While other MLS clubs are preparing for the new season by playing lower tier US clubs, the San Jose Earthquakes are in London testing themselves against Premier League competition and practicing at the training facility of Premier League risers Tottenham Hotspur. What is an MLS club doing in London?
The preseason trip to the UK is a result of a partnership that was penned between the two clubs in 2008. This agreement was hardly unique. Throughout the last decade MLS clubs have announced with great fanfare a variety of partnerships with various big international clubs. The LA Galaxy signed an agreement with Chelsea and Arsenal with the Colorado Rapids. While the initial signings of these partnerships brought a lot of initial interest, to most close followers of MLS little has seemed to come from these deals. But as this preseason trip demonstrates, meat is starting to be added to the bones of these agreements.
The Earthquakes by all accounts have had a fantastic week, defeating both a Spurs (1-0) and West Ham (2-0) reserve side that included Premier League regulars. They also beat western conference rivals, the Colorado Rapids (2-0), who have a partnership with Arsenal. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp told the Huffington Post that he has
Clive Allen, former Spurs player and head Development Coach was quoted on the Earthquakes website, "they are hoping to achieve a lot more this time around and with the players they've brought in and the strength of that squad, it certainly looks that they are capable of doing just that."
"been impressed with our US partners the San Jose Earthquakes; they've been well organised and extremely competitive against some good opposition."
It is clearly beneficial for the Earthquakes in the run up to their season to train in a Premier league environment and be able to challenge themselves against Premier league talent. But, as seen by Redknapp's comments, as well as those of Allen, MLS players don't just gain experience on the field, they also get a chance to impress.
Managers and clubs never stop scouting talent so this is no doubt some quality exposure for the Earthquake players, as well as the league. When touring the United States during the summer, European clubs have often discovered potential signings, for instance Celtic sought to nab New England's Shalrie Joseph after one tour and David Moyes got to see Landon Donovan up close in last year's all star game. As a result of this partnership, Redknapp and Allen, as well as management at West Ham got to see prospects Ike Opara (a key member of the U-20 US national team and the the 3rd pick in the MLS draft), as well as former Spurs target Bobby Convey, who impressed former Spurs manager Glenn Hoddle on a preseason tour during the summer of 2003. This sort of interaction at the very least gives Spurs' management a better sense of what MLS has to offer.
But where these partnerships are currently bearing the most fruit is more behind the scenes.
A significant benefit for MLS clubs is that they get to see first hand how a big European club operates. For the team's management they get to see training techniques on the field and they get to learn how Spurs manage the commercial side of the club. Similarly, for Tottenham they get a window into the growing American market, as well as assess MLS players up close, and gain a greater understanding of the league and its plans.
But perhaps most important are the personal relationships and connections that are being established between the clubs. Redknapp explained that "It's also been great to catch up with John [Doyle General Manager] and Frank [Yallop manager], who I know well." John Doyle, San Jose Earthquakes General Manager similarly told Association Football that:
"We are very happy with how this relationship has grown and will continue to grow. The door to this relationship was opened by Billy Beane a few years back, and we are benefiting greatly from it. The pitches and facilities here at Spurs Lodge are world-class, and our treatment by the whole Tottenham staff, including Harry Redknapp and Daniel Levy, has been wonderful."
That Billy Beane is of course the acclaimed GM of the Oakland A's. The A's owner Lew Wolff, also owns the Earthquakes, and Billy Beane, a budding soccer fan and huge Spurs supporter, has taken an interest in the Earthquakes and helped facilitate the partnership with Spurs. While Beane's involvement is more peripheral, AF has learned that he has shared with Spurs some of the techniques used by A's farm system to develop and manage their younger players, something that should help Spurs as they continue to develop their fairly young academy.
So what are the next steps for these partnerships?
For MLS, one goal ought to be to leverage these partnerships into more player exchanges, especially involving younger Premier League players being loaned to MLS sides. Acquiring Premier League players on loan would not only help boost the quality of play in MLS, but it would also help the league grow its profile abroad. While the summer schedule is often seen as an impediment to the league's growth, the difference in schedules could actually serve as an advantage. For instance, a young Spurs player who is peripheral to the core roster but is in need of competitive games for his development could be loaned out to an MLS team from April to October, giving him a full season of competitive play, while only missing three or four months of premier league play. Indeed, Harry Redknapp has been a bit of trailblazer by foregoing Spurs' involvement in the traditional English reserve league, choosing instead to loan out younger peripheral players to lower division sides. With a partnership agreement in place and a level of trust developed between the management of both teams, one could certainly envision potential loan agreements in the future.
But for Spurs the larger goals of these partnerships is also clear. With Spurs closing in on Champions League football, plans for a new stadium advancing, and efforts to expand Spurs' share of the global market, their ambition to become among the European elite is clear. Increasing their presence in the developing American soccer market is no doubt of keen interest. ''This agreement with San Jose Earthquakes will provide us with an excellent opportunity to access a key region in a global market,'' said Spurs' Paul Barber at the time the agreement was signed.
While Spurs have not yet announced their summer plans, a tour of America is likely in the works in the coming years. As Redknapp noted, "Pre-season is an extremely important time for any club and we are delighted to be able to offer our support to San Jose Earthquakes ahead of the forthcoming MLS season." I am sure San Jose would duly return the favor.