CRAIGE: MLS Still Lags Behind Premier Competition
The Beautiful Game

With just two weeks to go until the return of the English Premier League, it is somehow getting harder to wait that long. Fortunately, ESPN has started broadcasting most of the International Champions Cup “friendlies,” so we are not entirely without the wonderful sport. In fact, we have never really been without soccer this entire summer. Major League Soccer, the much-maligned American-Canadian league, practically plays throughout the entire summer. If this is the case, why don’t more people tune in?

The answer is quite simple. Contrary to what Arsenal forward Theo Walcott claims, the MLS is nowhere close to being on the same level as the Premier League, La Liga or Bundesliga. MLS has made enormous strides in the 20 years since its founding, there is no doubt about that. It is constantly growing, with 20 teams and another four set to join in the next few years. However, to suggest that it is almost on par with EPL is ludicrous.

Soccer in the United States does not have nearly the same amount of development as it does in Europe. There are plenty of reasons for that, from the fact that soccer has been slow to catch on in North America and that many of our athletes who could be turned into fantastic players choose to play other sports. Another vital reason is that American soccer academies are nothing like the European ones.

In Europe, you can be signed to a club’s academy from an incredibly young age; Liverpool icon Steven Gerrard joined when he was just nine years old. The clubs invest an enormous amount of time into the development of a player. While it does not pan out all the time, European clubs are so invested in youth development that it does not really matter all that much. There will always be another player waiting in the wings.

By comparison, the United States Soccer Development Academy — widely considered to be the top youth league in America — was founded nine years ago. It must be commended for having 96 teams, split between U13-14, U15-16 and U17-18, with plans to add an additional 56 teams in the future. Furthermore, it has also been announced that a Girls Development Academy will be created in fall 2017. This is all very good for the sport, of course, but it has taken an incredibly long time for it to be put into place.

Another clear difference between MLS and European soccer is that the MLS simply does not have the same caliber of players. I will say that this has changed quite considerably in the last few years, as more and more players decide to come play in North America at the end of their careers, but this is precisely the problem. The league boasts some big names for sure — Gerrard, Robbie Keane, David Villa, Kaka and Didier Drogba to name a few — but it is nowhere near the level of the typical European team. Furthermore, these big names all gravitate toward major cities like Los Angeles and New York, which in part helps to explain the sheer dominance that the LA Galaxy has shown in recent years. We have yet to see a truly big name in a city like Dallas or Kansas City, and it will likely be a long time before we do. This is not to say that the MLS does not have outstanding homegrown players: Georgetown’s own Keegan Rosenberry has been tearing it up for the Philadelphia Union. On the whole though, many of the players who feature in MLS are quite average when compared to those in European soccer.

The MLS itself is set up in an interesting format that many people, myself included, find very odd. The 34 game season runs from March to October, which includes the hottest months of the year for many of these teams. I find it incredible that it’s considered a good idea to play outdoors in humid cities like Orlando or Houston during these months, instead of playing in the winter.

Another oddity about the MLS is that 12 teams make the postseason each year. This is the highest proportion of teams out of all the other major sports in North America. I suppose that the logic behind it is that it increases the competition, but when you consider that the LA Galaxy won three out of the last five championships, you have to ask if this is really working.

You could point to the MLS All-Star team as an indication of just how far the league has come, but even this is a slightly skewed metric. The MLS All-Stars managed to beat Tottenham and Bayern Munich in the last two years, and they should rightly be applauded. However, it needs to be said that the opponents of the MLS team often do not play their best players. It is often the best of the MLS playing against the “B” team of a major European club.

I was fortunate enough to attend the MLS All-Star game against Manchester United in 2010, and Manchester was just on a completely different level, even without Wayne Rooney. That game ended in a 5-2 disaster for the MLS. Things have vastly improved since then of course, but it also shows just how far the league has to go. It will take time before the MLS can even be considered to be on the same level as an EPL, but it is not impossible. One day, soccer could very well be the most popular sport in America.

VanessaCraige-150x150Vanessa Craige is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. The Beautiful Game appears every Tuesday and Friday.

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