Is the MLS Becoming a More Competitive League?
Football, or soccer to our American friends, is a sport that has picked up a lot of support in the U.S following strong campaigns from the USMNT and heavy investment into the MLS. For example, they recently beat The Netherlands and World Cup winners Germany in two friendlies and the MLS is attracting players from all over the world. However, football is still not seen as one of the main sports in the United States. You will see much higher viewing figures for ‘America’s national pastime’ baseball or American football. In fact, football registered one of the lowest viewing figures among major televised sports with only important international fixtures garnering much attention from the national fan base.
The MLS has come a long way since its establishment in 1996 as a result of the 1994 World Cup. The league started out with shootouts resolving tie games and a clock that counted down as opposed to up in an attempt to make the sport more accessible to the standard American viewer. However, after the league’s first season attendances took a huge decline and having seen the novelty wear off and alienating supporters of the conventional rules of the game, the league lost $350m in its first 8 years. Despite this, a surprise surge to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup followed and the MLS saw a resurgence in popularity as more rules were made to match their European counterparts and soon the designated player rule followed. This allowed for teams to pay larger sums of money to certain players and breach their salary cap and the signings of players such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry. The league has gone from strength to strength as in 14 years, it has doubled in size and are planning on adding two more teams by 2017. A testament to the growth of the MLS is that when the U.S were defeated 1-0 by eventual World Cup Champions Germany in the group stage in Brazil, the American team fielded 7 current MLS players in the starting line-up.
The move that really made the rest of the world start to take notice of the MLS was when David Beckham packed his bags in Madrid and relocated to Los Angeles in what many saw as a strange move. This was mostly down to the fact that the MLS was a largely unknown division at this time, and many of the players there were not even household names in America, let alone internationally like Beckham. Beckham however wasn’t the first superstar to try and ply his trade in America. George Best played for numerous sides, Eric Cantona tried his hand at being a director of football, and even the great Pelé was previously drawn in by the lifestyle that only the United States can provide.
The MLS has for a long time been seen as a place where footballers go for a last big payday and not in order to enhance their careers. More often than not, a player who moves to the MLS from Europe doesn’t dream of lifting the MLS Cup – they dream of an enhanced wage packet and a huge house in one of America’s many enormous cities. There are a large number of notable players who made the trip stateside once the opportunity arose. The likes of Giles Barnes, Ade Akinbiyi, and Darren Huckerby have plied their trade in the MLS. It is only in the past few years that real superstar players have started moving to America and are not just talking about “promoting football” or “building brands”. Andrea Pirlo still believes that despite his move from Champions League runners up Juventus to newly formed New York City FC he can be included in Italy’s Euro 2016 side. However, USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann has stated that he would rather see his players leave the U.S in order to face off against the best in the world, as this level of competition simply does not exist in the MLS yet.
The new MLS season has just got underway and it will see the likes of Pirlo, Gerrard, David Villa, Lampard, and Kaká lining up for their respective clubs. This may only be the start for the MLS as it has the potential to expand to far beyond its current capacity. The current growth of the national team following strong campaigns seeing them succeed in getting out of the group in the past two World Cups and the fact that any sport that America wish to pump money into is one that they become one of the best in the world at. The current television deal embracing the MLS is three times what NBC are paying for coverage of the Premier League and while the figures are currently not great in terms of TV viewership, attendances at fixtures are growing. It will only be a matter of time before sides in the MLS start finding themselves in a bidding war between massive TV companies as we see in the leagues across Europe which have allowed the European continent to produce the finest league sides in the World.
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