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Fafa Picault and the diminishing American-born goalscorer in MLS

Picault was second in the league in goals among players born in the United States in 2018

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Fafa Picault had plenty of company in 2018 among players to hit double digits in goals, but one consistent feature of nearly all of those players is that they weren’t born in the United States.

The 27-year-old Picault, who was born in New York City but grew up in Miami, is one of just three players born in the U.S. to finish with 10 or more goals this season. That’s out of 40 players.

Picault was tied with San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski with 10 goals and second only to Columbus Crew forward Gyasi Zardes (fourth overall in the league with 19 goals) among players born in the states.

As the Philadelphia Union noted in a recent Thanksgiving email to fans, Picault finished first among all American wingers for the second year in a row if you don’t include Justin Meram, a Michigan native who represents Iraq on the international level. Meram had 13 goals in 2017 while Picault had seven in his first season in MLS.

Nine other American-born players had seven or more goals in 2017 while Picault and eight others reached that level this season.

A quick glance of the statistics might suggest that there are simply fewer American-born goal players among the most proficient goal-scorers in the league, but that’s not really the case. The average number of American-born 7-plus goal-scorers is just over 10 a season dating back to the first MLS season in 1996.

What has changed over the past seasons — pretty dramatically — is the number of players who fit that criteria.

Some of this can be easily explained by league expansion: more teams equals more goals and more players with 7 or more goals. But three additional teams doesn’t completely explain an increase from 37 in 2016 to 63 in 2018.

Looking over some of the players filling the list — from the high profile Wayne Rooneys and Zlatans and Josef Martinezes to guys like Cory Burke and his countryman Darren Mattocks — it becomes apparent that the American-born players are being diminished by the sheer number of international players filling the positions from where the most goals are scored.

While some of these players born outside the U.S. have either represented the stars and stripes on an international level (Dom Dwyer, Benny Feilhaber and Teal Bunbury) or come through the U.S. college (Kei Kamara, Abu Danladi, Dominique Badji, etc.) and Development Academy (Diego Fagundez, Daniel Solloi) systems, a great deal of these players have been brought in from the international market specifically to help bolster the league from a performance and marketability standpoint.

It’s hard to argue with the impact on and off the field players who score goals in bunches like Rooney, Zlatan, David Villa have had. At the same time, the flip side to this might be the diminishing impact overall that American-born players are being given the opportunity to have.

Agree with it or not, the Philadelphia Union prides itself in being a destination for American-born players, whether that’s those born in the team’s backyard who have risen through the academy system or those brought in by other means like Picault, Alejandro Bedoya and C.J. Sapong and former players like Chris Pontius, Brian Carroll and Conor Casey.

There have been hits and misses with this approach, but many of the misses — Jay Simpson, Fernando Aristeguieta, Lionard Pajoy and Josué Martínez all come to mind — haven’t been with American players. A couple big exceptions to that of course were Charlie Davies, who barely cracked 100 minutes after being acquired from New England for a first round draft pick, and Maurice Edu, whose time in Chester was cut down by injuries.

Sapong was first among American-born players in goals in 2017 with 16, but slumped in 2018 only finding the back of the net four times. Off-season acquisition David Accam saw an even bigger drop-off from 14 goals in 2017 to just one in league play in 2018, but he was battling a groin injury so can’t be chalked up as another international bust just yet.

The drop in production from the two players expected to carry the goal-scoring load opened the door for Burke and Picault, who scored seven of his 10 goals on the road and seemed to pop up with goals when the team needed them most.

It’s safe to say that the Union were a much improved team on the road in 2018 because of Picault, who should have had a late winner in Orlando City, converted a game-winning penalty against New England and scored one of the great goals in team history deep into stoppage time to snatch a win in Seattle. He also increased his assist total from three in 2017 to five in 2018.

Both Sapong (20) and Picault (17) rank in the top 10 of goals scored by American-born players over the past two seasons — Wondolowski and Christian Ramirez top that list each with 23. But neither is even in the ballpark of the top goal-scorers overall, which is led by Josef Martinez’s 50 and followed by Nemanja Nikolic with 39, Bradley Wright-Phillips with 37, Villa with 36 and seven others before you get to Ramirez and Wondolowski.

Goals only tell part of the story of a player’s impact of course and while it’s not completely fair to compare Picault (a steal with his $148,666.67 in guaranteed compensation in 2018) to most of the players ahead of him in the goal-scoring charts the past two seasons, it is enlightening to view his accomplishments in light of the entire league and the increasing presence and impact of foreign-born players.

What story it’s telling probably depends on your prerogative as it relates to the USMNT, American soccer and the Philadelphia Union and how mutually exclusive you think the three should be.

Maybe the simplest explanation is the best though, that Fafa Picault scored 10 goals for the Philadelphia Union in 2018 and was a big reason why they reached 50 points for the first time in team history.