In the comments made to my last post on this site, an individual stated that they were sick of hearing about ways to grow the MLS and suggested it should be shut down, put out of its misery. Well as both a fan and commentator on the Beautiful Game (whether you call it football, futbol, soccer, calcio, etc., I really don’t care. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by another name would smell as sweet.” As for me, I just tend to go with what my federation calls the game.), it is my opinion that the presence of one or more organized, professional leagues is important, nay, necessary and crucial to the continued growth and development of the US National Team.
First things first though, let’s make one thing very, very clear. For those who think that soccer in the US is a “foreign” game or that soccer is a relatively new sport in the US, put those false assumptions aside, immediately. The true origins of the game are lost in history and obscured by myth. Lore suggests that sporting games involving kicking a ball existed in China, Italy, and North America long before some lads in England took upon themselves to draft The Laws. It only took 5 years for the Cambridge Rules version of the game, established in 1815, to secure itself in the US. The first organized soccer club in the US was the Oneidas who played on the Boston Commons in the 1860s, and while they were the first “organized” club, they had plenty of opponents to play. The Rutgers v. Princeton match that was held in New Brunswick, New Jersey on November 6, 1876, you know, the one that the NFL claims as the birth of its game, well the ball from that match is in the Soccer Hall of Fame, it’s not in Canton, Ohio. Finally, the United States Football Association became a full fledged member of FIFA in 1914. What separates the history of the game in the US from the history in England was that it was allowed to flourish in England and Europe, while here it was left to grow of its own accord, and when its popularity grew, the powers that be in baseball would play the xenophobia card in explaining why people should spend their hard earned money at baseball games instead of soccer matches. Of course, those same powers that be in baseball were more then happy to rent their ballparks out to teams in the ASL and other regional leagues during baseball’s offseason. Additionally, this is a country made up of immigrants, of the flotsam and jetsam of the rest of the world, so it makes sense that soccer has always had, and will always have, a place on the American landscape.
The problem that existed between 1820 and 1996, was that there was no truly unified and national professional soccer league in this country. That the US did as well as it did in the 1930, 1950, and even 1994 World Cups is a testament to the raw soccer talent that persists in this country despite the game’s relegation to the background of the US sporting psyche. While the NASL managed to break into the mainstream in the late 1970s and early 1980s, its cooperation with the National side makes the MLS look ultra accommodating.
In the 1980s, realizing the lack of serious professional opportunities for its players, US Soccer stepped up to the plate and signed the national team players to contracts and began paying the players. While this move enabled the team to keep the most talented players it could find, it also meant that these players were losing out on the opportunity to play on a regular club schedule with diverse teammates bring a variety of styles and backgrounds to experience, and limited to whatever friendly schedule along it could develop, in addition to the CONCACAF schedule.
The US National Team barely squeaked into Italia ‘90 and it had an automatic berth into USA ‘94. It has only been since the creation of the MLS that the US National Team has become a dominant force in CONCACAF. Additionally, despite the tension between the leagues, I do believe that the presence of the MLS has lifted the skill level and profile of the USL.
I cannot accurately predict whether the US will ever win the World Cup in my lifetime, but I do know that the team would never have a shot at winning the Cup if the MLS did not exist. There is a large, untapped reserve of soccer talent in the US. The existence of both the MLS and the USL allows for the deployment of more scouts to discover that talent and it gives kids with the talent the ability to know that they can earn a living at soccer, they don’t have to give the game up for football or baseball or basketball when they get to high school.
So maybe the skill level and aesthetics of the game in the MLS and USL are not up to the standards of the Premier League, but in the end, the MLS and USL will mean more to the growth and development of the US National Team then the EPL will mean to the growth and development of Three Lions. As for those of you who just cannot stomach the MLS and/or the USL, well, those are the leagues we have here and we will hang onto them, and nourish them as long as we can, because that will grow our National Game.