Matt Besler (left) and Graham Zusi signed Designated Player contracts to remain with Sporting Kansas City through the 2018 World Cup.
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
Matt Besler and Graham Zusi were both drafted by Kansas City in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Both players have gone on to become MLS All- Stars and members of the United States national team. And now both are examples of the progress being made by MLS.
Over the weekend, Besler and Zusi signed Designated Player contracts to remain with Sporting Kansas City through the 2018 World Cup. Those moves are obviously important for a Sporting franchise that won the 2013 MLS Cup and should remain in the title picture for the foreseeable future after locking down two of its most important pieces.
But there is also a bigger picture to consider.
Not only is the signing of Besler and Zusi big for Sporting, it also illustrates the progress that MLS is making as a league.
No, it won't generate the kind of buzz that bringing in an international star like David Beckham or Thierry Henry did. However, the fact that Besler and Zusi both chose to remain in MLS instead of going to Europe may be more important for the future of the league.
When Beckham and Henry arrived in the United States it was certainly an important landmark for MLS, and served to validate the league to the rest of the world.
Yet at this point, MLS is in a place where it is actually more important for the league to be able to keep its established stars at home rather than adding another recognizable name who is in the twilight of his career.
Kaka was certainly a big signing for Orlando City, which will debut in MLS next season. But you can make the case that Besler and Zusi will have a bigger impact on soccer in this country over the next four years than the Brazilian star.
When he takes the field for the first time as an Orlando City player next season, Kaka will be almost 33. He may have a few good seasons left and his name may sell some tickets, but Besler and Zusi are showing American kids that you can win a place on the national team and play your entire career in the U.S. while earning a good living.
Besler and Zusi are both 27 years of age and are coming off of strong outings at the World Cup, meaning that their stock won't get much higher.
The two players have both fielded offers from European clubs, but instead have opted to remain at home and play out their careers with the team where it all began in 2009.
This scenario would have been unlikely a decade ago, when signing with a European team was the equivalent of getting called up to the Major Leagues.
At that time, the difference in salary between Europe and MLS was dramatic, so it only made sense to take more money and face better competition across the pond for an American player.
But as we have seen recently with fellow national team members Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, a move from Europe back to MLS is no longer viewed as a demotion.
This is important for a generation of American players who can now look at MLS as a destination rather than a place where they can spend a few seasons while waiting for a better offer from a European club.
When MLS first debuted in 1996 one of the main reasons for its formation was so that American players would have a chance to continue their careers at home after college instead of being forced to carve out a place in Europe.
The league would help promote the game in this country while also providing a larger pool of players for national team selection.
In its 18-year existence, MLS has certainly succeeded in providing increased opportunities for American players while serving as a pipeline for the national team.
Of the 23 players on the American roster for the 2014 World Cup, 10 came from MLS teams, while European-based players like Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Geoff Cameron got their start in MLS.
There is no disputing the fact that MLS can't match the overall talent and quality of many top European leagues.
Yet for an organization that is still in its infancy when compared to the rest of the world, MLS is off to a pretty good start.
Beckham, Henry and Kaka brought attention to the league and were important for its growth. Besler and Zusi are showing that MLS is heading in the right direction.