Major League Soccer Undergoes a Rookie Revolution

The full story appears in Philadelphia Weekly.

Ridley Drive in the Delco suburb of Wallingford is an unlikely home for a professional sports team. A sleepy cul-de-sac off the main road, it’s flanked on one side by a row of two-story brick houses, on the other by what appears to be a cow pasture. About a hundred yards after the turnoff, a small yellow sign warns: “Slow: Children at Play.” On a brisk Tuesday morning in March, the sign assumes a double meaning.

Over on the pasture—which turns out to be the practice field of the Philadelphia Union, the city’s 3-year-old Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise—16-year-old Zach Pfeffer struggles to free himself for a shot in a five-on-five scrimage. Staring him down in goal is fellow rookie, 19-year-old Zac MacMath. Off beyond the sideline doing calisthenics with the rest of the squad is another rookie, 21-year-old Ryan Richter, a La Salle guy.

These young men represent the new faces of MLS, a league that’s gone through nearly as many incarnations as it has seasons.

When it opened for business in 1996, MLS was hailed as the Zion of the exiled American stars who’d long been forced to toil in distant lands. National team icons like John Harkes and Tab Ramos flocked home from Europe to kick off a new era in American soccer.

Next came the MLS-as-international-retirement-home phase. Washed-up greats like German legend Lothar Matthaus and Mexican striker Luis Hernández arrived to great acclaim, only to disappoint fans with underwhelming performances and a distinct lack of interest.

After that, a surge of young American talent—DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Freddy Adu—gave the league a much needed, albeit temporary, shot in the arm.

Then, in 2007, the David Beckham era. The English megastar signed a five-year, $250 million deal to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. To reconcile Beckham’s $6.5 million annual salary (the rest comes from endorsements) with its $2.1 million salary cap, MLS introduced the Designated Player (DP) rule, which allowed each club to sign one player at an unlimited salary with only the first $400,000 counting against the cap.

Beckham’s arrival triggered frenzied speculation about an impending influx of expensive international stars. It hasn’t happened. Although MLS clubs have landed some marquee talents under the DP rule, including French striker Thierry Henry and Mexican and former Barcelona defender Rafa Marquez, they have been few and far in between. Only two Designated Players have been brought in for the new season, and the majority of the league’s 18 teams don’t have any.

It turns out the coming of the Beckham era was a mirage. Instead, his four years in America have witnessed MLS’ evolution into its latest—and perhaps most lasting—incarnation as a home for up-and-coming talent. Young players, many still in their teens, now command a sizeable share of just about every club’s roster, and a number are rapidly emerging as full-fledged stars. Last season’s rookie of the year, Andy Najar of D.C. United, was 17 when he won the award.

Fittingly, the biggest story of the new season’s first weeks has been the New York Red Bulls’ 18-year-old striker, Juan Agudelo. A product of the club’s youth system, Agudelo bagged the winner in the Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory over Seattle in Week One. Several days later, he equalized for the U.S. national team in its 1-1 draw with Argentina.

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Time for a Ceasefire

The situation in Libya is–how to say it?–a mess. The rebels capture a city only to retreat in disarray, often after mere hours. The humanitarian situation in conflict zones like the besieged coastal city of Misurata is dire and getting worse. With the rebel forces looking every bit the ragtag bunch they are, Great Britain announced today that it would be sending military advisers to eastern Libya to help build up the rebel army. Problem is, it’s not much of an army. For starters, it’s unclear who exactly is in command. General Khalifa Hifter, a former colonel in the Libyan army, says that he’s in charge. “I control everybody, the rebels and the regular army forces,” he told the New York Times yesterday. But the Transitional National Council, the ad hoc civilian government in the east, claims that General Fattah Younes, until recently Qadaffi’s interior minister, has command.

The Brits’ actions signal a doubling down on their commitment to see Qadaffi outed, a commitment shared, at least rhetorically, by the US. Since the start of the intervention, President Obama has walked a tightrope between pledging fidelity to the limited humanitarian goals authorized by the enabling UN resolution and reiterating his desire for regime change. Ideally, the former would have triggered the latter–allied intervention to halt Qadaffi’s murderous advance on Bengazhi would have shifted the momentum sufficiently to hand the rebels the upper hand and force the butcher of Tripoli from his Bedouin tent.

The disorganized rebels, however, proved unable to maintain that upper hand, and so the war has devolved into a bloody stalemate across Libya’s coastal frontier. If the goal of our intervention is saving lives, the status quo is unacceptable. In Misurata alone, upwards of 1,000 people might be dead.

It is tempting, in the midst of the continued destruction wrought by Qadaffi’s forces-which has included blatant violations of international law like the use of cluster bombs–to follow the Brits’ lead and tread deeper into the conflict–provide arms, send “advisers,” provide close air support. It would also be a profound mistake. As I argued in an earlier post, our aims in Libya must be strictly humanitarian. Anything else risks bogging us down in yet another war in the Middle East, fighting alongside and arming rebels whom we know almost nothing about, not to mention exceeding the mandate of the UN resolution by which President Obama justified our intervention.

The prudent next step is to do everything possible to support a ceasefire that  upholds our initial commitment to the people of Libya: protecting them from the butchery of their government. Last week, the African Union presented a ceasefire plan to both Qadaffi and the rebels. Qadaffi accepted this “road map,” but the rebels rejected it outright, refusing to settle for anything short of the departure of Qadaffi, his sons and inner circle. The rebel national council chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil said, “We will not negotiate with the blood of our martyrs….We will die with them or be victorious.”

The rebels’ position is completely understandable. After coming so close to ousting the man who has brutally oppressed his people for over 40 years, the thought of acceding to his remaining in power must seem unthinkable. But their interests and our interests are two different things, and at this moment, the cold calculus of strategic self-interest must be paramount. We have lived up to our humanitarian obligations. We have averted the massacre of many thousands of people. Now, we need to acknowledge our limitations. A ceasefire that leaves Qadaffi or one of his sons in power would be deeply unpalatable. But unless we’re prepared to set regime change as our formal goal–superseding the legal authority granted by the UN–and commit to an open-ended conflict, it’s our best course of action.

Not just any ceasefire will do. It will have to offer protections for those in rebel-held territories to prevent against retribution. It will also have to include at least some kind of political reform that meets at least the most basic of the opposition’s demands. Qadaffi or those in his inner circle appear to recognize that some concessions are necessary, hence the back channel outreach to Britain in recent weeks.

Even so, a ceasefire presents its own share of problems. Qadaffi, as he’s done many times before, could renege, once again placing thousands of civilian lives at risk. In that event, we’d have to re-intervene, setting this entire cycle in motion once again. In addition, the rebels could reject the ceasefire and decide to fight to the death, with or without our support.

Ultimately, though, Libya’s future will, and should be, determined by the Libyan people themselves. In this, we can draw some comfort from the successful revolutions next door in Egypt and Tunisia as well as the eventual overthrow of Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic after NATO intervention succeeded in ending his genocidal campaign in Kosovo without removing him from power. It’s an untidy and uncertain outcome to be sure, but, all things considered, the only one that simultaneously adheres to our values and interests. And the sooner the better.

Mubarak Detained, New Questions Emerge

It’s finally happened. Ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak has been detained under orders of the prosecutor general for 15 days pending an investigation into alleged corruption and state-sponsored violence during the recent uprising. Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, have been detained on suspicion of corruption as well.

The move marks a significant bow by the increasingly unpopular military government to public pressure after tens of thousands returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo Friday to demand Mubarak’s prosecution. That demand has not yet been met, but it’s hard to envisage the authorities turning back now lest they unleash even greater wrath among the masses.

In fact, the military leadership, who to this point has shown considerable deference to Mubarak, appears keen on dispelling any suggestion of favoritism toward its former patron. Despite checking himself into a hospital Tuesday, reportedly due to an irregular heartbeat, Mubarak was questioned anyway and reportedly suffered a minor heart attack during the interrogation. His condition has so far prevented his transfer to a prison. His sons, however, were transferred this morning from Sharm el-Sheikh to Cairo’s Tora Prison, known for holding some of the country’s most infamous political prisoners.

With prosecution looming for Egypt’s fallen strongman, here are a few important questions to bear in mind:

1. Can the military succeed in throwing Mubarak under the bus without further damaging its own reputation?

Mubarak’s arrest, after all, is a manifestly political move, forced upon the military by popular pressure. Despite its initial reluctance to pursue Mubarak, the embattled leadership seems keen to scapegoat him and present itself as a guarantor of justice and foe of corruption. It won’t be easy, though. The military was deeply entrenched in the Mubarak network of corruption and patronage. Anything that reflects poorly on Mubarak is likely to reflect poorly on the military as well.

2. What effect would a prosecution have on the larger democratic transition?

For some, a Mubarak prosecution represents an important step in Egypt’s transition to a democratic society–declaring loud and clear that no one is above the law. For others, it’s an unnecessary distraction from the more important tasks at hand like building new democratic institutions and countering the military’s less-than-democratic agenda. Only time will tell on this one.

3. How does the US fit into all of this?

So far, the State Department has been mum on the issue. But the US has a lot to lose in the event of a Mubarak trial. Among the embarrassing details of the US’s longstanding alliance with Mubarak are cooperation between the CIA and Mubarak on the rendition of terror suspects to Egypt and US weapon sale to Egyptian security forces. Tear gas canisters fired during the uprising famously bore the label, “Made in USA.” With the American government desperate to win Egyptian hearts and minds, a public airing of these details could prove deeply problematic.

The Noose Tightens Around Mubarak

The noose is beginning to tighten around deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Today, tens of thousands of protesters returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the so-called “Day of Purification and Accountability.” Their core demand was unmistakable: Prosecute Mubarak. Said one man interviewed in this video, “We have only request: the start of the trial of Mubarak, his family, his businessmen and his politicians.” According to a spokesman for the January 25 Coalition, a leading pro-democracy group, demonstrators are prepared to march to Sharm el-Sheikh, where Mubarak now resides (we think) to demand his prosecution. When I first wrote about the issue on February 12, one day after Mubarak’s resignation, I concluded that whether Mubarak would face justice would come down to where accountability ranked among Egyptians’ priorities as they set about building a new society. The answer, it would appear now, is quite high. The ruling military has so far shown itself reluctant to move against its former patron, grudgingly imposing a travel ban on Mubarak and his family, and requesting a freeze on their assets. With its popularity plummeting amid popular disenchantment on a whole range of issues, it looks increasingly conceivable the leadership might feel compelled to cut its one-time sugar daddy loose.

Stay tuned for more news on this front. Libya might be the dominant story out of the Middle East for now, but how Egypt fares in its transition to democracy will likely have the most enduring ramifications for the region.

A Truman Doctrine for Egypt?

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot has a short piece today for Commentary about the growing muscle being shown by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its liberal competitors’ struggles to keep pace. Boot doesn’t take the plunge into suggesting, as some others have, that the MB rise signals the return of the Caliphate. (It’s reassuring that CFR scholar status seems to precludes one from launching entirely unsubstantiated claims in a way running for high office in this country evidently doesn’t.) Despite this, Boot nevertheless proposes that the US now emulate the post-World War II presidents’ active support for anti-communist parties to counteract the Reds. Writes Boot: “We need a similar policy in Egypt to keep the “Greens” (the Islamists) out of power.”

Before we do try to reclaim the magic of the golden era of containment, let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane to recall what exactly our support for anti-communist parties meant in practice. A few examples:

Greece: The intervention that triggered the Truman Doctrine, the US’s funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic aid to the Greek Royalists on the basis of trumped-up claims about Soviet meddling in Greek affairs defined the parameters of containment for the next four decades. Despite repeated overtures by the leftists–the vast majority of whom were not communists–to end hostilities with the Royalists in return for free and fair elections, the US rejected the idea out of hand, fearing that, as one top official put it, compromise would require “a promise of general elections carried out under a government which would include, if not Communists, at least certain champions of compromise and reconciliation between the East and the West.” The horror! Instead, the US cast its lot with a government the US ambassador to Greece at the time admitted, “actually approximates fascism.” The Royalists eventually prevailed, but Greek society would be wracked for decades by instability and lingering animosities, as the right-wing government maintained its repressive and anti-democratic policies.

Guatemala: In 1951, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was democratically elected president of Guatemala, but his “radical and nationalist policies” worried the CIA, and his land redistribution program pissed off the influential American United Fruit Company, with its large holdings inside Guatemala. In 1954, an American-trained and supported group of exiles, led by Carlos Castillo Armas, overthew Árbenz. As leader of the governing junta, Armas ruled with an iron-fist until his assassination in 1957. Coups, civil war and genocide have largely defined Guatemalan politics since, a legacy that survives to this day. For an illuminating depiction of modern Guatemala, see David Grann’s excellent article in last week’s New Yorker.

Congo: Convinced, as David Schmitz, author of The United States and Right Wing Dictatorships: 1965-1989, writes, that “black African were not yet ready for self-rule and worried that ‘premature independence’ would mean unstable governments threatened by communist movements,” the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations all shamelessly meddled in the internal affairs of the Congo. Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first democratically-elected leader and unabashed pan-Africanist, represented everything the US feared. With the CIA unable to assassinate Lumumba itself, the US secretly supplied cash to his domestic opponents, who arrested Lumumba, tortured him, and then killed him. In search of elusive stability, the US turned to General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, whose 30-year rule came to define the word kleptocracy. Stability remained elusive, however, as Mobutu’s strong-armed rule predictably triggered conflict with domestic and international foes. An estimated three-million people died in a civil war between 1998 and 2003, and the country remains one of the most violent and unstable on earth.

Boot concludes with this depressing assessment: “The battle for the new Middle East is ongoing. We must not lose out because of our unwillingness to play the game the way our enemies do.

The truth is we have playing that game for a long time now. Our support for Hosni Mubarak and his fellow Middle Eastern autocrats was nothing but an extension of the cynical realpolitik practiced in Greece, Guatemala and the Congo (not to mention Chile, South Africa, Vietnam and Iran). The future of the Middle East is not ours to determine. We’d be well-advised to bear that in mind moving forward.