of such a situation would be. Would it be better for the players? Perhaps, but let’s look at the situation in which Shea will find himself. He is described in the Oregonian article as an “artistic and laconic” winger. I’m not totally sure what is meant by this, but putting that aside, I think that the guy from TSN and I agree that Shea has some marketable offensive abilities. Unfortunately for him, he’s moving to perhaps the worst club on Earth for someone so equipped. As Stoke showed in their loss to Arsenal at the weekend, during which they played for a draw from the opening whistle, the Potters are pretty much a one trick pony. Even against middling opposition their tendency is to want to defend, tackle heavily, and hump the ball up the pitch to Peter Crouch or whoever is their one guy in the opposing half. Admittedly, this strategy was exaggerated against the Gunners, from whom Stoke have never taken so much as a point on the road in the EPL era, but they are simply not a team that likes to attack up the wing very much. On wonders exactly what Shea, who I think is still recovering from a foot injury, is going to add to that side except another tall guy.
The situation is probably different for someone like Kamara, a real athlete moving to a team that actually likes to play some football. The case is similar with Espinoza, whose move to Wigan could conceivably benefit both sides. The goal of the league, as stated by MLS executive vice president Todd Durbin in the article is to be a destination rather than a stepping stone in the long run. In this respect I think he has things right and, in fact, I do think it’s arguable that getting MLS players placed in good situations in Europe can have the effect of creating more respect and a higher profile for this league. I just don’t know that that is where we currently are.
Ok, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we are playing Seattle in a friendly today. The start time of the match has been moved up to 9:30 PST. I would guess that this is the earliest kickoff that a lot of these guys have had since their days in youth soccer. The game will be streamed live on the Timbers website, so those of you who are not working, or whose employers aren’t going to police them, will be able to watch in in real time. I could go on about how this is a preseason match and how it means nothing, but a) we all know that already, and b) any time we get a chance to have a kick at the slime-green clad hessians from up north is a good thing. I don’t care if it’s preseason, I wouldn’t care if it was beach football. I know that Porter is really just looking for progress and the willingness to play the sort of style that he wants, but I would really like our lads to stick the boot in.