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The role of MLS

YMCA fans welcome MLS to Philadelphia with a traditional song (mlsnet)

Hot on the heels of Dan’s near-mathematical proof that MLS is filled with top talent, it’s time to discuss MLS’s role in the footy world. At this point, the biggest waves MLS makes is the acquisition of a star player at the tail end of his career.  While these moves (Freddie Ljungberg, some guy from England) unquestionably make American teams better, they also mark MLS as a league that doesn’t trust its homegrown talent or its fan base to fuel its success. American soccer today is confronted with the same three-headed hydra of issues that MLS faced fifteen years ago: 1) Soccer fandom is not ingrained in our culture, 2) A multitude of other sports are, and 3) We are not in Europe (and thus cannot go head-to-head with the European teams recruiting big-name talent). The United States rarely settles for second place. Will MLS ever grow into a league that can compete with those in footy-crazy countries? And will US fans be happy with a league that accepts its role as a feeder system for larger leagues and a buyer of over-the-hill stars?

There is nothing wrong with being a feeder league. Many of the soccer’s best players came up through leagues that earn beaucoup d’argent by developing and selling their country’s top talent. While the obvious examples are the Brazilian and Argentinian leagues, even European countries get in on the act. Portugal, the Netherlands, Greece, and Turkey all have a long history of acting as something of a minor league system for the big-money leagues (although they may be loathe to admit it).

But the US is different. We have always had something of a protectionist attitude about sports. We were never that good at European sports, so we invented our own. And then we called our best teams “world” champions. MLS has been both an engine and a beneficiary of the US National team’s climb up the world rankings, but the domestic league is many billions of dollars/pounds/lira away from competing with the Premier League or the Bundesliga.

While Dan is correct that many Philly Union players could make the roster of a lower level European league, MLS is not at the point where players come to the US after a successful stint on a European team. They come when their playing time evaporates or they come because they’re getting up there in years and, hell, the USA is still a great place to live.

And what about the local lads? Many MLS fans are rooting for Landon Donovan to extend his loan at Everton, citing it as an example of the continued growth of American soccer. The most common argument here comes up in a recent Tim Howard interview, where the Everton goalie estimates that the US needs somewhere between 11 and 22 players in top European leagues before the US National team can truly make a push for the World Cup. A noble goal, but the flip side of the coin is that every time a player of Donovan’s caliber leaves MLS, it lowers the level of competition. Yes, yes: It also opens the door for new talent, but who is that talent playing against? No offense to Jeff Cunningham or Conor Casey but they have produced no offense in top leagues.

Philadelphia has embraced its Major League Soccer franchise thus far, and one senses that expectations are high. But what about expectations for MLS in general? Are we happy being Lorient’s dumping grounds, or is there a distant dream of seeing the Philadelphia Union step onto the field against Barcelona in a game that actually matters?

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