MLS: Just what is the league’s potential?

MLS (Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MLS (Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Many people have predicted that MLS will one day be a leading league in world football. But are such expectations realistic? What is the league’s true potential?

Almost from its inception, Major League Soccer has expanded. There have, of course, been some rocky moments. There have been periods where some expected the league to fold, as has been the case with many North American soccer ventures. But as the years passed, the number of teams grew, and the quality of play was enhanced, it became clear: MLS was here to stay.

Over the years, MLS has grown, primarily through expansion. It is building towards 32 teams. Only ten partook in the first league season in 1996. But there has also been development in quality, commercial success, attractiveness, and the share of the North American sports market.

Star players from across the world have played in MLS, though with their introduction came the dreaded ‘retirement league’ tag. Teams have loosened the purse strings, spending more than ever. The best teams in the league are now able to compete with Liga MX, if still lacking the watershed CONCACAF Champions League title.

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But as MLS enters its 25th season and is still searching for a way to make a profit, it is fair to ask just what its actual potential is. Because, in recent months, there have been some rather garish predictions made about its trajectory.

At the New York kick-off event for the 2020 season, Jorge Mas, co-owner of expansion team Inter Miami CF, did not hold back on his expectations for the league:

"“I think the MLS will be one of the top sports leagues in the United States. I think it will be on par with the best leagues in the world, the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga. As the economics of the league improve and we can compete with those leagues for the best players in the world I think 25 years from now you will see the MLS as potentially the best league in the world.”"

He is not the only one. In fact, in an interview with Yahoo Sports last July, commissioner Don Garber made the exact prediction:

"“I have no doubt that we will be one of the top leagues in the world on the competitive side and also in business metrics. If you look at the amount of energy that the rest of the football world is placing on our market, there’s no doubt that we just need to continue to build strong fan bases, continue to invest in player development and our facilities. And we need to continue to grow the league throughout North America.”"

Now, there is reason to believe that MLS will be a more important and valued league among the global sport in 25 years than it is now. With every passing season, the league carries a greater significance in the football world and in the North American sports landscape. However, it might be a little rich to suggest that it will be ‘one of the top leagues in the world on the competitive side’. And there is one major problem: the European Champions League.

Every top player in the world wants to play in the European Champions League. It is the biggest and best tournament in club football. Very rarely have elite players signed for teams that have no opportunity to play in the Champions League in the prime of their careers. And those that have usually have ulterior motives — Oscar and Yannick Carrasco both went to China for money.

Now, MLS teams should have the financial clout to pay the wages these players will demand, but do you really want to build the high-end quality of your league on players simply looking for a paycheque?

There are other issues. Soccer will always compete with football and basketball for true superiority in North America, which is not so much the case in other leading countries around the world. MLS is also still not profitable, which Garber himself has addressed. The league, and the investment of ownership, are banking on growth. Now, that looks set to come, but there is reason to question its ceiling.

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Ultimately, MLS will continue to grow until the quality of play stops improving. And at this stage, that does not look like it will happen any time soon. But becoming one of the very best leagues in the world is a huge step, and it might be beyond the league’s capabilities.