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Getting Stuck In: How good is MLS?

The Getting Stuck In column delves into some of the more intriguing aspects in US Soccer and MLS, shining a light on the stories regarding the league’s teams and its most-loved characters. This week Dave Lewis looks into just how good Major League Soccer is and how it compares to other divisions around the world…

Sitting in front of my laptop one morning I read a quote from the Don of MLS saying: “I do believe in 10 years’ time or less, people will think of us [MLS] like Serie A, La Liga, and hopefully the way they think about the Premier League.” Then I click on another site and read what Kaka had to say about the league, that it will be “one of the biggest leagues in the world in 5 to 10 years.” Holy crap! Are they high? Do they actually believe that or is it just lip service?

I have had the debate with my mate Eric for a while now: How does MLS stack up against other leagues in the world? We have had this heated discussion over and over again. I have an overinflated view of MLS and he has a deflated view. A few years back we saw publications ranking MLS anywhere from 30th in the world to 50th behind some weird league from an unknown country with too many consonants in its name. What killed me was that Eric nodded his head in agreement saying “that sounds about right.”

Well, Eric has started to come around. He now ranks MLS 12th and he is not the only one to see the light. Bleacher Report put out their rankings in 2014 saying MLS was the tenth best league in the world. Holy crap? MLS is a top ten league in the world? Can that be true? And how did they arrive at this lofty number?

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The four areas Bleacher Report focused on were: Goals per game, red cards per game, continental victories and point differential from first to last.

Say what? They lost me with goals per games played.

The randomness of what people deem important to grading a league is all over the map. I saw one site that used the quality of the food in stadiums as criteria. I am no genius but I can gather that a leathery hot dog at a stadium really shouldn’t be a point reducer.

When a buddy of mine from Southampton weighed in on the state of MLS, he doled out a harsh evaluation when he said that the level of play is that seen in the lower levels of the English Championship or the upper levels of League One. What? After I picked my jaw off the ground I realised I needed to use my own common sense and some loose scientific analysis to find out what level MLS is really at.

Before I dive into major analytics (translation: throwing darts at a board), there are a few disclaimer- type things I need to get off my chest. I am a huge EPL, Liverpool and MLS/Columbus Crew supporter. I have been to Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Highbury, Craven Cottage, many MLS stadiums and Hibernian in the Scottish Premier League. I have watched most of the leagues on television and have even caught a few games in the Bulgarian first division. Don’t ask why.

So here we go. My unbiased take on where MLS stands in the world right now.


 

Level 1

The EPL (England), Bundesliga (Germany), La Liga (Spain) & Serie A (Italy)

My take:

Ok, I would lose all credibility if I told you MLS was better than the established top four leagues in the world. The top teams play in the Champions League, have some of the best players in the world and are technically light years ahead of MLS. The TV money in these leagues, especially in the EPL, is ridiculous, with flocks of away supporters at each game – something MLS could never match with the hugeness of North America (the U.K. has the same square mileage as California). No need to go any further.

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MLS does well in:

Attendance. I found out that MLS is one of the highest-attended leagues in the world. MLS averages just under 22,000 fans per game, with the Seattle Sounders averaging more than my beloved Liverpool on a weekly basis. This makes MLS the seventh-most attended league in the world ahead of well-established and popular divisions like Ligue 1 and the Dutch Eredivisie. And MLS is catching up with Serie A – only 2,000 behind in average attendance. And one quick shot aimed at my Saints pal: The Championship average attendance hovers at a mere 17,000. Badabing!

Where an MLS team would finish:

Relegated.


 

Level 2:

Ligue 1 (France), Eredivisie (Netherlands), Primeira Liga (Portugal), Premier League (Russian), Super Lig (Turkey)

My take:

Ok, we are getting a little closer in class, but still have a way to go. Teams from this group have won the Champions League, whereas no team from MLS has won the much weaker CONCACAF Champions League, with Montreal’s trip to last year’s final the closest the league has come to success in that competition. There are plenty of young stars in the French and Dutch feeder leagues that get gobbled up by the big boys. MLS is starting to develop this reputation of being a development league (see Miazga to Chelsea), but they still need to shed the retirement league stigma.

MLS does well in:

Attacking football. Nobody has ever accused anyone in the Dutch League of deft defending. The same goes for MLS, with most of the money spent on attacking players like Sebastian Giovinco. Watch a Columbus Crew SC game with Kamara, Higuain and Finlay, or an LA Galaxy game with Dos Santos, Gerrard, Keane, Zardes and you will be fully entertained.

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Where an MLS team would finish:

Likely to be relegated but with a chance of staying up.


Group 3:

Brasileiro (Brazil), Primera ( Argentina), Pro League (Belgium), SuperLiga (Serbia), Premier League (Ukraine), Super League (Greece)

My take:

The South American teams are either debt-ridden, corrupt or both. In Brazil players fear for their lives, often don’t see a paychecks and are under constant media scrutiny. And that’s the good news. Players are sold like cattle, being shipped to leagues all over the planet. There are a lot of players from Argentina plying their trade in MLS so that shows how respected the league is down there. In fact, two of the greatest players in Crew history come from Argentina: 2008 MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Federico Higuain. Mega teams like Boca Juniors are still really good, but they have slipped. MLS teams are catching up and would have no problems competing against the teams in the mid and lower end of the table in the smaller European leagues.

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MLS does well in:

Lifestyle. It’s not South America or Eastern Europe. “As soon as I came here, the first two weeks I was training, I didn’t want to go back,” New York Red Bulls Englishman Wright-Phillips once said. “A lot of people, they know that when you come to America you have a good lifestyle.” Enough said on that front.

Where an MLS team would finish:

Definitely staying up with an occasional mid-table finish.


Group 4:

Liga MX (Mexico), J-League (Japan), Scottish Premier League, Allsvenskan (Sweden), Super League (Switzerland)

My take:

This looks like where MLS belongs right now. They might struggle against a side like Celtic (not even sure about this) but they would be fine against the rest of the Scottish Premier League – maybe even dominating them. Plus, the league is a mess financially and averages an embarrassing 10,000 people a game. MLS may be slightly below the Mexican league, although debatable. It would definitely win titles in Japan – a lot. On second thought, not sure the Japanese league belong in this group. Gone!

MLS does well in:

Marketing. They now have nationally televised games on multiple days of the week. Most of the playoffs are televised nationally and all regular season games are available via internet and local broadcasts. The All-Star game is a hit, bringing the likes of Manchester United, Bayern Munich and many other top clubs to play in it. And they know how to market their players with a preseason media day this year that included access to some of the world’s greats: Pirlo, Gerrard, Keane, Villa, Dos Santos, Kaka. Yes, most are old, but not many leagues can boast that lineup of stars.

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Where an MLS team would finish:

Consistently finish in the top four, winning titles too.


A Leagues MLS needs to worry about:

China. MLS can’t compete with the kind of money being thrown around in Asia. China has better attendance right now and are buying top players in their prime (see Teixeira, Jackson and Ramires). The league could steal some of MLS’ thunder. But their model is not necessarily sustainable with so little emphasis on youth development. One to keep an eye on.


Summary:

According to my abacus, MLS is the 16th best league in the world. It’s not top ten or even close to being what Don Garber wants it to be just yet – but it’s climbing. It’s hovering around the Level 3 bracket with an eye toward Level 2. With the salary restrictions, there doesn’t seem to be enough flexibility in place to push for a Level 1 spot in the foreseeable future. But when players like Jordan Morris say no to the Bundesliga and yes to MLS, well, you never know.

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2 Comments on Getting Stuck In: How good is MLS?

  1. I am a hard core MLS fan and I mostly agree with your acessment of MLS,and I am not disapointed at this
    finding because I realize MLS is only 20 years old.We don’t even have our league fully set up yet.We still
    have new clubs coming in, new stadiums being built, new youth accadamies setting up, we need to grow our
    fan base more.So there is no way we can compete with the well established leagues of Europe,who have the
    history and the money to buy the best players in the world. It will be years before we reach this point. Soccer is our #5 sport right now but it is growing so fast.If soccer continues takes hold over here, North America will grow
    into a soccer world power in the future.The question is how long it will take.

  2. Slippy Stevie G // March 22, 2017 at 1:42 AM // Reply

    “They might struggle against a side like Celtic (not even sure about this) but they would be fine against the rest of the Scottish Premier League – maybe even dominating them. Plus, the league is a mess financially and averages an embarrassing 10,000 people a game.”

    10000 avg is embarrassing? Scotland has little bit over 5 million people. I would say you lost all your credibility. There were so many other brainfarts also but I’m laughing so much I can’t write more after this.

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