By IVES GALARCEP
A popular topic among some U.S. Men’s National team circles is the list of players who could have played for the USMNT but wound up playing elsewhere. Giuseppe Rossi is the patron saint of this subject, with Neven Subotic playing a close second.
Here’s the real question. How many top-notch players has the U.S. lost out on? How many elite players who were actually eligible for the United States has the national team missed the boat on?
Not as many as some would have you believe.
You have probably heard players like Andy Najar, Vedad Ibisevic and Yura Movsisyan (pictured above) mentioned as players who fell through the cracks or players who the United States should have landed for the national team. The only problem with those theories is the fact that none of those players were eligible for the United States when they played for other nations, and none of them would necessarily be eligible today even if they hadn’t been cap-tied by other countries.
In the cases of Najar and Movsisyan, both were residents of the USA who did not gain their American citizenship before playing for Honduras and Armenia, respectively. Movsisyan’s name came up recently after his $9.7 million move to Spartak Moscow. He did want to play for the United States, but he never secured his citizenship before he departed for Europe to continue his professional career overseas. Movsisyan married an American, so leaving for Europe didn’t keep him from gaining citizenship, but he still had to wait at least two more years for his American citizenship after leaving MLS. Ultimately, he chose to play for Armenia rather than wait, a decision that allowed him to play in European qualifying matches and World Cup qualifying matches in front of European scouts, which certainly didn’t hurt his club prospects.
Najar was born and raised in Honduras, and was pressured from an early going to play for Honduras. He considered the United States, but was never a serious threat to try and play for the Americans. Najar also isn’t an American citizen. He wasn’t one when he debuted for Honduras, and still isn’t one to this day.
So did the USMNT really lose out?
Ibisevic is even more of a head-scratching name to mention as someone who should be playing for the U.S. national team. He spent one year playing high school soccer, and one year playing college soccer at Saint Louis University. Before he was anywhere close to even thinking about playing for the United States, Ibisevic was already heading to Europe to embark on a professional career that has become a very impressive one.
The myth of Ibisevic being one that got away was perpetuated, in part, by an interview he gave the New York Times soccer blog four years ago, when he pointed out that nobody from U.S. Soccer had reached out to him during his one year of college soccer at Saint Louis, and he revealed that he probably would have played for the United States if given the chance.
The fitting follow-up question to that would have been to ask Ibisevic if he would have been willing to spend four to six years in the United States working toward citizenship, thus putting his European soccer aspirations on hold, to play for the U.S. national team. Chances are he had no idea just how far away he was from being eligible for the USA, and chances are he wouldn’t trade away the career he has fashioned now for the chance to play for the United States.
Is there a scenario where he could have wound up being eligible for the USA? Sure. If he had stayed in college, kept playing there until he joined MLS, and then played in MLS until he put in the years to become an American citizen, then yes, at some point he might have earned citizenship.
If Ibisevic had taken that route there is no assurance that he would ever have reached the heights he has reached now professionally, leading the Bundesliga in goals while starring for Stuttgart. You can certainly argue that MLS might have dropped the ball from a scouting standpoint, but the fact is there is no way of knowing how Ibisevic’s career would have turned out if he hadn’t gone to Europe.
At what point do we draw the line on these absurd claims of players who got away? Perhaps Sunil Gulati could have done more to keep Brede Hangeland’s family from leaving Texas and moving their three-year-old son to Norway. Maybe former Real Madrid midfielder Santiago Solari could have played for the U.S. in a few World Cups if only someone at U.S. Soccer had found him an American girlfriend when he was playing college soccer in New Jersey in the 90s.
This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t legitimate cases of players getting away. Miguel Ponce was born in the United States but won an Olympic gold medal winner for Mexico last summer. Roger Espinoza could have played for the United States if he had waited for the U.S. national team to show interest, but he wound up playing for his native Honduras instead. That decision ultimately allowed Espinoza to play in a World Cup for Honduras, and he wound up starring in the Olympics, which helped earn him a move to English Premier League side Wigan Athletic.
It is safe to say he isn’t regretting his decision to play for Honduras, and truth be told, nobody should wish for things to have played out any differently.
Would it be nice if U.S. immigration laws were more lax, and players from other countries didn’t have to wait as long to earn citizenship? Sure, you can make that argument, but the national team has nothing to do with that, and an argument can be made that stringent citizenship rules aren’t exactly a bad thing for a country to have.
U.S. fans can certainly still lament the losses of Rossi and Subotic, because both were actually eligible for the United States early on, and both would have been sure-fire starters had they wound up playing for the USMNT. Rossi was born and raised in New Jersey, but his ties to Italy and Italian soccer proved too strong to overcome. Subotic represented the United States in the 2005 Under-17 World Cup, but ultimately decided against playing for the senior U.S. team, choosing to play for Serbia.
Those significant losses serve as the cautionary tales that motivate U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to work hard to identify and make contact with all players eligible for the United States. Klinsmann, in his own words, said he doesn’t want to lose another Giuseppe Rossi.
These days the U.S. national team is doing a better job of identifying and landing players who had other options. The infusion of German-American options is well-documented, and Jose Torres and Edgar Castillo are players who have passed up chances to play for Mexico to represent the United States. Timmy Chandler took longer than most, but now appears ready to commit. Klinsmann has been in touch with and made aware of players such as Aron Johannsson, Shawn Parker and Sebastien Hines, but none of the three players have tangible ties to the American soccer structure so can any of them be considered to have been lost if the wind up playing for other countries?
The good thing for the U.S. National team is that prospects realize that World Cup appearances are a safe bet if you become a part of the national team. That’s something not every country can say. That coupled with the increasing effort to identify and integrate dual-national players makes it increasingly unlikely that the United States is going to miss out on a player they should have been able to cap tie.
Nothing will change the fact that the U.S. team lost out on the Rossi and Subotic, but before you go buying into the notion that the USMNT has lost out on a boatload of players, a closer look will show you that such ideas are more hype than reality.