Healthy Competition: For Andi Herzog, MLS has a big role to play in U.S. U-23 Olympic dream

It’s not too early to say that this round of Olympic qualifying is already a runaway success for the United States Under-23 team, compared with the 2011 squad’s uneven performances and failure to make the knockout round ahead of the 2012 London games.

What should make those who support both MLS and the U-23s even happier is coach Andi Herzog’s obvious regard for the league — in both his roster selections and his comments about the quality of play and players in MLS.

Take his remarks, for example, on New York Red Bulls center back Matt Miazga — a player Herzog expects to jump from the U-20s to the senior national side in a matter of months:

“For him, it should be an advantage that he’s already a starting player in MLS, so he competes with the best players in North America.”

Let’s back up to that point once more: “(H)e competes with the best players in North America.”

Herzog’s philosophy comes through loud and clear: If a player is doing well in this league, he should be expected to perform well for his country, because he’s getting in meaningful matches against quality opposition.

Given that the U.S. are already through to the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, no matter what happens in Tuesday’s group-stage finale against Panama, that philosophy is paying significant dividends. With an MLS-based core, a strong internationally-based contingent, and solid play from super-amateur Jordan Morris of Stanford, Herzog’s side have outscored opponents 9-2 over their first two matches and are heavily favored against Panama on Tuesday

Of course, USMNT Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann also has a healthy mix of MLSers in his 23-man USMNT squad for this Saturday’s  CONCACAF Cup playoff against Mexico: a dozen players in all, including all four members of the forward corps.

Still, Klinsmann’s relationship with the league remains prickly, for a number of reasons: his outspoken support for promotion and relegation, inexplicable snubs of players who are killing it in MLS competition, and his oft-stated belief that players should test themselves against the stiffest competition possible — even if that means riding the bench at a European club.

To be blunt — and this might well be an unfair assessment — his call-ups of successful MLS players always carry an undercurrent of “in spite of,” not one of “because.”

But what’s really gained when  a player never gets away from the kids’ table at his club — when his year is marked not by competing against other clubs (the odd early-round league or domestic cup match notwithstanding), but by training against his own teammates? Training has its purpose, obviously, but players need to play.

To borrow from martial arts, soccer players are always judged on their sparring. There is no forms division.

When players get on the pitch in meaningful games, they gain all sorts of experiences that can’t be had on the training ground: blocking out hostile crowds, dealing with opponents who don’t care if a tackle puts someone out on a stretcher, the exhilaration of pulling one back in the dying seconds to save a road point — and the bonding of going through that with teammates.

In short, they develop — and at the U-23 level, the goal of that development is not only to qualify for the Olympics, but also to bring players along for the senior national team.

“It’s a big stage for our young players to show the rest of the world that the U.S. has very talented young players, and hopefully they will show it afterwards in the men’s national team,” Herzog said in a conference call before the tournament began last week in Kansas City, Kan. “The most important thing to get out of the youth national team, always, is a couple of players who can make it into the national team.”

The more tools a federation has for doing that, the better. And MLS has to be an integral part part of the national team’s future, as well as its present.

Sure, it’s great to have Ethan Horvath starring in goal for a Europa League team in Norway’s Molde FK. It’s fantastic to have Emerson Hyndman at Fulham, Cameron Carter-Vickers at Tottenham Hotspur, Zack Steffen at Freiburg.

But it’s equally important to see a player like Miazga — whose star at center back continues to rise with his solid play in Olympic qualifying — do well with the New York Red Bulls.

Is he headed for Europe someday? Could happen. Could happen soon. Miazga’s got the 6-foot-3 frame, the positional and aerial presence and the foot skills.

But Herzog is happy with where Miazga is playing now. So is Miazga. And that’s how it should be at any of USSF’s competitive levels.


“Some of the biggest stars and players from the U.S. are playing out here in MLS,” Miazga said before the tournament started. “I feel comfortable here. It’s home. It’s the home country where I’m from, so I feel comfortable here. It’s a great league, and year by year it’s getting better and better.

“You see all the stars coming here, like (Sebastian) Giovinco, David Villa, (Andrea) Pirlo. Playing against world-class players, you can test yourself. You can see where you stand against them, and you can see where they’re at.”