Football, or as they call it in America, Soccer, is the dominant sport in many countries around the world. In Europe, football is the national sport of most countries, and its domestic clubs are some of the strongest on the planet. Whilst the MLS is picking up speed.
But in the United States, various forces in the 19th century conspired to keep the locally-developed gridiron football as the main sport played in the country. These forces were mostly US universities and it is why college football remains so strong today, even with the NFL being the largest league in the world. That said, American soccer has come a long way in recent decades. In fact, while American football is by far the most popular and most watched sport in the United States, soccer has more people participating in it and sits in third place behind basketball and baseball.
MLS Spreading Football
One of the biggest driving forces behind the growth in popularity of soccer in the US has been the MLS, the country’s longest-running and most successful attempt at having a major professional soccer league in the USA.
MLS was founded in 1993 and was a condition of the US being given hosting duties for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, though the first season didn’t take place until 1996. Since then, it has actually become the fastest growing soccer league in the world.
It began with just 10 teams, growing to 12 by the third season but has since grown to become 27 with plans to expand to 30 by 2023. This expansion was helped by the “Designated Player Rule” which allowed MLS clubs to sign up to three big-name players each like David Beckham and, more recently, Luciano Acosta, Blaise Matuidi, and Nani.
With players like this and much better player development processes in place, the MLS has become a much stronger league than it was in 1996. But how does it compare to the big leagues of Europe like the EPL, the Bundesliga, and La Liga?
Format, Spectating, and Fan Experience
The MLS is very different in some areas of the format and overall experience. The most glaringly obvious is the fact that it isn’t part of a pyramid that has a mechanism for promotion and relegation. This isn’t a concept that is really well understood in North America as no other major league uses it. Therefore, the 27 MLS teams have no prospect of being relegated for poor performance, but it also means that the battle at the bottom of the league table isn’t as exciting as it is in the likes of the EPL.
The playoff system, however, does mean there is more of a focal point for the title-decider and keeps more teams in contention for longer, which ensures the season is exciting from start to finish.
In many respects the fan experience is similar. Players can watch games at stadiums or on TV, they can also place wagers on the games in many states. Like in Europe, there is now a huge market for this so most US sportsbooks offer MLS betting odds just as they do for the NFL, NBA, and other leagues.
However, unlike in England, where teams play in dedicated stadiums designed specifically for football, several MLS teams still play in multi-purpose venues. For example, New York City FC plays at Yankee Stadium, which was originally built as a baseball park. While it adds a certain charm, it means fans aren’t always as close to the action as they’d like.
Quality of Play
The biggest criticism of the MLS in the early years was its poor quality of play. The natural progression of the league and the introduction of designated players, though many people would still argue that the MLS is at the same level as the Premier League.
Those on the pitch would disagree, a 2017 survey that ESPN conducted among MLS players found that around two-thirds of them believed their clubs could hold their own in the EPL.
That said, one disagreed with this, saying that he felt the MLS was on par with the EFL’s Championship, the second tier league in England.
Various people have attempted to creating statistics to rank all the world’s clubs, such as the Global Club Soccer Rankings, generally all of these place MLS teams way below many European Clubs, with NYCFC the league’s top scorer in 114th place.