Halftime Sports

National Transfers Helping or Hurting USMNT?

March 21, 2014

On Tuesday, 18 year-old Bayern Munich forward Julian Green applied to FIFA for a change in national team allegiances, deciding to join the US National Team.  Green was born in Tampa to an American father and a German mother, but has spent most of his life in Germany.   A young player with more potential than actual achievements at this point in his career, he has gained praise from some of the world’s best in Bayern teammates Arjen Robben and Bastien Schweinsteiger.  Regardless of what role, if any, he plays in the upcoming World Cup, many think he could develop into one of the best Americans ever.

Now more than ever players like Green opt to play for countries other than the one in which they were born or the one in which they live.  Such national team transfers are sure to make a defining impact on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  The question, with all of these players switching allegiances to play for other teams, is whether this is a positive development in for world soccer.  And from a more selfish angle, how will this affect the US Men’s National Team?

But first, it is worth reviewing the tangle of FIFA rules that govern such switches.  Article 7 of the FIFA Statutes states that if a player has lived in a country for at least five continuous years after turning 18, they can then play for that country’s national team, provided that they have not played in competitive matches for another country.  This competitive match provision means that a getting on the field in a friendly match will not tie a player to that country.

There are two main paths to moving from one national team to another.  The first involves a player not having committed to a country by playing in a competitive game for its national team.  The second route allows the player to switch even if they have already played in such a game, yet it requires that the player have held citizenship in the country prior to that competitive appearance.

Take the recent example of Diego Costa, the Atlético Madrid striker who caused much controversy this past year when he opted to play for the Spanish national team instead of his native Brazil.   With his 22 goals in La Liga, Costa will enter the tournament in Brazil as one the most in-form strikers in the world.  His play has drawn comparisons to Argentina and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, one of the best pure strikers in the game right now.  Both Spain and Brazil wanted Costa desperately, and his choice to join the defending World Cup champions leaves the tournament hosts without a clear choice at center forward.  Many Brazilians, including the coach of the national team, did not react well to what they saw as a betrayal by Costa, and they have good reason for their frustration. He had played in two matches already for the Brazilian team, and fans looked to him only a year ago as the next great Brazilian forward.  But as those two games were friendlies, he remained free to choose to represent Spain.

Another player to make the switch between national teams is forward Aron Johannson, who last year switched to the US squad after coming up through the Icelandic youth system.  Born in Alabama, Johannson spent most of his life in Iceland.  He plays for the Dutch club team AZ Alkmaar, where he replaced his national team teammate Jozy Altidore as the starting striker after Altidore left AZ for the Premier League.  Costa could make the switch because he has not played a competitive game for Brazil, Johannson had participated in binding competitions with Iceland.  However, his American citizenship allowed him to make the same “one-time switch” that Green just made.  The Icelandic FA responded in about the same way their Brazilian counterparts did to Costa’s move, claiming Johannson has no ties American soccer and that money motivated the decision.

The increasing movement of players between national teams has left some uneasy, and not just the members and supporters of the national teams that get left behind.  England and Manchester United midfielder Jack Wilshere said earlier this year that, “If you’ve lived in England for five years, for me, it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play. It doesn’t mean you can play for that country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I’m not going to play for Spain.”

Many seem to fear that soon national allegiance will hold little value, and players will switch national teams to gain playing time, money or prestige.  And they would seem to have a point.  It is not clear that Johannson, Costa, and Green had any other motive than increasing their chance to play in a World Cup, or in Costa’s case, to win one.  However, FIFA’s rules prevent any sort of mass exodus in which all the best players move to one national team to ensure a World Cup victory.   So it seems that although individual fan bases and football associations will continue to be frustrated by the choices of prospective national team stars, the current system poses no real threat to the integrity of world soccer.

So while the system as a whole works, the question remains of how well it works for the Americans.  The US team has gained many dual-citizens in recent years, especially since Jurgen Klinsman took over as coach.  Apart from Johannson and Green, Terrence Boyd, John Brooks, Edgar Castillo, Fabian Johnson, and Danny Williams are all players on the current roster who had the chance to play for another country’s national team.  Most of these players are young and have yet to make their full impact on the team, but as of now only Johnson seems likely to start at the World Cup.  While the US has managed to retain many of these players and even recruit a few from other countries, it has also lost a notable few.  Among them are New Jersey-born Italian forward Guiseppe Rossi and Serbian center back Neven Subotic.  Rossi plays for the Italian club Fiorentina while Subotic plays for Champions League runner-up Borussia Dortmund.  Either player would greatly raise the quality of the US team.

In the past the US lost many of the players with dual citizenship, but now, with the rising profile and quality of the team, the balance seems to have tipped back in the favor of the US.  While it remains to be seen just how good the current generation of foreign players will be, young talents such as Green, Johannson and Johnson could soon play leading roles on the team.  So as long as Klinsman continues to recruit well, the US should continue to take advantage of the current system and gain talented players through national team transfers.

Photo: Erik Drost/Flickr

Kevin Huggard
Class of '17. Formerly EIC and writer/editor for mostly sports and opinions. Halftime forever. On twitter as @kevinhuggard.

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