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U.S. national team's fate is tied to that of MLS

Third in a series. It may not be fair to talk about Major League Soccer's flaws before talking about its successes, but it is necessary.

Third in a series.

It may not be fair to talk about Major League Soccer's flaws before talking about its successes, but it is necessary.

Many player salaries are lower than what equivalent talents earn in Europe and Mexico.

The 31-player-per-team roster cap reduces the intensity of daily competition for places in the starting lineup.

There is no system of promotion and relegation, that unrelenting pressure-cooker that looms over every moment of every season.

And there are plenty of fans for whom Europe is simply, well, Europe - even if the glitz and glamour seen on TV doesn't paint the full picture of real life abroad.

Yet even the most abrasive "Eurosnobs" on social media know the core reason for MLS' existence. Simply put, the U.S. national team's future is directly tied to the strength of the nation's top league.

Even if all 11 U.S. starters at a World Cup come from European clubs, players from MLS teams would likely make up the rest of the squad. And even if all 23 players on the World Cup roster come from European clubs, it's a safe bet that many of them would have honed their skills in MLS at some point.

This is not to say MLS is perfect. It certainly isn't. But in any country on the planet, from Mexico to Brazil to Germany, the domestic league plays a significant role in developing national team talent. When it comes to the U.S. national team, no other entity can serve that purpose to the degree that MLS can.

Union sporting director Earnie Stewart takes pride in answering that call.

"I believe in that American player," he told The Inquirer in a recent interview. "And if you believe in him and give him the chance to play, and make mistakes in the beginning - but hopefully not twice or three times in a row - you can see them grow, and they can become very good players. That's something we want to stand for."

If those players fulfill their potential, they might be bought by European or Mexican teams. That may sadden fans who grow attached to their favorite names, but such moves ultimately help MLS grow.

The league has long been a buyer in the global player market. In recent years, it has learned that it's good to be a seller, too. Transfer fee revenue fuels investment into strengthening youth development for the next generation of American players.

"It validates who you are and what kind of product you have," Stewart said. "No matter what that is, a soccer player or a grain or oil. If you have a good product and you sell that, it says something in the world."

Of course, some players will be good enough to go straight to Europe as teenagers, like Hershey native Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund. But many talented prospects won't be seen by global scouts at age 16, as Pulisic was.

It is thus incumbent upon MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation to get as many top young players into the league as possible.

"It's about building those American players and future stars who can help us win international games," Stewart said. "They need to work closely together to establish that and make sure that when the World Cup does come to the United States, that we're there to compete."

Stewart wasn't referring to the distant dream of this country winning a men's World Cup some day. He was referring to potentially hosting one for the first time since 1994, a tournament Stewart played in and scored in for the United States.

That is not a distant dream at all. The U.S. is the overwhelming favorite to host the 2026 edition, either alone or jointly with Mexico and Canada. Nine years from now may seem well into the future. But it isn't in soccer terms, especially for a long-term thinker like Stewart.

"MLS and U.S. Soccer are on the right path," he said. "Now we need to sharpen that [focus], and make sure we're ready to compete when that time comes around."

Critics of MLS often suggest that adopting promotion and relegation would help that sharpening. In fact, many of them have a zeal for the cause that borders on religion.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has repeatedly dismissed that clamor, insisting that it won't happen during his tenure.

You might expect Stewart to be on the side of change, given his years of experience as a player and executive in the Netherlands. He is not. His experience in America has convinced him promotion/relegation isn't necessary here.

"In every single sport, no matter the NFL or NBA, we don't have a relegation system," he said. "So I don't think it's a negative at all, because this is how our kids grow up competing. . . . This is our culture. Not to have that, I don't mind it because I don't think an American player gives less on the field."

Stewart saw that drive plenty in his playing days. Yes, many of them were spent in the Netherlands, but in addition to his 101 U.S. national team caps, he played for D.C. United in 2003 and 2004. In the latter season, he played a key role in the team's run to the MLS championship. So he has seen how things really work on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

When asked if American soccer's aspiration should be to emulate Europe, he offered a forceful reply.

"Why would we want to be that?" he said. "We have our own product, our own culture. We have amazing facilities and possibilities and innovation here in the United States. We don't need to be them. We need to be ourselves and find that culture and go from there."

MLS has played a vital role in the quest to find that culture ever since its launch in 1996. It will continue to in the years to come, and it will likely only become more important.

"If you look at the national program, people 25 years ago said it was impossible," Stewart concluded. "They are showing they can compete within a certain level in the world. Why not with MLS? It's the land of opportunities."