MLS: Why the League Must Be Wary of Heading Down the Wrong Path
Sixteen years ago the world's most popular sport experienced a rebirth in the United States of America, the third biggest country in the world, as a new soccer league was formed. The league had several goals, including to provide high quality competition for future and current national teamers stateside. 16 years later, the league has been an enormous success.
While some may disagree and say that soccer is still not an interesting sport in the eyes of the average American sports fan, in just 16 years, the league has nearly doubled in size, going from 10 to 19 teams. That must mean something. And while considered by many to be a retirement league for European players, now many world class players are coming to the US from Europe at earlier ages (most recently Tim Cahill).
The league is definitely not of the quality the top leagues in Europe can claim, but it's not by any stretch of the imagination a poor league. Look at Landon Donovan. He's never had a successful stint outside of the US in his lifetime. Two short spells at Everton doesn't count. Yet somehow he has the most goals in USMNT history. Somehow he manages to stay in top form by playing in a league that Piers Morgan compared to a pub league.
Beyond that, many clubs in Europe now use MLS to scout young North American talent. Many players have left America and had successful runs in Europe. In between the demise of the NASL and birth of MLS, there was no domestic league for American players to show that they could play and impress clubs elsewhere.
Now that the success of MLS has been established, the league will continue to grow and expand and hopefully become a system similar to what is already in place in England and Wales, where there are several tiers and promotion and relegation between each one. This way the game can spread to all corners of the US and Canada.
As success comes, however, the league needs to be cautious. More and more European players are heading to MLS. And there's an issue with all the big names who want to come here: they only want to play in NY or LA.
Look at the top five international players in the league at the moment: David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Robbie Keane and Alessandro Nesta. Except for one, they all play in either NY or LA, the two biggest cities and hottest destinations in the US. Kaka has stated he wants to play for either NYRB or LA Galaxy in the future. And realistically, if Cristiano Ronaldo does come here (he stated he would like to), who thinks he'll want to play for the Colombus Crew or Sporting KC?
While there are two teams in LA (Chivas USA is often forgotten), we are looking at a situation where all of the top European players who come here will be packed into two cities. And we could end up with a La Liga-esque situation where two teams dominate all of the others, and no other teams have a real shot.
One of the things I think American sports do right is create a more balanced environment where more teams have a real chance to compete. I don't want MLS to turn in to a two-horse race. And with the evolution of the DP rule, who knows, will each team be allowed five DP's in five years? If so, LA and NY will use them up on world class players while all the other teams will struggle to get anywhere close.
While this isn't a huge issue right now, as LA and NY start to look more and more like All-Star teams by themselves, this is something Don Garber needs to keep an eye on. I don't want MLS to turn in to La Liga or (gasp) the Scottish Premier League.
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