With a flurry of activity involving MLS stars on transfer deadline day in Europe, is this the sign of things to come? Roger Espinoza, Kei Kamara and Brek Shea all left MLS for the English Premier League during the January transfer window, and all three are expected to contribute immediately.
Espinoza went on a free transfer and has had a huge impact already, rallying Wigan from 2-0 down against Stoke on Wednesday by setting up both goals in a 2-2 draw. The former Sporting KC midfielder has joined a rich Honduran heritage at the DW Stadium and he's now joined in the EPL by former Sporting teammate, Kamara. The Sierra Leone winger sealed his loan switch to Norwich on the eve of transfer deadline day, and Kamara accepted the chance to shine on the worlds biggest stage was too big to turn down.
"England's a mecca of the game. It's a mecca of soccer, and no player is going to want to turn that opportunity down to go play some games over there. It's a great opportunity for me."
He may yet return to Sporting Park though, with his initial loan deal at the Canaries running out at the end of this season. His pace and direct style of play will suite the Premier League and the relegation scrap which Norwich is slowly getting sucked into. Time to impress for Kamara, if he wants to make his sojourn a permanent one. And I wonder if we'll see some more of his St. Patrick's Day celebrations this year, when Norwich travel to Sunderland on March 17? A 'Riverdance' jig would certainly suit the green and yellow Norwich jerseys.
Brek Shea signed for Stoke City in a $4 million deal just hours before the transfer window slammed shut. One of the USMNT's hottest properties, Shea is the latest American import to arrive at the Britannia Stadium following former Texas rival Geoff Cameron. The ex-Houston Dynamo defender has arguably been Stoke's player of the season and Cameron's rave reviews seem to have opened the door for Shea and others to join the EPL. Shea is direct, quick and strong and has been known to score a few stunners. The FC Dallas youth product has been on EPL teams' radars for some time, he trained with Arsenal last offseason and his stock rose dramatically. But since then, injury, suspensions and controversy have plagued the Mohawked star from Texas. A fresh start in the Potteries - helping Stoke to solidify and build on their now perennial EPL status - is exactly what the USMNT, Jurgen Klinsmann and Shea ordered.
"Brek is a very, very exciting player, and one who we believe could go on to become a very good player for Stoke. He has terrific pace, a very good left foot and he is capable of scoring goals. I believe he has all the tools needed to be a success here."
The moves suggest MLS is now a serious hunting ground for the Premier League, just as it has become for German, Belgian (Andy Najar sealed his switch from DC United to Belgian champions Anderlecht on Wednesday) and other European nations for some time. In England, more and more mid-table EPL teams are scouring the globe in search of players who can fit into their blue-collar ethos, while being modestly priced. MLS fits that pattern.
But it hasn't always been like this. For decades, when USMNT stars crossed the Atlantic many failed and returned home: Cobi Jones, Joe Max-Moore, Alexi Lalas and even Landon Donovan (at Bayer Leverkusen) could fall under that bracket. But a turning point arrived around the time that a group of talented goalkeepers arrived in England. Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and then Tim Howard stuck around long enough in the EPL to prove being a star in MLS translated to solid showings on England's biggest stage. Then the cavalry arrived, led by Clint Dempsey.
A smattering of stars rekindled a fondness towards US talent. Bullish striker Brian McBride is perhaps the most famous, with his cult hero status at Fulham, or "Fulhamerica" as they were known, leading to a bar at Craven Cottage named after the former Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire forward. And former Fire defender and current USMNT captain, Carlos Bocanegra, joined McBride as an integral part of Fulham's squad before moving on to success with Glasgow Rangers.
Claudio Reyna successfully marshaled Glasgow Rangers, Sunderland and Manchester City for over a decade and more recently Stuart Holden arrived on the EPL scene to much fanfare, assisting Dempsey in lifting the interest level in MLS talent once more.
But some haven't quite made the transition. The No. 1 SuperDraft-pick from 2007, Maurice Edu, has seen his Stoke career stall and was loaned out to Turkish side Bursaspor earlier this month. Former New York Red Bulls defender Tim Ream is currently in and out of the Bolton lineup struggling in the bottom half of the Championship, after early promise. And although Brad Guzan has made some wonderful saves in goal for Aston Villa this term, the jury is still out as to whether he can join the EPL's American 'keeper pantheon.
Espinoza, Kamara and Shea have an uphill battle to impress English fans. The fact is, when Major League Soccer is mentioned in the press in England, most fans still conjure up thoughts of Baseball, fireworks, hot dogs and cheerleaders. But that attitude is slowly shifting. They are the modern day equivalent of what Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Ghana were to EPL sides in the early noughties. One of the biggest stalling blocks now is the rigorous work-permit application, but even that's becoming easier these days according to top US based soccer agents.
There are currently eleven players who have played in MLS or with the US national teams, now playing for EPL clubs. Expect that number to rise further over the next few seasons, especially with Jurgen Klinsmann in charge of the USMNT. Since he arrived, training stints to English clubs in the offseason have risen exponentially. Klinsmann's strong links in the UK - thank to two stellar spells with Tottenham Hotspur and an iconic goal celebration - have enabled plenty of Major League Soccer's most promising talents to train with EPL sides in the offseason. Speaking last week, Klinsmann believes that young US players and even someone as established as Clint Dempsey, should always be reaching for the highest possible level to perform:
"My whole talk to Clint Dempsey for 18 months was [about how] he hasn't made shit. You play for Fulham? Yeah, so? Show me you play for a Champions League team, and then you start on a Champions League team and that you may end up winning the Champions League. There is always another level."
More young MLS stars may well be heading to the EPL in the future, as they seek stardom at that next level. Some of MLS' brightest young prospects, Juan Agudelo, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi, have already been training with big European sides over the last 12 months. They'll soon be on the radars of EPL clubs, if they aren't already. Does the success of new imports Brek Shea, Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara determine whether or not the next batch of MLS stars get a big move to England?
MLS is enjoying good publicity across the soccer world for its well-structured approach to producing talented, athletic and professional young players. The foundations have now been laid, the European linkups exist and MLS, like it or not, is fast becoming one of the EPL's most desirable and affordable feeder leagues.