The profile of Major League Soccer in America has certainly grown in recent years, but will it ever be able to compete with its European counterparts?
When it comes to other sports, the United States boasts some of the top leagues in the world. The National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Hockey League (NHL) are unquestionably the world leaders in their respective sports.
But considering the size of its pool of players and the resources available, America’s domestic football league is still a poor relation.
The men’s and women’s national teams have both impressed on the world stage in recent years, and the Premier League continues to be extremely popular, but as for MLS? It is still some way behind its rivals in other countries.
One way in which MLS clubs have tried to strengthen themselves and ultimately the league as a whole is by importing some of the biggest stars of the European leagues as they come towards the end of their careers.
The prime example of this remains former England captain and ex-Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham, who, in 2007, joined LA Galaxy at the age of 31.
This coup opened the door for other clubs, and the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Rafael Marquez, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill followed suit by ditching Europe for America, keen to try out a new footballing experience, live in some of the world’s most exciting cities – and pick up a decent pay cheque for doing so.
One of the MLS’ more recent high-profile signings Frank Lampard, however, who joined New York City from Chelsea in 2014, believes players such as himself have the responsibility of trying to improve football in America instead of just going there to pick up their wage packages.
Speaking to The Drum in March, Lampard said: “As a player now you come to America to play but also you have a responsibility to improve the brand of football, which means taking the MLS to bigger levels.
“I think as a player coming from Europe, myself, David [Villa] and Andrea [Pirlo], we have a responsibility then to get out in the community and do these things [promotional events] and make people want to come and support us.
“I think you’ll see more [foreign] players come here as the league improves.”
Designated Player Rule
As for Beckham’s move to the States in particular, it had repercussions.
Repercussions that may need to be looked at should the MLS one day hope to have its top team teams filled with stars to rival the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga.
Beckham’s signing ushered in the Designated Player Rule, also known as the “Beckham Rule,” as part of the MLS salary cap regulation.
It means MLS clubs are only allowed to sign up to three players (the third resulting in a fee of $150,000 (£120,000) being paid and split between teams without three designated players) whose salaries will exceed the MLS salary cap of $436,250 (£350,000).
As a result, there is an obvious limit to how many big names a team can sign, considering they are the candidates for the designated player slots.
While such deliberate limitations do help keep a level of parity and competitiveness in the league, some modifications should at least be considered if the MLS truly wants to mix it with the big boys of Europe.
The signing of players such as Beckham definitely brought publicity to a competition which people may not otherwise have seriously considered paying attention to.
“The MLS will never be able to shed its unwanted tag until it can attract world-class players who are yet to reach their peak.”
However, whilst Beckham still had a few good years in him when he joined as a 31-year-old – Real Madrid tried to re-sign him before he joined the Galaxy, and he went on to have spells at Milan and Paris St Germain – many of the signings that have followed in his wake have given the MLS a reputation as a retirement home for ageing European stars.
That does not necessarily mean that those who have joined the MLS in recent years are not up to scratch.
The likes of Henry, Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Robbie Keane, have all made an impact during their stints in the MLS.
Additionally, New York City’s Villa and Orlando City’s Kaka have also impressed and could probably have played at a higher level for at least one more season instead of joining the MLS in 2015.
But the MLS will never be able to shed its unwanted tag until it can attract world-class players who are yet to reach their peak.
‘A league that doesn’t count for much’
Regardless of the calibre of its foreign imports, the overall standard of quality across the league seems to be its biggest problem.
Earlier this year, former Juventus midfielder and Italy legend Pirlo, criticised the MLS for involving too much running.
The 2006 World Cup winner told Reuters: “It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.
“What I’m talking about is actually a system or culture. I don’t mean that the level of technical skills are low. I just mean there is a cultural void that needs to be filled.”
And Pirlo is not the only Italian to have questioned MLS football.
Despite his red-hot form since joining Toronto in 2015, Sebastian Giovinco missed out on Antonio Conte’s Italy squad for Euro 2016 because he plays in the MLS, and the former Juventus forward’s exile has continued under Giampiero Ventura.
“I have done everything to help him [Giovinco] but the reality is that he plays in a league that doesn’t count for much,” Ventura was quoted saying on ESPN FC.
“And the number of goals he scores is less important because with the quality he has got, he is bound to make a difference in that league.
“The problem is that if you play in that type of league, and you get used to playing in that type of league, it becomes a problem of mentality.”
Does Ventura have a case? It is debatable, although some MLS fans interested in the affairs of the Italy national team will be quick to remind Conte’s successor that he has not been afraid to call-up Graziano Pelle – who is currently playing his trade in China.
Will MLS ever be taken seriously? Perhaps one day but, until something changes, it seems destined to remain deep in the shadows of Europe’s elite leagues.
Featured Image: ©Matt Boulton