MLS: The world’s next super league. It’s as simple as that. There are already established leagues that seem irreplaceable: English Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga. Can MLS do it? Can MLS reach the mountaintop, and become as powerful as these leagues? Many people say yes.
Essentially, an elite league is defined by quality of play and profitability.
As the leader in world athletics, the United States is simply the place to be for other leagues, including the NBA, NHL, and MLB. Players from all around the world want to play in these leagues; it’s their ultimate destination. In part, this is what MLS is striving for, to be an ultimate destination for any soccer player.
MLS wants to be one of the world’s top soccer leagues, and one of America’s top athletic leagues, both in terms of quality of play and profitability. It wants to be on par with the EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, and the elite leagues of Europe, along with the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB, the powerhouse leagues within the American sports landscape. In some respects, this is occurring as we speak; MLS is pulling in higher attendance for live games than some NBA and NHL franchises, though TV ratings for MLS games are not quite as high as its American counterparts.
And this is the tricky thing about MLS. It’s not just competing with soccer leagues around the world, it’s also competing with sports in America. The other international soccer leagues have a few distinct advantages over MLS. For starters, most, if not all, soccer leagues have been around a lot longer than MLS. Also, soccer is the favorite sport of many countries. Soccer is on the rise in America—some think it’s soon to replace baseball in popularity—but it’s not the most popular sport. Therefore, MLS is competing with other established sports in America, such as the Big 3 (i.e., baseball, basketball, and football). Of course, European nations have other competing sports, but soccer is far and away their favorite pastime. Essentially, MLS is pleading with Americans to choose soccer over other established sports in a way that’s different from European nations, and, for that matter, pretty much every other nation on earth.
Organizers of American soccer (including but not limited to US Soccer, along with the leaders of MLS) see this quest of getting MLS to be an elite world-class league as something within the realm of possibility. With a late start, the US is on its way to dominating the world’s game, soccer. (To people that might laugh at this idea, proceed with caution; the US has dominated the Olympics for years, and soccer is quite literally America’s last athletic frontier. The US will dominate soccer as well, someday. When is the question.) Attaining world soccer supremacy includes winning the World Cup (a process patriotically occurring by continental drift) and making MLS an elite league. Both these quests are very attainable, and the latter is currently underway. Without a doubt, it’s a top-shelf priority, and, if MLS organizers have anything to say about it, it will happen. Currently, they’re in a good place; Major League Soccer has turned into a great success.
In 2017, Ken Belson wrote a story for The New York Times that described some of the process for choosing expansion franchises for MLS (this was prior to Nashville, Tennessee being accepted into the league). Don Garber—the Commissioner of Major League Soccer—was touring Nashville, weighing his options, meeting with officials, and receiving first-class hospitality. (At this point, there were other cities eager to join MLS, including Detroit, Indianapolis, and St. Louis.) Ken Belson wrote, “So for Garber, who stood at the lectern in Nashville, the latest warm reception seemed as much a validation as an opportunity. He had taken over a struggling 12-team league in 1999 and contracted it to 10 clubs two years later to stave off its collapse. Now, the league is executing a plan to grow to 28 clubs by 2020, and interest in professional soccer in the United States—in MLS and far beyond it—has surged.”[i]
For all intents and purposes, there’s no looking back. MLS is crackling with energy, leaving many to extrapolate its future rise to power, on par with the EPL and Serie A. It wasn’t always that way. Originally, there were fears that MLS would not make it, that it wouldn’t expand, that it would be an ephemeral soccer dream for American soccer dreamers, much like the NASL. And, guess what? MLS might not make it. There is always a chance that it might fold, though it seems highly likely that it will succeed. As of 2018, there were 23 teams in MLS. As the league transitions from 2018 to 2019, even though TV viewership of games is not as high as it could be, MLS games are filling stadiums left and right, and more teams are jumping on board, including franchises in Miami, Cincinnati, and Nashville, ready to take off.
[i] Ken Belson, “As Appetite for Soccer in U.S. Grows, So Does M.L.S.,” The New York Times, published August 8, 2017, accessed August 5, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/sports/soccer/mls-expansion-nashville-cincinnati.html