Has MLS Actually Improved?

Donadoni was among the early top shelf foreign signings for MLS

The last two years we have been subjected to loads of conversation, some of it even bordering on propaganda as to how the league is constantly improving. While from a technical standpoint the league seems to be getting better, the results of MLS clubs in competitions against foreign clubs as evidenced by Houston’s thrashing at the hands of Gambro Osaka of the J-League this morning is as poor as it has ever been. This piece is not meant to advocate the position that MLS is not improving, because deep down I believe it is, but it is meant to ask the critical questions that seem to be not asked because so many of us want the game to succeed and are scared to bring up some very obvious points of discussion.

An MLS club has not won an international competition since the Los Angeles Galaxy won the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2000. In 1998, DC United won both the CONCACAF Champions Cup and Inter-American Cup. So if I can count correctly (and I assure you, I can) that is three pieces of international silverware for MLS sides in the leagues first five years, and none in the leagues previous seven seasons. We also hear that MLS is signing better foreign players than ever before? Then how do you explain MLS losing players in both 1996 and 2000 to the European Championships, but the likely hood that not a single active or former MLS player will participate in this summer’s Euro 2008?

How easily is it explained that in 1998, five non-CONCACAF players left MLS during the summer to play in the World Cup, while in 2002 the MLS did not have a single non-American on a World Cup squad, and in 2006 not a single non CONCACAF player? Does this indicate that the foreign players MLS has been signing since the turn of the millennium have been either over the hill or not good enough to make their respective national sides?

Now, I happen to believe MLS is improving by leaps and bounds when compared to the league circa 2002 or 2003. No doubt can be left that the case is such. However, the early days of MLS before we had 24/7 soccer networks like our own CSRN, Gol TV or Fox Soccer was a period where MLS as new league was surprisingly competitive immediately internationally and created a number of outstanding pool players for the United States and even some other nations. At the time MLS was more of curiosity internationally than it is today: at the time when I traveled I would be peppered with questions as to the style of play and standard; asked about Valderrama, Donadoni or Matthaeus, all of whom were still playing with their national teams when they were active in MLS. (Unlike David Beckham and Juan Pablo Angel who at this moment are not active or serious pool players with their nations.) Today when I travel, MLS is either never mentioned or some joke about Beckham is brought up. (except in Mexico where the subject of Landon Donovan seems to be a national obsession.)

Too many soccer fans are new to the sport in the next few years and have accepted as gospel the line that MLS is constantly improving. The reality is MLS substantially regressed in quality between say 2000 and 2003. I saw it with my own eyes and I myself had a much harder time watching the very same matchups I used to race home to see. But this regression was necessary: the cost cutting and financial management of that period is why MLS is around today. Nonetheless serious questions need to be asked about the quality of MLS, and why the league suddenly is providing less young and effective American pool players than in the 1996 to 2001 period. Why do you Americans whose counterparts ten years ago were developed effectively in MLS, now have to go to Europe to develop or get paid a respectable salary? Why does MLS have fewer notable internationals from outside the CONCACAF region that are still on their national team today then ten years ago? Finally, why is the league so uncompetitive on the international scene when the early DC United and LA Galaxy teams were seemingly much more likely to compete at a higher level and win, even in front of pro Mexican crowds. These are questions that must be asked going forward.

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