In the wake of the biggest failure in United States men’s national team history, Jermaine Jones went on a bit of a diatribe. You can watch the whole thing here. But the TL;DW version of it is that he feels very strongly that the next USMNT head coach should come from outside MLS and encourage the top players to try playing in Europe.
“You have to be a coach who will be straight,” Jones said about his preference for Bruce Arena’s replacement. “It hurts sometimes, it hurts MLS, it hurts the players, it hurts some coaches. But you have to talk truth and you need more players in top leagues.”
It’s not exactly the most original opinion — plenty have been more than happy to pin the USMNT’s failures squarely on MLS’s influence on the team — and it’s not completely without merit. On some level, it’s hard to deny that the best players in the world play in Europe and we should want the best Americans to be competing against them on a weekly basis.
Where I think Jones goes wrong — and ironically this is the part that most fans of this video seem to like most — is when he turns his attention to specific players. After holding up the likes of Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and others who went to Europe and returned as positive examples, Jones takes aim at the players who choose to stay in MLS rather than go to Europe. He then shares an anecdote about a conversation he had with Jordan Morris when he was deciding between going to Werder Bremen and the Sounders.
“Jurgen called me and said please call Jordan Morris,” Jones recalled. “I called Jordan Morris and I talked to him. I said I know Werder Bremen really wants you and you can play there. You have an opportunity and you never know what comes after. You play Bundesliga and you can go farther. He said, ‘you know what I want to go home. My dad is a doctor in Seattle. He and my mom bought me and my girlfriend a dog and all kind of stuff.’
“I was … really? Why you go the easy way if you have the chance? There are so many kids out there that will love to go this way. But why we always go the easy way?”
There’s a lot to unpack here. First off, this might be the first confirmation that Jurgen Klinsmann was actively working to get Morris to Europe. There were rampant rumors that was the case and hardly a reason to doubt it, but most of Klinsmann’s public comments weren’t quite so overt and ultimately he said he supported Morris’ choice and continued to call him up.
More broadly, it seems more than a little harsh to effectively single out Morris here. Jones doesn’t call out any other player in the national team program by name, and certainly doesn’t seem particularly concerned with calling out anyone who actually was on the roster for the Trinidad & Tobago loss.
Calling out Morris like this also seems to ignore the player’s specific situation. The stuff about Morris’ dad being a doctor and his parents buying him a dog are all true, but I don’t know that they are as much negatives as Jones is framing them. I don’t personally know Morris, but I’ve gotten a pretty good sense of the kind of person he is and he seems like someone more likely to thrive when he’s got a support system. Maybe that limits his ceiling, but nothing I’ve seen from him suggests he would be better off right now if he’d gone to Europe instead.
Some have pointed to his perceived plateauing this year as evidence that he should have gone abroad, but I don’t see it that way. He may not be finishing as well this year, but when healthy he’s more consistently put himself into dangerous positions in more varied ways. The book may be out on his desire to get in behind defenses, but he’s still managing to do that while also improving his ability to hold off defenders, make off-ball runs and bring his teammates into plays. Morris can still improve almost across the board, but I’ve also seen improvements in his defending, dribbling and passing. I think it’s very possible that if he’d gone into this sort of scoring slump at Werder Bremen that he’d have been relegated to the bench, as opposed to being allowed to work on other parts of his game.
Of course, this is often pointed to as another failing of the MLS system, that no one is pressing Morris for playing time or that he’s not being forced to earn his minutes every week. I’ve not seen that either. The Sounders coaches routinely praise Morris for his work ethic and seeing the way the way he tries to finish as often as possible with his left in training — something many point to as his biggest weakness — I’m not sure he’d be improving at a more rapid pace elsewhere.
Just look at Aron Johannsson, 26, a player who could have been Morris’ teammate at Werder Bremen. Since transferring there from the Eredivisie’s AZ, injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 16 Bundesliga appearances over parts of three seasons. Or consider what’s happened to Rubio Rubin, 21, who’s got just 26 first-team appearances over the past three seasons and is now languishing on the bench in Norway. Or how Juan Agudelo, 24, basically wasted a year trying to get a permanent deal in Europe. Or Jared Jeffrey, 27, who was a USYNT star, signed with Club Brugge out of high school and never saw a first-team minute in parts of five seasons with various teams before coming back to MLS with D.C. United in 2013. Ever even heard of him? All of these players were considered to be Morris’ equal in terms of talent, are of similar age and are doing less to help the USMNT now.
Nothing stops a player from spending the bulk of their time in MLS and still becoming an elite international, either. To me, Landon Donovan had a very similar personality. He started his career in Germany, like Morris could have. But he was languishing on the reserve squad at Bayer Leverkusen, home sick and uncomfortable. His career didn’t take off until he moved to MLS where he got regular minutes and eventually turned into arguably the greatest player in USMNT history. Ironically, Jones praised Donovan for eventually going on a couple short loans to Everton.
Even someone like Clint Dempsey — often held up as the anti-Donovan — started in MLS and didn’t move to England until he was almost 24 years old, two years older than Morris is now. It’s a reminder that the door for Morris to eventually move to Europe is obviously far from closed at this point.
But maybe Jones wasn’t calling out Morris, as some have suggested to me, that he was just using one personal anecdote he had. I suppose there’s some merit to that, although it doesn’t explain why he didn’t call out any number of players who are in the same boat.
What is left to take away from Jones’ critiques? I’m wholly unconvinced that MLS is the problem. Klinsmann had five MLS players starting in the USMNT’s biggest games during the 2014 World Cup and all three of his subs in the 2-2 tie with Portugal were from MLS. Most seem to accept that World Cup was reasonably successful. That’s not so different than the six MLS players who started for Bruce Arena or the three he used off the bench against Trinidad & Tobago. MLS players have made up about half of the USMNT’s World Cup roster every year except 2010 -- when former MLS coach Bob Bradley only put four on his roster — and will almost certainly have a similar influence on future rosters.
To the degree that American soccer benefits from having a steady stream of players who are able to compete in Europe’s best leagues, I agree with Jones that it’s an important part of the program. The USMNT should never be fully dependent on MLS and will never win a World Cup until we have players competing for Champions League titles. Dempsey would not be the player he is if he’d stayed in MLS. DeAndre Yedlin has clearly benefitted from fighting for minutes in England. Pulisic’s potential “world-class” status could never be attained by playing here.
But that doesn’t mean every player is better off in Europe. Each player must do what’s best for them. That’s exactly what Morris did.