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How can the MLS improve? Why is the MLS behind European soccer?

When comparing world soccer leagues, where does Major League Soccer stand? We look at what we can learn from Europe and what we can give them

Feb 16, 2022; Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; Forge FC defender Aboubakar Sissoko (33) challenges for the ball with Cruz Azul forward Chirstian Tabo (11) in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League game at Tim Hortons Field. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton
Dan HamiltonUSA TODAY Sports

In the first 25 years of its existence (yes, it is only 25 years old), a mantra has often been recited, usually by smirking Europeans, that the quality of MLS is low and it is essentially a third-rate league. Leaving aside the fact that no league in the world was at their current level when they were 25, the fact is that there remains a nugget of truth in there. The MLS definitely needs improvement.

Where are we going wrong?

The simple answer is that we are not a single-sport driven nation as most other countries are. When you look at every other European or Latin American country, soccer is not just the biggest sport, it is the only sport. Tiny Britain, with a population of 65 million has a national team that can compete, and often dominate, any team in the world, and fields one of the strongest leagues in the EPL worldwide. Why? Because in the land that gave us rugby, cricket, and tennis, only one sport matters. All others are an afterthought. It is nearly universal in its reach and gives them a talent pool so large that it lets them punch way above their weight.

And they are far from alone in that devotion to the beautiful game. Throughout the soccer world, no other sport is taken as seriously. In the US, our wide-ranging interests actually work against us when it comes to developing tomorrow’s talent. As a people, we hold it to be a point of pride that our children play all sports, giving equal time and energy to each in turn. To focus on one sport only is seen as something of a character flaw in America. Forget about the only sport, or even the top sport. In the USA, soccer just about squeaks into the top five. For the foreseeable future, our talented youngsters will continue to divvy themselves up between the NFL, MLB and NBA. Unless you are Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, or Michael Jordan, then you can excel at them all.

Where have we got it right?

The world of soccer has a model, a long-standing tradition that spans the world, based on the European model. A relegation system, an August-to-May season, and unfettered laissez-faire economics. Without fail, nations around the globe, be they capitalist or socialist, oligarchies or monarchies, they have all fallen in line with the standard model.

Not so the MLS. The worldwide FIFA-backed soccer model meets the American franchise sports model and there are lessons in the American model that even venerable old Europe can learn from. The much-derided salary cap and post-season playoff structure have created something in MLS that simply does not exist in any European league: healthy competition.

The most important aspect of healthy competition is that it is, well, competitive. Fans will not watch a tournament for ten straight years knowing that the same one or two teams will win. Yes, La Liga, I am looking right at you. Real Madrid and Barcelona are two of the mightiest teams in world soccer, true powerhouses. They are also the winners of over two thirds of all the Spanish league titles ever. Their fans may love it, but it is quite simply boring. I know that fans are screaming right now. I work in Madrid and the reporters across the table from me have blood coming from their ears. But for the American fan, you simply can't escape the fact that it is true.

In the short MLS lifespan, there have been 13 different teams who have won the title. Not in EPL, not Bundesliga, certainly not the monolithic Serie A, would you find this kind of reparting of champions. This is the sort of competition that keeps fans keen. Your team can be the best and then the worst and then the best again. With no relegation in MLS, the fear of failure is not a barrier to trying different approaches, or sticking with a coach to see if their plan pays off in the long term. The salary cap keeps all teams on a level playing field and the playoff structure means that you can finish fourth and still put together a dazzling run to take the title.

How do we stack up?

Comparing MLS to any European league is a tricky thing, not least of which is the fact that MLS doesn’t operate in the same world as European leagues. If you are to compare MLS to its peers, it is to Latin America that you must look, and frankly, when compared to Liga MX or Brasileiro Serie A, the MLS stands up pretty nicely. That is not to say that there is not still a lot of improvement to be made.

The US needs to develop the game at the grass roots, something that is in its infancy but is already beginning to bear fruit. MLS teams need to get involved in more international competitions, take the show on a European tour. Even if they lose every game, the experience can only raise your level since a universal truism is that you always rise or fall to the level of your opposition.

But don’t despair for the state of the MLS. For a league in its formative years, in a country that doesn’t really play soccer, the MLS seems to be standing up just fine indeed.