In the United States, we are used to the best. The best cars, the best electronics, the best TV shows, everything we have is the best. Even if we did not make it or create it, we still want it here in the U.S. So when the best version of a product cannot been found here in the U.S., we enter a state of denial. It’s an unnatural state for us.
This past twelve months, when players like Brek Shea left MLS to go overseas, a state of panic hit MLS fandom. We were used to up-and-coming players leaving, players like Tim Ream who seemingly needed to go abroad to reach their full potential. These players were names, but the Tim Reams of the world were not the faces of MLS; they left before they could become that. But when guys like Geoff Cameron and Shea leave, these are the faces of the league. We assume that the league has a plan to establish identity guys besides Landon Donovan that are MLS and don’t need to go to England to become professionally actualized.
The fact is though, MLS is a feeder league. In fact, all but maybe three or four leagues worldwide are feeder leagues. Soccer internationally has the behemoths – the Barclays Premier League, La Liga, and the Bundesliga with Serie A and Ligue Un trying to enter that upper echelon. These leagues have the best teams, the best leagues, and the best coaches. Players dream of playing in these leagues because they are the best, and if you want to prove yourself you need to go against the best.
The best also have the money. Manchester United’s sponsorship deals are a dream to MLS teams – they would likely be thrilled with the amount the Reds get for their jersey sponsorship alone. The best money means better wages and MLS simply cannot compete financially. Initially this may not be the case – the league could possibly match what Geoff Cameron is making in his current contract. But if Cameron plays well, the next one would be well beyond their means. Based on his name recognition, the league simply cannot spend the kind of money required to keep players from jumping overseas, especially if it means overpaying them.
All this said, being a feeder league is not a bad place to be. Since 98% of soccer leagues worldwide are in the same position, MLS is in no way unique. This is especially true since the league has only been in existence for less than 20 years; AS Roma wasn’t built in a day. MLS is growing into a league that has garnered some international attention and as the quality of players grow so will the quality of the league. It will likely be a while until it can aspire to reach the level of the EPL, but we do not necessarily need to be the best right now.
So if MLS is a feeder league, what should be the league’s strategy for growth? To become a North American power. Currently Liga MX and maybe Costa Rica’s top flight league are king of the continent, but MLS has some major advantages. The draw of playing in the U.S. while still being able to retain cultural ties helps players from Latin America feel comfortable coming to the U.S. As MLS draws the best players from the Latin American leagues – but especially Central America and eventually Mexico – its standing will grow. Already we are seeing CONCACAF teams full of MLS players. To help this trend MLS teams will need to begin winning the CONCACAF Champions League and competing in the Club World Cup, a very attainable goal.
In the future, MLS will continue to be a feeder league. And that’s ok. As long as it continues to grow in North America and recognize the limits and growth potential, MLS will be successful in the global soccer community.