Frank Dell'Apa: The United States now exports strikers, not goalkeepers

The one position the United States could produce used to be goalkeepers, but now sizzling-hot strikers rank among its best exports.
The leading scorers for three European leagues were either born in the U.S., played in MLS, or both. This is doubtless a first and, though it is still early in the season, worth considering.

Most people reading this probably already know the following are atop their leagues:   
  • former New York Red Bull Jozy Altidore, eight goals in eight games for AZ Alkmaar (Holland’s Eredivisie)
  • Mobile, Ala. native Aron Johannsson, 11 goals in 11 matches for Aarhus (Denmark’s Superliga)
  • Yura Movsisyan, formerly of Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, eight goals in 10 games for FK Krasnodar (Russian Premier League)
And there are currently several more forwards with U.S. connections, who have been among the leading scorers in overseas leagues: Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna, Austria); Caio Correa (Figueirense, Brazil); Charlie Davies (Randers, Denmark); Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur, England); Herculez Gomez (Santos, Mexico); Vedad Ibisevic (Stuttgart, Germany); Rogelio Funes Mori (River Plate, Argentina); Giuseppe Rossi (Villareal, Spain).

So, why is the United States exporting so many productive strikers, and not playmaking midfielders or even goalkeepers – the one position which was thought might become a U.S. specialty? There are few players with U.S. connections who are considered the best defender or midfielder (creative or defensive) in any foreign leagues. But if you look at the Brasilerao, there is Caio, 22, who was playing at Nantucket High School in Massachusetts, the youngest among the top 10 scorers in Serie A. And in Argentina, Funes Mori, 21, who grew up in Arlington, Texas, is fourth in the Torneo Apertura.

These strikers range in age from 21 to 29, and all but Boyd have roots spreading from California to Texas, the Deep South to the Northeast. This indicates a production line of scoring prospects in the country, though there is a question of whether they are emerging because of the system or in spite of it.

If there is a trend here, the reason for it is unclear. The only obvious thing the goal-scorers mentioned above seem to have in common is that they were influenced by the foreign background of their parents. Dempsey is an exception, having basically invented himself as a player while growing up in East Texas.

Of course, there is a fourth U.S. player leading a league in scoring. Chris Wondolowski, challenging the MLS scoring record of 27 goals set by Roy Lassiter of Tampa Bay in 1996, is another exception. Both Dempsey and Wondolowski were brought up as multiple-sport athletes, raised in families with deep U.S. roots (both claim Native American heritage). But there are few similarities in their games and they have contrasting motivations – Dempsey aggressively sought a transfer to Europe, establishing standards for a U.S. player, and Wondo is content with staying home.

A soccer axiom holds that you can’t teach goal-scoring. Concentration, positioning, timing – they must be instinctive. Strikers can work on finishing, but they need intangible qualities in order to be in the right place at the right time. Desire and single-mindedness, even selfishness, are advantageous, as well.

But the striker position is not just about scoring goals. Brian McBride made his way to the Premier League despite unimpressive numbers in MLS. And, though McBride did not light it up for Fulham, he proved to be one of the best U.S.-born forwards in Europe because of his all-around game.

Wondolowski is piling up numbers, but has not attracted overseas attention, though the website lists his market value at 2 million euros. Wondo seems content not maximizing his potential value, signifying another quirk of MLS – a player in any league with his goal totals would be itching to get to a bigger stage, and he would have agents promoting him, his club encouraging the process, eager to make a profit and establish a reputation as a developer of talent.

But MLS has never regarded itself as a league which could generate revenue with transfers, though it has done so with Altidore and Dempsey. Transferring players is not a big part of the MLS business plan.

One message being sent by the exodus of goal-scorers is that MLS could be raking in some significant transfer money here. Maybe not Radamel Falcao money. But the players listed in this story are valued at 48 million euros and have generated 33.65 euros in transfer fees, according to the site.

But first MLS has to recognize the talent. The academy development programs should help prevent the loss of another Caio, though they did nothing to discourage the departures of Funes Mori and Ibisevic. MLS might not have been able to keep a Davies or Rossi home, but it should capitalize on the sell-on value of the next Gomez or Movsisyan.