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Dearth of MLS Players at Euro 2012 a question of PR, not talent

Only one player will be leaving his MLS club for the month-long sojourn in Poland and the Ukraine: Republic of Ireland captain Robbie Keane.

Though struggling, LA Galaxy will lose its most consistent performer at the worst possible moment, Keane’s play this season proves he deserves to be there. He’s been a threat to score every match, and would have more than three goals in nine games if he had better service.

Keane has earned rave reviews for his locker room presence and has been called for just one foul this season, which will be a refreshing example for a team historically known for discipline problems.

While Keane is the only MLS player landing at Chopin Airport in Warsaw, he should not have been the only one.

Since I have a lot more free time on my hands than my Europe-based Total Football colleagues, I asked myself this question: why aren’t more of the MLS European stars at Euro 2012?

The scale of the problem

Part of the problem is scale. According to data on the MLS website, only 6.3% of the league’s 542 players are from one of the 16 countries who will be competing in Euro 2012.

Only four nations - England, France, Germany, and Italy - have more than two eligible players in MLS, and given the domestic-based talent those countries already have at their disposal, it is hard to justify the expense of sending a scout to cover all 19 MLS markets to evaluate so few players. The lack of exposure MLS has in Europe plays an integral role as well.

Even for the few players that get the opportunity to be in one of them, MLS’ highest-profile events (e.g. MLS Cup, All-Star game) do not command nearly enough attention in Europe compared to domestic league or cup football. So a breakout season won’t garner enough attention from talent evaluators.

What little exposure MLS does receive is generally unfairly negative. The press coverage of Keane’s move to MLS last August was a reminder of how MLS can be perceived in Europe.

The former Spurs star’s career was thought to be over, with Keane essentially in Los Angeles to cash in on one last major paycheque; his return to Republic of Ireland for Euro 2012 has been primarily attributed to his successful loan spell with Aston Villa earlier this year, not his MLS form.

Top-to-bottom quality

That this is still the perception of MLS is shocking. Total Football ranked MLS the sixth-best league in the world primarily because of the league’s top-to-bottom quality of play. There are no easy fixtures in MLS, so MLS stars cannot pad their offensive output on small fry.

Here’s a stark case in point: in La Liga this season, the differential between first place Real Madrid and last place Racing Santander was a whopping 73 points; in MLS last season, the same differential was just 39 points - equal to the differential between first and third in La Liga.

This means that, say, Cristiano Ronaldo faces far worse competition relative to his own squad than Keane does. The combination of league parity plus the lack of a “super club” in MLS means that Keane has to work a lot harder for his goals than Ronaldo.

By failing to be appreciated for this, MLS gets quickly stuck in an unfairly vicious cycle in Europe: the lack of exposure and negative attention grossly underestimates the talent level in MLS, leading international hopefuls to choose to ply their trade elsewhere, dis-incentivizing European national teams from sending scouts to evaluate MLS players, further suppressing MLS’ exposure in Europe - and so on, and so on.

Ryan Meara

There is no better example of this than Ryan Meara, the New York Red Bulls goalkeeper who should have been invited to join Keane at Gannon Park.

Meara has been brilliant this season, helping NYRB to an impressive 8-3-2 record despite injuries to a handful of regulars including most of his back four.

Though Meara isn’t ready to unseat 37-year-old starter Shay Given yet at just 21 years old, Meara has the potential to be the world-class net minder the Republic have craved since Packie Bonner retired in 1996.

But why wouldn’t manager Giovanni Trapattoni bring Meara along as a reserve? Even if he didn’t see action, Meara would benefit greatly from the experience of a major international competition he’ll likely be playing in four year from now.

Should the injury-prone Given need to be replaced, Meara is already a far better option than either of Trapattoni’s reserves: Sunderland third-string Keiren Westwood and 32-year-old Millwall keeper David Forde, whose only first division experience was in stints in the League of Ireland six years ago.

MLS prejudice?

There are other MLS players who deserved consideration for Euro 2012 as well. New York's Thierry Henry has been in fine form this season, who was leading all of MLS in scoring with nine goals in nine matches until suffering a hamstring injury, from which he has yet to recover; otherwise, the former Arsenal star would likely have added to his 123 career caps for France.

Danish goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen had a fine start to the MLS campaign backstopping Sporting Kansas City to a 7-0 start; SKC’s current poor run of form stems from inconsistent defending, with Nielsen more often than not having to make ferocious saves to preserve points. He’s a better reserve option than 30-year-old Evian keeper Stephan Andersen.

Then there is the curious case of David Beckham. At the end of last year, then-England manager Fabio Capello announced that Beckham would not be involved in Euro 2012. It was unfair of Capello to make such a statement nearly a year before the tournament. Now it’s too late for new manager Roy Hodgson to recall him.

Poor starts have doomed a few MLS players who might have been on the bubble for their Euro 2012 teams.

With Henry out due to injury, France might have looked to Vancouver striker Sebastian Le Toux to aid a line-up thin on attack. But after a fractured locker room decimated France at World Cup 2010, the last thing that manager Laurent Blanc wanted was another inconsistent forward with a hot temper - traits that Le Toux has demonstrated far too much of in both of the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Toronto striker Danny Koevermans had an uphill task to make a Holland squad deep on attack, but did not do himself any favours with his poor play this season, helping Toronto to the worst start in MLS history at 0-9-0.

Still, the dearth of MLS players heading to Euro 2012 indicates that while MLS has made significant strides over the past few years, there is still more work to be done by MLS in Europe - especially in the PR department.

By Sreesha Vaman - Follow me on Twitter @sreeshavaman


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