Why it’s so hard for foreign players to adjust to Major League Soccer

As Major League Soccer has grown, its offseasons have become dominated by player acquisition news. It’s not only big name imports like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Sebastian Giovinco that steal headlines but also middle-tier internationals, or the various big-named Americans returning home. The influx leaves fans and bloggers rushing to dissect the savviest moves and predict which rebuilt teams will make deep runs in the playoffs. It’s also given Major League Soccer a truly fun offseason.

But it’s usually about spring time, when teams have played just enough games that we can start to tell what they are, that fans start to say, “this guy is the one taking us to the promised land??” As any seasoned follower knows, you can’t take a new player’s adjustment for granted. Not everybody makes a seamless transition to Major League Soccer.

It’s always difficult for a new player anywhere to adjust – I know what it’s like to be the new guy plopped down to a team 4,000 miles away – but it’s even more so for players new to MLS. The league aims to be one of the best in the world, but it has very real, tangible differences to other major leagues, often making it difficult to assess how a player will respond to these unique circumstances. Of the various factors that determine how well a team’s new star might perform, many are impossible to measure before a player’s actually on the ground.

Here are a few factors that can make or break a player’s transition:

How well the player deals with being the main guy or the center of attention

Very few players around the world are truly ‘the main man’ on their team. The level of competition is too high in the top leagues for more than handful of guys to truly distinguish themselves. Even then, top talents can often thrive without the pressure of being the top dog. Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema will always have less pressure than Cristiano Ronaldo.

The list of players who have to deal with that pressure isn’t long. We’re talking Totti, Ronaldo, Messi, Gerrard … who else? Maybe there are a few others, but not enough to assume your team’s newest star knows how to shoulder the load.

If your club is bringing in a player expected to be a new Alpha, he may have more responsibility on the field, more responsibility in the locker room, more responsibility with the media. When things go bad late in the game, everyone will turn to him. When the team has a three-game losing streak, players will glance toward his locker.

Those extra pressures weigh on a guy. It seems that Robbie Keane has thrived under them for the Galaxy, while maybe Jermaine Defoe didn’t in Toronto. Soccer is like life: mental. When those mental conditions change, the body and performance alter as well.

We can’t expect a player to show the same skills and ability when circumstances change. How a player responds to those changes is often as important as the skills he flashed before.

How well the player deals with the increased travel demands

Since the United States is a bigger country than most, a player in MLS puts more overall miles travelling than most any other league in the world. That’s more time with your butt in the seat than on the training field or the cold bath.

On top of that, MLS teams have to fly almost everywhere; a lot of European teams can bus or train to games. When an MLS team plays away Saturday night, they fly to the game on Thursday or Friday, then home Sunday. The altitude changes, and decreased oxygen levels are tough on the legs. Muscles swell and tighten. That’s two days of extra of wear and tear on the body, whereas a foreign player might be used to having those extra hours to recover.

Then another seemingly minor difference: European teams often travel home at night after the game; they don’t have to sleep in a random bed on an unfamiliar pillow away from their families. MLS games can end at 10 p.m., and there often isn’t a commercial flight to catch that night. When a guy has moved his life across the world, extra nights alone in a hotel room can take their toll.

How well a player adjusts to a large variety of playing conditions

Wednesday night away at Foxboro in July, then head down to Houston for a Saturday afternoon game. Wednesday night in 75 degrees, an empty stadium, on hard turf. Saturday afternoon in front of a loud crowd, in 105 degrees plus humidity, on grass. I’m a strong believer that soccer is soccer, and it’s important to ignore superfluous excuses, but your gameplan changes when you try press high in the Texas summer, or think you can outposses Seattle on their wet, high-paced, bouncy turf. We’ll see how well Gerrard whips in a cross on five-year-old rubber pellets.

How well he acclimates to a new culture

Different language, different currency, different customs, different social norms, different mannerisms, new house, new friends, new coaches, new teammates, new team rules, new city. Then go out and give 100 percent focus on the field. It’s a children’s game, right?

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In his book, Roy Keane talks about the 5 percent difference. The margin between Manchester United and Wimbledon is 5 percent, and if Manchester United doesn’t come prepared and focused, it can lose to a vastly inferior opponent. Like Wimbledon.

As a result, you can never sign a player that feels like he is doing you a favor. The player can never feel like he is taking a step down. The margins at the professional level are too tight. You need someone who is beyond excited and privileged to be there. No matter how good a player is, if he drops 5 percent below his ability, he isn’t worth it.

It’s really dangerous to sign players that think MLS is inferior to European leagues (and I’ve been around teams in Europe way smaller than the mighty elite, and even they question MLS’s ethos). They might have the right intentions, but if they subconsciously believe it’ll be easier in even the slightest way, they are done. A player can say all the right things and make you believe he understands and is committed, but you don’t know what’s going on a couple levels deeper into his brain.

MLS might not be La Liga, but it’s good enough that a player needs to be 100 percent focused. For sure, if a top level international comes and is 100 percent committed (for all 34 games, not just the first seven), then he will be great. If not, we’ve seen enough cases of what will happen.

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MLS is a high tempo league. The defensive tactics are more about pressure on the ball than clog the gaps and protect the space. The attacking plan is often about quick strikes and risk management rather than probe and control. Most MLS games are won on skill or athleticism opposed to thinking and planning. Every year, MLS teams have guys come in on trial that have been on top teams around the world, and the guy spends the first couple days a step slow and flabbergasted. Some players’ skill sets are better suited to different leagues.

It’s not a matter of better or worse. Every league has its own style, and MLS’s is quick and chaotic. It often makes excellent players look lost. English pundits regularly say the same thing about new players in the Premier League.

It should be noted, as well, that players can grow into the MLS mold. Javier Morales and David Ferriera both struggled to adjust to the pace at first. David Beckham didn’t show the determination at first. Bradley Wright-Phillips took a season to show his true ability. All became excellent MLS players.

Unfortunately, the list of counterfactuals is twice as long. If you were to make a page of all the touted international signings that didn’t last 12 months, it’d look like the small print on a credit card form.

It’s hard to fault anyone in the process. It’s really difficult to measure these qualities (though, to be honest, I suspect most MLS clubs could do a better job in the vetting process). How can you predict if a player will miss his family? No one puts “need mom’s home cooking to play well” on their CV. Or if he performs better as the fourth best player on a team instead of the second? There isn’t a stat for how a guy handles pressure. Where else in the world can you see how a guy does bouncing back and forth on four-hour flights between hard, wet turf and long, dry grass?

It’s tough for a player to adjust to a new league, and as a result, it’s difficult for a team’s staff to make predictions; there’s always a bit of guesswork involved. Physical skills are only part of the equation. It’s not a perfect science, and more so for a league as varied as MLS.

So buyer beware. Remember: Do you know what it feels like before you know you’re wrong? It feels like you’re right.

FIND FUSION

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