The future of American soccer and the MLS can start now, but it lacks the finishing touches.
A few pieces are there—the steady flow of young players and a stable platform for these players to perform. While MLS fixtures are not the most visited events, some cities like Seattle and Los Angeles play host to some of the more successful franchises that are filling up their venues.
It will take a lot more than big stadiums and a small influx of collegiate players, however, before the MLS can sit close to the same stage as the EPL, Serie A, or La Liga.
Adequate investment is quintessential, and with the right talent distributed with the right kind of exposure, a revamped MLS could turn into a second coming of the NHL transformation that has led to its recent revitalization.
But there are some hoops to get through before any sort of growth can happen.
Perhaps the biggest obstacles preventing a boom in the development and competitiveness of the MLS are the brighter, greener pastures of the European leagues where competition and spotlight are premium. It is where the best in the world go to play.
The best basketball, baseball, and hockey talent in the world come to play in the professional U.S. leagues. It is no different than the top players going to Europe to play soccer.
The success of the NBA, NFL, and MLB did not grow from attracting the top foreign players. They developed from homegrown talent and superstars—the idols that children and even adults worship. Jordan, Magic, and Bird. Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and Peyton Manning. Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken, and Griffey, Jr.
These are the icons that young athletes dreamt of becoming, much like young soccer players admire the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, and Rooney today.
Instead of having the Euro leagues swipe the best soccer talents from the U.S., the MLS, and U.S. Soccer can viably secure a positive future by keeping its stars and young blood grounded on the domestic side and lure the foreign stars to come here—á la the NHL.
It is happening now, though, with moves like David Beckham to Los Angeles, Thierry Henry to New York, and rumors of Ryan Giggs and Ronaldinho potentially listening to offers to come across the pond. But these players are on the back-burners of their careers, easing their way into retirement.
Instead of getting the old, declining star players to make the trek to the U.S., the MLS somehow must secure the futures of the top youngsters around and build a stage for the entire country to see.
Filling the MLS talent pool with starlets like Andy Najar will keep fans interested and some hooked. Having the elite players to watch perform in person will leave lasting impressions on young athletes of the next generation. Then, who knows? The next great American soccer player could be a next-door neighbor.
American soccer needs heroes and leaders to cling to and support—like how the Bulls had Jordan or how the Cowboys had Emmitt. Soccer needs the hero to lift the sport onto a platform it’s never seen before.
The more studs on the pitch, the more competition. Americans flock to that sort of thing.
Landon Donovan is an American soccer hero, and the MLS needs to keep him here. The loan spells to European clubs during the MLS offseason are great for exposure and competition, but a club without stars is a club struggling for support.
In no other major sport does the top American talent go abroad to play at the highest level other than soccer. It’s the world’s sport for a reason, and there is no doubt that the U.S. needs to play catch up if the MLS wants to compete with the best leagues in the world.
The future must start now, or the MLS may forever be picking up the scraps behind the European leagues.