Will MLS Ever Be an Elite League?

My first exposure to professional soccer came through the FIFA video game series.  FIFA 2005, to be exact.  At that point in time, I didn’t really know any teams like Manchester United or Real Madrid, much less David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, the English stars that were the headliners for those teams.  After a few months of playing it, I started to pick up on a few things- which leagues had the best teams (England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and Germany’s Bundesliga are considered to be the best) which teams I liked, which players were faster than others (Samuel Eto’o from Cameroon and Ronaldinho from Brazil), et cetera.  The game developed my love for Arsenal, a team based in London, and its scoring force, the Frenchman Thierry Henry; both of them remain my favorites today.  It also developed my hatred for Tottenham and Chelsea, two other teams based in London, which the video game said were Arsenal’s arch rivals.

Major League Soccer (MLS), the professional league in the United States, was represented in the game, which meant that my hometown team, the Chicago Fire, was available to play with.  However, I very rarely chose to do so (only when I felt like playing with defenseman Denny Clanton, whose brother, Derek, was my trainer for the now-defunct Hinsdale Hawks soccer club), and I never played with any of the other MLS teams.  While so many of the English and Spanish teams were rated 4 or 5 stars, I can’t remember an MLS team that was rated above 3.  The passes seemed less sharp with MLS players, and the speed of the players seemed significantly lower.

Of course, the reason that it seemed as if those things were true is because they were.  The reason the MLS teams had less stars in relation to European teams is because the clubs in Europe were of a far better quality than those in America.  And, in all honesty, it made sense.  MLS was formed fairly recently, in 199().  The English Premier League (considered to be the best league in the world, with the greatest variety of talent), had been in existence in some form since the late 1800’s.  Soccer was not a mainstream sport in the US as football and baseball were; there wasn’t even a thought of formulating a true high class league until the US was awarded the 1994 World Cup, which is why MLS has been existence for such a short time.  In Europe and South America, though, soccer was the top priority, and in some countries, the only priority, when it came to athletics.  The best athletes didn’t dream of playing for the Chicago Bears or the New England Patriots, but rather Sao Paolo FC, FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, or Liverpool FC.

Of course, the very thought of something in America being second best was a travesty to those in charge of MLS.  The league started as a way for Americans to be able to play professionally, and therefore compete with other countries internationally.  However, as time has passed, it has tried to compete with the leagues abroad, and draw in more fans, by competing for more elite players.  Beckham, one of the biggest celebrities in the entire world, signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in January of 2007, which resulted in rule changes that allowed teams to circumvent the low salary cap by signing three Designated Players (DP’s) at an unlimited salary.

Beckham’s signing was supposed to be the catalyst for star foreign players to come to America, in search of more fame and more money.  And, in a sense, it did just that.  Later in 2007, the Columbus Crew brought in Argentinian star Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who won the MLS MVP award, and the championship, in 2008.  In 2010, Henry joined the New York Red Bulls from FC Barcelona.  Other stars, such as American Claudio Reyna, Colombian Juan Pablo Angel, Swede Freddie Ljungberg, and Mexicans Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Rafa Marquez, all flooded to MLS.  All of these players were big names and elite players.  But there was just one problem- all of these big name players were over 30.  At 32, Beckham was the youngest of these players at the time of his signing.  While the international profile of MLS was rising, the reputation that it was gaining wasn’t one of an elite league, but of a retirement league, for players looking to make one last hurrah and make one last (huge) paycheck.  This season saw many players over 30 join the league, such as David Villa, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, and Didier Drogba, only adding to the idea that the league was for washed up superstars.

There are other problems with MLS, too; it has an allocation order for signing international players, which forces teams to sign players through the league instead of doing it directly, making things more complicated than they need to be.  There are also the issues of expansion and promotion.  The majority of the top soccer leagues in Europe have twenty teams, which is the number that MLS has now.  However, the league has plans to expand to 24 teams by the year 2020.  This increase in teams will stretch the existing talent pool to its limit and make it harder for truly elite teams, and rivalries, to form; these things are what make the elite leagues great- in England, everybody wants to beat Manchester United, and the large talent pool allows even the league’s bottom dwellers to have rivalries amongst one another.  The lack of a promotion system also harms the league; in all elite soccer leagues, if you finish in the bottom 3 of the league, you are moved down to a second-tier league, and the top three from the second tier league move up to the top league.  Without a system of promotion, MLS allows its lesser teams to dwell in mediocrity without fear of demotion to another league, and loss of profits

Of course, the league has made other, more positive developments that have brought it closer and closer to the upper echelon of soccer leagues.  Soccer-specific stadiums have been built for teams throughout the country, allowing soccer teams to sign lucrative stadium and advertising deals, which earns them millions of dollars to filter into their clubs.  The salary cap has risen, to about $3.5 million for roughly 18 players, allowing teams to retain domestic stars and fish for international players while remaining under the cap.  The manager and technical director of the men’s national team, Jurgen Klinsmann, has filtered more money into the country’s youth development programs, which has improved the quality of many players coming through the system of MLS teams; youngsters Clyde Larin and Matt Miazga of Orlando SC and the New York Red Bulls, who have come into their own this year, are prime examples.  Younger players and elite internationals, such as Italian dynamo Sebastian Giovinco, Mexican speedster Giovani dos Santos, Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta, and American stars Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, have all joined MLS within the past year, and with the increased salary cap, more players are bound to join in the near future.

So, the jury is still out on whether or not MLS will ever reach the top-tier status that it wishes to obtain, whether it will always be more of a retirement league, a league that draws in elite players from across the globe, or something in between.  What do you think?

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