Poor old MLS. Those in charge are understandably delighted at the undeniable progress the league has made over the last 20 years. Yet Antonio Conte’s dagger through the heart this week was something no-one welcomed.
You could have heard a pin drop at MLS’s Manhattan HQ when the Italy manager and soon to be Chelsea coach suggested his decision to exclude Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco from his Euro 2016 squad was a result of both players playing here. For an organisation who are terrifically paranoid about other people’s perceptions, it was a tough moment.
MLS has been here before. And it will reach similar junctures again. There’s no panic or a rush to rip up everything and start over.
Commissioner Don Garber, however, will surely have felt extremely disheartened to hear both Conte and Pirlo himself talk so negatively.
While Pirlo’s best days are clearly behind him, the decision to leave him out of the Azurri squad was understandable. He’s only lit up New York City FC sporadically. The touch and class on the ball is there for all to see. The running ability and motor however seem to be forever running on empty.
So there was more than a sniff of irony when the 37-year-old recently claimed soccer in the United States was more physical than technical.
“It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, lots of running. There is a lot of physical work and, in my mind, too little play,” the World Cup winning midfielder said.
“What I’m talking about is a system or culture. I don’t mean technical skills are low. I just mean there is a cultural void that needs to be filled.”
Giovinco: "I was upset. I need to keep improving so I can find my place back on the national team." #TFCLive pic.twitter.com/aLv9XuzKiS— Toronto FC (@torontofc) May 25, 2016
Much of that rings true. MLS is only two decades old. Development programmes are at an embryonic stage, the league is still evolving and attempting to attract greater names while fighting to ensure the best US talent don’t look elsewhere.
Yet for one of the poster boys and most marketable names to be so critical would have gone down like a lead balloon. Pirlo will be gone soon. So too will Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard whose spells here have not been glorious final chapters to storied careers.
The case of Giovinco, however, is different. The 29-year-old came to Toronto in his prime. Someone who knows Conte well from their time together at Juventus. Italy are not blessed with bountiful striking options so his inclusion seemed possible.
This is a player who, at the peak of his powers, decided to leave his homeland and take a risk which has paid off. After all, 30 goals and 21 assists in 45 games shouldn’t be sniffed at.
The Italian is the kind of star MLS craves. They don’t want 37-year-old’s looking for one last moment in the sun. Don’t forget David Beckham was 31 when he signed for LA Galaxy.
It wasn’t, however, good enough for those in Italy who regard him as someone who cannot cut it consistently. He never nailed a regular starting slot under Conte in Turin or for the Azzuri—Giovinco has made just two international appearances since moving to MLS.
“It’s normal if you choose to go and play (in MLS) then you can pay the consequences in footballing terms, “ said Conte. “We evaluated them technically, we didn’t leave anything to chance. Anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong, we went everywhere to have clear and precise ideas.”
Forget for a moment about the validity of Conte’s comments. What will other players who are contemplating a move Stateside think now? Could playing in MLS hamper chances of playing at the World Cup in two year’s time?
The bottom line is that, on the whole, European coaches won’t be swayed by blockbusting displays in America. That could change in years to come. Yet right now Giovinco’s excellent goal-scoring record counts for little in Conte’s eyes who clearly believes the standard in MLS simply isn’t requisite preparation for the European Championships.
He may have a point but US soccer is getting there and the anger and disbelief over Giovinco proves it. Without question though there is more work to be done until situations like this disappear for good.