MLS is the most important thing to have happened to US soccer in… well… ever.
Sepp Blatter can blather all he wants about his disappointment in the league, but he clearly fails to understand the immense impact it is having.
We are a country of 350 million people. We produce some of the greatest athletes the world has ever known. But for most young athletes, the incentives have been for them to pursue baseball, football, or basketball, not soccer. Before MLS there was no career path for an American soccer player. There were no prominent domestic leagues. Maybe a dozen Americans were playing abroad. Unless you were one of the top twenty players in the country, you had little chance of making a career of it.
The existence of MLS means that there are now hundreds of Americans playing soccer professionally in this country. Each of the teams now has a youth academy, which means that there is a system in place for recruiting and developing young talent. MLS has provided a viable starting point where American soccer players can develop and showcase their talents as a springboard to careers overseas. The website yanks-abroad is now tracking over 100 Americans playing overseas. 70% of the players on the US World Cup Squad got their start in MLS, but only 4 of them still played in the league. If those players didn’t have MLS as a starting point, who knows if they would even still be playing soccer. If it wasn’t for MLS, Clint Dempsey might be a truck driver in Texas right now.
For talented youth soccer players in America, MLS has created a realistic path to a professional career. Those who excel know that MLS gives them the prospects of moving abroad to a bigger payday with a foreign team. As more Americans go abroad and make a name for themselves, more kids back home think that they can do the same. That means more kids stick with the sport. The more kids who stick with the sport, the better our player pool becomes. An improved player pool means a higher level of play in MLS, more Americans going overseas and, hopefully, better showings for the national team. Better MLS teams, more Americans abroad, and better international performance means even more youth players who decide to stick with soccer instead of switching to one of the traditional three sports in this country. The cycle continues, improving our prospects with each generation.
It’s early yet. MLS is only 17 years old. We’re really only a couple of generations into the process. But already we can see results. Beasley, Bocanegra, Bradley, Dempsey, Howard, all of these guys started in MLS. They are being followed by guys like Altidore, Shea, Cameron, Holden, and others. Without MLS, many of these players might not have stuck with this sport and few of them would have been recognized enough to make a career of it abroad. Thanks to MLS, they not only got their start, but are now forming the backbone of the USMNT.
It may take another generation or two, but teams like our LA Galaxy are forging a new path forward for US soccer. They have begun a cycle that is leading to more and more high quality players rising up from our great land. Maybe that makes MLS something of a feeder league for the bigger outfits in Europe. But I’m just fine with that. I’m excited to see guys like Omar Gonzalez get their start with us. And I will be happy to see him make the transition to Europe when some lucky team finally picks him up. When he is the starting CB for a USMNT team that gets back to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, I’ll proudly remember that he got his start reaching for the MLS Cup.