With MLS aiming to rival Europe by the next decade, a rising quality of play will attract more and more fans.
Last week, Thierry Henry -- all-time top scorer for Arsenal and the France national team, winner of the World Cup, European Championship, Confederations Cup, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup, Ligue 1, Premier League, FA Cup, La Liga, Copa Del Rey, and dozens of individual accolades -- scored an excellent overhead kick for the New York Red Bulls against the Montreal Impact, finishing off a corner swung in by Juninho Pernambucano, the Brazilian set-piece magician best known as the creative force behind Lyon’s seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles.
Neither of these extremes is wholly representative of Major League Soccer at its respective point in time. What is important to note is that it would be unthinkable to switch them. Players with the pedigrees of Henry and Juninho would have steered a wide berth around the 1996 MLS, a league still four years away from the pleasure of watching Lothar Matthaus score no goals in 16 games, just as any contemporary team attempting to field a player who split his time with a gig on network television would be laughed out of the stadium.
In 1996, attracting a player like Vancouver’s Nigel Reo-Coker, a 28-year-old with serious Premier League experience, would have been seen as a huge coup. In 2013, he’s a smart signing with a salary that’s barely upper middle class in MLS terms.
By just about every metric, MLS has improved its standing. Over the last 18 seasons, attendances have trended higher and higher, player salaries have trended higher and higher (a slight dip this season in total wages can largely be put down to the loss of David Beckham and the "loss" of Rafael Marquez), and the payouts from sponsorships and TV contracts have gotten bigger and bigger.
But soccer isn’t about shirt sponsors and ticket sales. At least not yet, not entirely. It’s about the 22 men on the field (likely to be 21 if Steven Lenhart is involved), their technical ability, their tactical awareness, their physical prowess. MLS has huge ambitions -- Commissioner Don Garber wants to make it one of the top leagues in the world over the next decade -- and a high quality of play (and therefore a high quality of entertainment) is a huge component of that growth.
Chris Klein spent the whole of his 13-season career in MLS and made 23 appearances for the United States men’s national team.
“No question,” Klein told Goal when asked about whether the league has improved its on-field product. “The standard of our play is definitely improving. I think you're seeing it in how we compete. I think that the players that we have are certainly better than they've ever been.
"I think the young players we're starting to see are going to be better than they've ever been. I know that we're seeing that in LA.”
It’s an easy claim to make for Klein, an MLS lifer who oversees the league’s marquee franchise. That sort of talk takes on an entirely new level of importance when it’s echoed by those who might consider MLS a rival for regional dominance.
“MLS is growing, definitely it's growing, year after year,” Felix Fernandez, the former Atlante and Mexico keeper and current co-host of Republica Deportiva on Univision, told Goal. “The real level comes out when MLS teams play Mexican teams in the CONCACAF Champions League. Normally Mexican teams beat MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champions League, but now we can report a lift from Seattle. It's getting better and better.
“MLS is improving year after year and it's getting tougher for the Mexican teams. There's a gap, there's still a gap. How big or how small, I don't know. What I know is that MLS is improving year after year. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years a MLS team wins the CONCACAF Champions League.”
Victor Manuel Vucetich knows a thing or two about continental dominance. His Monterrey team has won the CONCACAF Champions League in each of the last three seasons.
“They are certainly worthy rivals," Vucetich said in a press conference. "That distance has shrunk.
“We follow this league because of the merits of the league. The pure quality of the sport is already showing.”
As more and more big names come and contribute to MLS, and as the league continues to churn out more and more young stars and export them to Europe, MLS’s place in world soccer has grown. But at least one MLS veteran is wary of the effect rapid over-expansion could have on the quality of play. This is the first year since 2006 that the number of MLS teams has not increased. Seven new clubs came into the league in a six-year span between 2007 and 2012.
“It's gone up and down,” recently retired midfielder Peter Vagenas, who spent the whole of his 13-year pro career in MLS, told Goal. “Up and down. Maybe you can categorize it as personal development. When I first came into the league maybe there were fewer teams, fewer jobs.
“I don't want to say watered down, because the league now is getting better and better, but there was a time teams started to expand that maybe it got a little watered down. Obviously there were more jobs.”
Despite his concerns, Vagenas is encouraged by the technical improvement in the league’s newer additions.
“When I came into the league there were literally 18 spots on each team. Imagine if you were to cut the league down to 18 people per team. But at the moment in my opinion it's getting better and better, the last couple of years, it's getting better and better.
“It's always been a fast, physical league. The technique and the quality of the player, the skill of the soccer player is starting to catch up. We've always been very good athletically, but we're starting to catch up."
Klein boils the situation down into one simple argument: progress.
“I don't think you can argue the fact that the standard of MLS is higher than it's ever been,” he told Goal. “We're moving forward at the pace that we need to move forward.”
Zac Lee Rigg contribued reporting to this article.
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