Where does Major League Soccer stand in relation to the other world leagues? What is the quality when held next to global standard-bearers?
Would an average MLS side get flattened regularly in a top-tier Western European league, such as England's Premier League, Italy's Serie A, Germany's Bundesliga, or Spain's La Liga? ("Yes. And how badly?")
Could the rank-and-file MLS starter stand alongside his peers in South America's top associations in Brazil and Argentina, or in some of the worlds other heavyweight leagues, such as the top flights in Mexico, Holland, and Portugal?
A reasonable starting point is that MLS hasn't reached a level anywhere near the better top flight international associations.
MLS players and managers seem to generally agree on that point. How close is the 12-year-old MLS to getting there, to consistently rivaling the quality of EPL or La Liga’s primera division? On that point, disagreement ensues.
As for individual player quality, the last prominent player to arrive here from the pool of "average" in England's Premiership became a smash hit in MLS. Juan Pablo Angel's formerly prolific strike rate at Aston Villa in the Premier League had waned over the two seasons prior to his spring arrival at Red Bull New York.
Here he's clearly a class above the field, having already claimed MLS Player of the Month honors twice.
This would indicate that the quality of the average Premiership foot soldier is a significant notch above his MLS peer.
The players from the Coca-Cola League Championship seem more comparable to MLS athletes. For comparison shopping, there's no better place to start than Toronto FC, where coach Mo Johnston seems bent on fashioning Major League's Soccer's newest expansion side into a British football look-alike.
Jim Brennan has shown himself to be an average MLS defender at the very best, which is exactly what he was in the Coca-Cola Championship. He spent the bulk of his late 20s at Norwich City, where he was in and out of the lineup, never truly establishing himself as a starting fixture.
He moved on a free transfer to fellow Coca-Cola Championship side Southampton in 2006 but was released a few months later.
He is now a starter for Toronto, albeit for one of the league's more wobbly defenses.
Toronto FC teammate Danny Dichio spent the bulk of his long career in England's second tier, generally starting and scoring at a modest clip.
He made 63 appearances over two seasons (2005-07) for Preston North End, scoring five goals as the club bid unsuccessfully for promotion into the Premiership. That's a modest scoring rate by most standards.
Here, MLS doesn't compare as favorably. Dichio had five goals in his first 12 matches for Johnston's side and now forms one-half of a dangerous striking tandem alongside Jeff Cunningham.
So is it true what some British papers have said lately in the Beckham ballyhoo, that MLS soccer is closer in quality to England's third tier?
It is possible even the best MLS teams would not survive in the Premier League. They certainly wouldn't compete for honors, and they would plummet immediately into the relegation zone.
Examining individual transfers seems to paint a slightly different picture, however. There is a growing list of MLS All-Stars who merge into top European leagues only to make a nominal impact.
Clint Dempsey is the latest example. Dempsey was a growing influence with the New England Revolution the past two seasons.
He was considered a top-flight MLS attacker (although the sheer numbers were just north of ordinary; he managed eight goals in 21 Revolution appearances last year).
The U.S. international moved last winter to Fulham in the Premier League on a $4 million transfer. Since his move, Dempsey has seized a regular lineup spot for a bottom-rung Premier League outfit.
The only player to have truly made an impact has been DaMarcus Beasley. He bothered MLS defenses from 2000-2004, moved to PSV, and became the first American player to score in the Champions League.
Injuries have limited his playing time and career path, but he was able to help Manchester City, while on loan to the club, avoid relegation. He also scored for Rangers FC in the Champions League before the injury bug hit him again.
As for Mexico, a good league compared to others in the Americas but perhaps not above Brazil or Argentina: Mexican sides have generally dispatched MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
It's not hard to see the MLS remaining a notch below the Mexican league in quality, for the economics are skewed so significantly in Mexico's favor.
Simply put, lucrative TV contracts enrich Mexican teams, allowing them to chase far more expensive talent. Two or three average-wage players in Mexico could eat up about half of one MLS team's entire salary cap.
All in all, the MLS has a long way to go before it can be considered a top flight international league.
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