How Can MLS Become One of the World's Top Leagues?

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportMarch 1, 2019

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 08:  Atlanta United celebrates with the MLS Cup after their 2-0 over the Portland Timbers during the 2018 MLS Cup between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 8, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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For a sporting nation that is used to having the best of everything, it seems strange that soccer has taken so long to grip the United States.

It is the biggest sport in the world, with four billion fans, and there are now signs of a breakthrough. As a new Major League Soccer season begins, there is increasing evidence that the global game is being embraced.

According to New York City FC (h/t CNBC) last year, attendance had grown from 2.9 million to 7.3 million over the previous 10 years, while a 2017 Gallup poll suggested that among 18 to 34-year-olds, soccer had overtaken baseball and matched basketball in popularity.

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While European and international football likely factor in to those numbers, it's a major movement against two of the nation's traditional sports; the next question is just how far can MLS now progress?

The league launched in 1996 with 10 teams and—eight years later—that remained the case. But since 2004, the rise has been rapid—24 teams will set out on a quest for glory in this latest campaign.

FC Cincinnati are the latest franchise to join and will hope for similar success to Atlanta United—the reigning champions. Atlanta became MLS Cup winners in just their second season, with star player Miguel Almiron securing a high-profile move to the English Premier League with Newcastle United.

Michael Santangelo, a podcaster and writer on both US and European soccer, has a clear understanding of the difficulties in matching the world's top divisions.

"Comparing MLS to any of Europe's top five leagues is difficult and perhaps a bit unfair when you consider the league was founded in 1993 and had its inaugural campaign in 1996," he tells Bleacher Report. "You could argue the league is in the infancy stages when you break down how far the top leagues date.

"Most would agree it's still competing with Liga MX for continental dominance, but in terms of its positioning amongst Europe's elite championships, it's certainly playing catch-up at the moment."

There have been a number of attempts made to make MLS exciting and interesting. In the early days they tried to lure new fans to the sport by ditching draws and introducing shootouts. Unlike the traditional penalty shootouts, these were one-on-one challenges where the attacker would begin his run towards goal from 35 yards and attempt to beat the goalkeeper. 

More recently, MLS attempted to bring in superstars who would prove impossible to ignore. David Beckham's move to L.A. Galaxy was the biggest moment, but Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and Didier Drogba have been star attractions too.

Wayne Rooney of DC United and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at L.A. Galaxy remain the league's two biggest-name players from overseas, yet the tactic to bring in others like them is out of fashion.

"Shedding the 'retirement league' label was paramount in making the next step through the lens of European football fans," explains Santangelo. "Overall, shifting away from the expensive Designated Player and directing scouting efforts towards South American talents such as Miguel Almiron and Diego Rossi has moved the needle quite a bit, as well as the ability to effectively identify, nurture and usher the likes of Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams through the ranks of their previous clubs shows us they have a winning blueprint."

Davies, 18, moved to German champions Bayern Munich from Vancouver Whitecaps last summer for a fee that could reach $22 million. Adams, 19, made a switch from New York Red Bulls to Bundesliga side RB Leipzig in January.

Almiron's transfer outshone both as he moved to the Premier League, the game's biggest stage in terms of audience and finances, and his impressive early performances have led to positive headlines in the English media. 

"I know there's been a lot of positive buzz in recent weeks about this topic after seeing Miguel Almiron's first few performances in a Newcastle jersey," says Jacob Lunduski, an MLS writer for WhoScored.com. "There are probably a few English fans who won't be talking down as much on the MLS now. 

"There's been a shift in the last few years of MLS sides acquiring younger talent which gives me the feeling that we're going to see the league viewed around the world as it's growing. I think Atlanta is the model, any team around the United States that wants to succeed should take after them.

"There's still a ways to go. For every young promising star there's an aging superstar getting one last pay day to draw in a crowd."

Atlanta's crowd figures have been impressive. The MLS champions play at the magnificent Mercedes-Benz Stadium, shared with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, and their attendances would not look out of place in any of Europe's elite leagues.

Figures from worldfootball.net and Transfermarkt (h/t Sky Sports) in November 2018 showed them to have the 19th-highest attendance number in the world—with a figure of 53,002 putting them ahead of huge clubs like Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, AS Roma and Juventus.

Outside of those U.S cities hosting games, though, there still appears to be a disconnect. Even many soccer fans that love the game and support sides in Europe or South America have not latched on to their own league.

An example of such a fan is Cate Charron, a young Barcelona supporter who lives in Detroit.

"I would say that MLS isn't that big in my area because we don't have a team, but there is a good turnout for all the ICC games they have held here," Charron says. "In my opinion, there are so many other sports in the US that take precedence over soccer that it would be difficult for MLS to be as big as the European leagues. I do think that there is plenty of room to grow, though, as places around the country have embraced their teams.

"My closest team would be Columbus Crew, but I don't follow them as much. I usually watch L.A. Galaxy, Atlanta, or NYCFC, primarily because of the European players that play on those teams."

Clearly the recognisable names on the big wages are still having an impact.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 08:  Josef Martinez #7 of Atlanta United celebrates with the MLS Cup after their 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers during the 2018 MLS Cup between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 8, 2018
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Jimmy Conrad is a former USMNT player turned YouTuber who spends time playing and talking soccer in Europe and across America. He is seeing signs of a turnaround in the way MLS will be viewed long term overseas.

"I find that people are very curious about the league, which I consider a positive" he explains to B/R. "But they still think it's very inferior to whatever they support.

"Well, now that our commissioner [Don Garber] has recently convinced the owners that we need to be a buying and selling league, as he stated in his annual State Of The League address back in December, it's helped the league become more a part of the global conversation.

"Secondly, as players grown or developed here have success, like Tyler Adams, or those who use MLS as a stepping stone to something bigger like Miguel Almiron, then the respect for the league will continue to grow.

"But it's also hard to compare because we have a salary cap here. If our owners had the luxury of spending as much money as they want on as many players as they want, then I think it would be easier to compare, but they're limited by the rules that are in place."

The salary cap is one of the major obstacles for MLS, but one that is already engrained in NBA and NFL.

"It's an odd one because the salary cup is not exactly unique to an American viewer—but is unique to a football fan," explains Bleacher Report's Gaby Kirschner. "It exists to keep parity in the league, so you can't argue teams can 'buy the league' in the same way that a Manchester City or a PSG or Juventus can. 

"It forces teams to be smart about their money—and, in turn, the three Designated Players they sign—rather than just throwing unlimited money at a problem, which in a growing league could favour bigger markets and leave smaller markets floundering.

"Atlanta were so excellent partly because they scouted well, bought extremely smartly and efficiently to build an incredible team front-to-back beyond just the Designated Players."

Retired US defender Conrad is convinced the cap is detrimental to wider goals, though. 

"One thing that needs to improve in my opinion is that MLS clubs need to win significant games," he says. "They need to win the CONCACAF Champions League regularly and then hold their own in the FIFA Club World Cup against the Champions League or the Copa Libertadores champions. 

"But they can't, and that's because of the salary cap. It holds the league back because MLS clubs can't match the spending of the top clubs in the world—unless, of course, it decentralised its power and gave each club the power to govern itself and spend whatever they want.

"If that happened, and the clubs were given autonomy, then I think we would see some superclubs start to prop up because I guarantee there are a few owners who would go big. But I'm not sure if that's what the consensus wants at the owner and executive level since they seem to be quite enthusiastic about parity and how any MLS team can win the trophy in any given year, but if they really, really want to compete with the big boys globally, it's going to take money. Lots of it."

Yet maybe MLS likes to be different. Perhaps the fact there is more parity than in any other international league makes it more exciting and gives every club the opportunity to dream of success—something that is not true for most teams in elite leagues.

Lunduski explains: "I still consider the MLS as a second-tier league, and I think only once there's either more proven success from MLS players in better known leagues, better development of US-born talent or a better success of MLS sides in the CONCACAF Champions League, then we can start talking about the league being fully grown."

The draft, salary cap, no relegation, fresh franchises, new stadiums, emerging players and passionate fans are bringing an element of "cool" to MLS like never before. 

And once more players like Almiron, Davies, Adams arrive on European shores and make an impact on the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A or Ligue 1, the rest of the world may really begin to consider the U.S competition as a major league.

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