With money seen by many as spoiling the Premier League, is MLS worth a shot as an alternative?
The new MLS season saw debuts for two new teams over the weekend – Inter Miami and Nashville MLS – with the amount of teams in the US and Canada top flight expanding to 26 across two conferences.
Considering where MLS was in 2007 when David Beckham joined LA Galaxy, it is remarkable that in such a short space of time, a league that began four years after the inception of the Premier League (although MLS was established in 1993, play only started in 1996) has seen such rapid growth. Massive crowds have started to follow the various franchises across the North American continent. But is it worth watching?
MLS has its doubters. When I speak to friends and colleagues – the majority of them football fans – they dismiss the league as a ‘poor mans championship’, to quote a close friend. I don’t see it this way. The football may lack the quality of some of the teams we are used to seeing on a weekly basis, but for me, it’s a throwback to a time when football was new and exciting. It genuinely excites me to see new teams being established and attracting bumper crowds, and taking the focus off American Football in the Country which, quite frankly, is one of the dullest and nonsensical sports around.
Look at the crowds attracted in the opening weekend just gone. Nashville almost hit 60,000 people, unbelievable for their maiden MLS fixture. Atlanta – probably still reeling from the news that star man Josef Martinez will be out for most (if not all) of the season with ligament damage – broke the MLS attendance record multiple times over 2017/18 season, with 72,243 attending their July fixture against last years champions Seattle Sounders. Even clubs with modest followings and stadiums average around 20,000 – some of these teams just a few seasons old.
I get asked the same question all the time. Why are you even bothered with MLS? I counter with various reasons.
Firstly, transfers are done differently and in a fairer way. The majority of the players do not belong to any club, they belong to the league. This benefits both the player and the clubs. Out of contract players will be snapped up through the draft in pre season. The draft itself is excellent (again, in my humble opinion). Any team that finishes bottom of the league during the season gets the first choices in the draft for the next season. This makes it fairer and allows for squads to be refreshed at a much better rate.
Teams are allowed three DP signings (designated players). These players will be ‘marquee’ signings and the clubs can pay them as much as they can afford. These players will therefore be on much more money than the rest of the team – take Zlatan at LA Galaxy for example – but more often than not, said players are deserving of the big bucks.
Finally, there is also the Home Grown Rule in the league. These players – who have to come from the clubs own academy – do not count against salary budgets, and therefore there is an incentive for both the player and the club to benefit from this. Good performances often lead to talent being recognised, with these players often moving elsewhere in MLS as a star signing or abroad to leagues across the world.
Jordan Morris has been a success story for the Seattle Sounders. After starting his youth career at Eastside FC, he soon progressed to the Sounders U23 squad before becoming a first team regular – indeed, scoring an injury time winner in the opening fixture for the Seattle based franchise last weekend. His record of 27 goals in 84 appearances may seem modest, but together with Raul Ruidíaz, the Sounders were able to win the MLS Shield last season and his worth can not be underestimated.
DeAndre Yedlin, now plying his trade with Newcastle United, was also a good an example of this. His reputation was sky high at Seattle Sounders, his boyhood club. His performances in the 2014 World Cup led to Tottenham Hotspur securing his services in front of a host of other admirers. Moves to Sunderland and then (bravely) Newcastle on loan initially then permanently saw him become a first team player at a huge Premier League club, showing that the system MLS is trying to champion does have its success stories. Whether Miguel Almerion – also at Newcastle – will be judged a success will depend on the forward’s ability to add to hit goal tally after signing from Atlanta United last season. There are players starting to step up from MLS to the Premier League, but admittedly the league needs to keep growing to ensure quality players are being produced at a good rate. Franchises like Inter Miami should be the catalyst for such growth.
Is the league as good as the Premier League? Of course not. Football is still in its infancy in relative terms in the US and Canada, and they are still playing catch up with the rest of the Americas, and Europe for that matter. Their defeat to Panama in the precious World Cup qualifying stages proved a timely reminder that America still has a long way to go in being ‘soccer’ kings.
However, would I recommend watching the games? Wholeheartedly. Some great teams, quality players, and ridiculous goals. So the next time you’re going to rewatch the matches you’ve already seen on Match Of The Day 2 on a Sunday night, tune into Sky Sports and watch any of the available MLS games shown this season. You may be pleasantly surprised.