MLS: Where is the limit to Thierry Henry’s ‘no limits’?

Montreal Impact head coach Thierry Henry says that MLS has ‘no limits’ in regards to its recent growth. But just exactly what does he mean by that and where might the limit actually be?

Major League Soccer has grown inexorably over the past five years. As Commissioner Don Garber has injected new life into the league with explosive expansion plans and organisations have invested their resources into their teams and infrastructure, the league has enjoyed tremendous growth, on and off the pitch.

More people are attending MLS matches than ever before. More people are watching MLS matches than ever before. The league is financially stable, which is especially pertinent in the current crisis. The quality of play has improved markedly over the past decade, which has always been the limiting factor of the league’s popularity and standing among global football. In every way, the league is growing.

On Wednesday, Montreal Impact head coach Thierry Henry, who also played in the league for the New York Red Bulls from 2010 to 2014 and has first-hand experience at the difference in the league from then to now, expressed his confidence in the growth of MLS.

“Let the league grow and, I don’t know how far this league can go and it’s up to us to elevate the league, but this league has no limit,” Henry told reporters on a video call on Tuesday. “For me, the biggest thing is the fact teams are buying players from the Mexican league and managing to get players from Europe earlier. I don’t think that could have happened before. Teams are getting players earlier, younger age. Mexico, Argentina—I’m not going to name all the countries, but it’s a sign that the league is evolving.”

It is certainly bullish from the Frenchman, to say the least. But if anyone understands just how great MLS’ potential is, it is Henry. This is a man who has played in the league, now manages in the league, and is a world superstar with a wealth of experience at the highest level.

Despite his obvious expertise, though, there is a little fanciful nature to his dreamy claims. And so, we have this juxtaposition of a growing, flourishing league that must stop somewhere, and yet no one quite knows where. Henry’s comments, then, beg the question: Just where is the limit to his ‘no limit’ claim?

Henry highlights the growing flock of players that choose MLS over other South American and CONCACAF leagues. The exodus from Liga MX this offseason was a prime example of this, the likes of Edison Flores, Alan Pulido, Lucas Zelarayan and Lucas Cavallini all trading in the Mexican league for the greater potential of MLS.

Certainly, there is reason to believe that MLS can rival Liga MX. Players will continue to move north of the border because of the higher pay, the more comfortable lifestyle, and a greater chance of securing a European move. In turn, this will improve the standard of play on the pitch which further attracts higher-level players. It is a perpetuating circle of growth.

MLS can certainly overtake Liga MX as the dominant domestic league in CONCACAF. At that point, it can then turn to South America and look to rival the Brazilian and Argentine leagues. But can it ever reach the European level? At present, MLS is a similar standard to the English second-tier or lower-level European leagues in Poland or Belgium or maybe the Netherlands. In reality, without admission into the Champions League, which is impossible, they will never match a top-five European league.

This, then, is the limit of Henry’s ‘no limits’ claim. But that still leaves a lot of potential for growth.