Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Just how good (or bad) is MLS?

Let me start this discussion with this.... this article is not meant to criticize MLS, just discuss how it compares with other leagues. It's not a case of liking one and hating another - it's all football, just there are just different qualities in different leagues.

People say the Premier League is the most exciting league, that Serie A is the most technical, but that La Liga has the best individual players - and you can't forget the the Bundesliga had both last year's Champions League finalists, and boasts a team that has gone 50 games unbeaten in the league. But there is no consensus on which league is the best - essentially as it's a game of opinions, and that's usually why we all enjoy discussing it.

I don't think there's much of an argument to say that the New York Red Bulls (last season's winner of the Supporter's Shield for the best record in the MLS) or Sporting Kansas City (the MLS Cup winners) could compete in the European Champions League, but I wonder how and where they would fit-in when compared to regular league teams.

If you look at the players, there are stars like Thierry Henry, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan etc, that could probably still get into any team ranked 4-10 in any European League (like a Tottenham, Real Sociedad or Sanit-Etienne), but probably no one in MLS that could get into the starting XI for a Barcelona, Chelsea or Juventus. But that's why they are the strongest teams in Europe - they have the resources and prestige of being the best of the best. There are good teams and players in Brazil, Russia, Mexico etc, but the best players want to be at those top teams competing for the top trophies.

But how does MLS fare against the mid-range teams in the top leagues? Seattle v Toronto had a crowd of almost 40,00, with US, English and Brazilian internationals on show - but it also had Djimi Traore! It's hard to even argue that you'd prefer to watch Sunderland v Crystal Palace or Elche v Real Betis than seeing that MLS game.

Unfortunately though, there are not enough games of that quality (yet) and much of the league has very average players who aren't improving the game in the US. Why the Red Bulls would sign Bradley Wright-Phillips (and Luke Rogers before him) from the lower reaches of the Championship in England rather than try and develop an American player is beyond me. It's nothing personal against those players, but they aren't adding anything to the league here - Jermain Defoe is, Tim Cahill has, Robbie Keane has. Getting good foreign players helps, developing home-grown talent helps the league and the National team.

And that's where I think MLS struggles to compete, and why it is perceived to be of a lower quality than the European leagues. There's no doubt the top talent is in Europe, but while MLS continues to take players that didn't really do much in Europe, then it will be viewed as lower quality league or a place to go to retire.

The league is growing and developing, but I think every team in MLS would finish in the bottom 3 of the EPL, La Liga or Serie A over a full 38 game season. At the moment, it's a league that has a few too many aging foreigners, not enough trust in youth and is technically a bit behind on coaching and tactics.

But the key thing to remember is that MLS is improving every year and is already great to watch. It may not be quite up to the top club standard in the world, but it's getting there.