One of the major complains that many have against the MLS is that it is a developmental league. No American dreams of playing for the San Jose Earthquakes or the Kansas City Wizards – they imagine themselves playing in Italy, Spain or England. The best MLS players are always eyeing their European opportunities. Their agents are mapping out career strategies of moving from the US to one of the “lesser” European leagues in Holland or Denmark as a transition to a bigger European League. The USMNT has two types of players – those who play in Europe and those who should.
For many US Soccer fans, this reality has made Major League Soccer look like a minor league operation, simply holding players until they get a shot at the big show. Seeing the trickle of past-their-prime players like Freddie Ljungberg, Kasey Keller and (yes) David Beckham make the reverse journey only reinforces the degree to which the MLS is viewed as an unimportant league. While Tony Parker comes to the NBA to compete against the best, his fellow Frenchman Patrick Vieria looks at spending his last year as a professional playing in the MLS as “an experience.”
When you go to a MLS game, you look around the crowd and see lots of people wearing the jerseys of some of the great teams of Europe. What is the soccer fan who is wearing the Arsenal, Barca, Real Madrid, AC Milan or ManU jersey at a MLS game really saying? “I love this sport, and I am willing to come to a MLS game because that is all we have, but please don’t confuse me with someone who thinks this is any good.”
So when will the MLS be talked about in the same breath as the EPL, La Liga, or Serie A? Realistically, the answer is never. The MLS will always be a feeder league for the high fliers of Europe. We should absorb that fact, and root for our MLS team without reservation or an ounce of insecurity.
There are plenty of great soccer nations that export all their great players and yet command a fervent following from their fans. Nearly every great Dutch player plays outside of Holland, and that does not make the Ajax fans walk around bemoaning the state of their league. The majority of the Argentina national team plays in Europe, and the River vs. Boca Super Classico in Buenos Aires makes the Galaxy/Chivas Superclassico look like a garden party. And of course, there is not a single member of the Brazil starting XI who plays for a Brazilian club team, but there are still over 400 teams in the Brazilian Football Confederation.
The US Soccer fan has to adopt this same attitude. The MLS is our league, and its players are our players. When some of them get the opportunity to play in Europe, that does not diminish the status of our league – it enhances it. It proves we are turning out players with the ability to compete among the best. Whether our teams can compete among the best is irrelevant.
Sometime in January, a handful of the best the MLS has to offer – Chad Marshall, Robbie Rogers and (almost certainly) Landon Donovan – will be taking off their cleats and uniforms and be putting on their boots and kits. As a proud MLS fan, I will be looking forward to see how they stack up with their new teams in their new leagues. I will also be looking forward to seeing the new blood the MLS brings in. I will still go to my 12 Galaxy games a year and Tivo the rest. I will still play my Sunday 5 on 5 games in my “vintage” gold and green Galaxy uniform.
The MLS may not be a first tier league, but that does not mean we should be second tier fans.