The 2014 FIFA World Cup will be, without a doubt, the toughest test the United States national team has ever had to face.
Paired in Group G alongside formidable foes in Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the U.S. side will have a difficult time escaping the first round of the tournament. Germany and Portugal in particular, led by Philip Lahm and Cristiano Ronaldo respectively, will be very tough to beat. Ghana, champions of Africa, is not to be taken lightly, either.
Jurgen Klinsmann, the head coach of the team, remains as confident as ever though. He has taken the players, once a rag-tag group of individuals, and made them tick as a unit. The U.S. breezed through World Cup qualifying, coming in first. So far, Klinsmann has done well, but the team itself has changed quite a bit.
It starts, as it always has, with Major League Soccer.
The league born in 1996 has always been the rock on which the U.S. national team has built its foundation. MLS is responsible for bringing up almost every single U.S. international player, each sharing the common experience of holding their teamâ€™s scarf during the SuperDraft, or battling it out for the MLS Cup.
Moves to Europe serve as reward for the greatest players in the league. Most of the time, these transfers are met with plenty of cash but less playing time. Itâ€™s a compromise that has held the league and the national team back, but a necessary sacrifice for the growth of soccer in the country.
MLS operates under a single entity structure, and each of the leagueâ€™s 19 teams follows a salary cap. This has made it difficult to retain top players, since larger salaries or salary demands cannot fit easily into the paltry $3 million cap. The league Designated Player rule â€“ DP for short â€“ allows teams to bypass the cap with a minimal hit, giving teams the option of signing multimillion-dollar players.
Enter David Beckham, stage right, Thierry Henry, stage left.
For a long time, MLS struggled with the grey area between star signings and international-quality Americans. Players like Geoff Cameron, Stuart Holden and Maurice Edu made European moves since they were of a quality higher than that of MLS, at least on the pay grade.
On the field, though, they were exceptional talents but never really looked out of place. Rather, they fit in well as the top players of their teams, looking only to be compensated further.
Until recently, that kind of compensation didnâ€™t exist, and these international-quality signings sought the money elsewhere, making moves to Denmark, England, Germany or other European leagues.
In exchange for the cash, they often saw the bench.
A few things happened in the last few years that changed the landscape of MLS in regards to international players. The first was the prominence of Landon Donovan in the league.
Donovan is the most well known of the U.S. internationals. His goal against Algeria in the last World Cup was celebrated across the country and for good reason â€“ it was a crucial goal that put the U.S. through the group stages, and scored in added time after the 90-minute mark, too!
Even in 2010, Donovan wore the MLS logo proudly on his sleeve, playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy. His is a career forged in the early coals of the league, when he played with the San Jose Earthquakes. His spells in Germany made him the player that he is today, but it was his time in California that made him an icon at home.
He earns DP money at the LA Galaxy, a player deserving of it entirely.
But then came Chris Wondolowski in San Jose. The forward scored 26 goals in a single season, eclipsing every other player in the league and coming close to breaking the league record of 27 set by Roy Lassiter.
He didnâ€™t break the record but he did manage to snag a DP contract of his own.
In Los Angeles, another young American international was about to depart for European shores. Defender Omar Gonzalez was looking for more money, deservedly. This time, though, the league approved making Gonzalez a DP, too.
Suddenly, the idea of being an American international and making money in MLS didnâ€™t seem so foreign.
Clint Dempsey saw this and swapped the English Premier League for the Seattle Sounders. He became the highest-paid player in the league.
Ideas soon became realities.
Charlie Davies, an American forward, returned home and joined the New England Revolution; Eddie Johnson started getting national team call ups again due to his impressive form in Seattle; Mike Magee started scoring goals in spades for Chicago and cries for his inclusion in the national team grew louder.
Graham Zusi became the U.S. national teamâ€™s starting choice in attacking midfield, and stayed in Sporting Kansas City using a new league retention fund â€“ 13 other players stayed in the league with this same fund. Fellow Kansas player Matt Besler emerged as a promising young defender. Real Salt Lakeâ€™s Kyle Beckerman and the Houston Dynamoâ€™s Brad Davis stayed in MLS but continued getting national team call ups.
Holden, Cameron and Edu did not.
Then, Toronto FC opened the floodgates.
The Canadian club splashed $100 million on signing a pair of DPs in Tottenham Hotspurâ€™s English international, Jermain Defoe, and U.S. international Michael Bradley, who had been playing in Rome.
To the tune of $50 million each, the ever-struggling Toronto FC made a statement to the rest of the league of its intent to be one of the top teams in MLS. However, the team also took the idea of a U.S. international and elevated it to the realm of superstar.
Defoe and Bradley are classes apart, and yet they received similar praise, expectation and, most importantly, salary.
Many more are sure to follow; already, Edu has come back to MLS with the Philadelphia Union. Another former MLS standout, Marco Pappa, ditched Europe and came back home, joining Seattle.
U.S. internationals no longer have to choose between playing time and compensation. The league is at a place where it can facilitate the signings and salaries of star American players. It will continue to do so, and to grow, as it expands into five new markets, including New York City, Orlando and a rumoured Miami team owned by Beckham and LeBron James.
Grow, it must. Major League Soccer cannot say it is the premier competition in the world, nor can the U.S. national team say it is a World Cup threat. However, the two believe, more than any other nation, that itÂ canÂ be the best league and the best national side in the world.
That belief echoes the U.S.A.â€™s spirit of greatness.
The ambitious dream of being number one.