The MLS is a Developmental League. So What?


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.

21 Responses to The MLS is a Developmental League. So What?

  1. Tom says:

    I agree, although it is disturbing that we have U.S. players that are skipping MLS altogether. I would also like to see us compete as the passage to Europe for other non-Mexican CONCACAF players. But, yeah, I love having a local team (Colorado Rapids), even if we are pretty anonymous in the larger picure.

    • gmonsoon43 says:

      It would be great if we could improve to the point where most of the CONCACAF comes to the MLS to develop and get noticed before moving on to Europe. IMO, it would make qualifying even more interesting since we would be familiar with almost all the stars from the other teams.

  2. Rob says:

    Great stuff as this is exactly how I feel about our league. Sure, we all want MLS to grow in quality as I would like to see it have a bigger profile internationally (to compete in FIFA Club WC, for exmpale), but at the same time everyone needs to remember MLS was created to develop American talent for the USMNT.

    Americans are so used to their sports leagues being the best in the world, and most American soccer fans are having a hard time wrapping their head around supporting a league that is nowhere near the best. The MLS is our child in the Footballing world and we need to love it no matter what.

  3. Aaron Ashlock says:

    It’s time for a bigger payday and larger stars to come here. We have the best in all the other top pro leagues in this country. Americans won’t follow in mass unless there is a event of the best. Look at the draws for the big Euro Teams over the summer. The drew as big a draw as the NFL. Money talks to the foreign player as well as the rising domestic player. MLS will always have a following of fans that are just diehard soccer supporters but the larger community will not embrace subpar soccer. Watch the touch of the talent on Barca or Real, Man U or Chealse. It comes from the Players, Coaches, Refs, Front Office, And League offices. I say this all while having driven to several MLS games from my remote location in central Indiana. I love this sport and I want Seattle or LA and even my beloved DCunited to play on par with the big boys across the pond. We Cant be a feeder league we have to be Major League Or someone else will try and build that league here when the time comes. The right steps have been taken in creating stadiums for soccer now let the teams that want to grow grow and get rid of the dead weight that is keeping this league mediocre. I’ve ranted enough.

  4. Soccer Guy says:

    Excellent article. I’ve been saying this for years to the “we need to be a top league” crowd. It’s not happening anytime soon and we should deal with that fact. I’d like to lose a few less players to lesser Euro leagues (Scandinavian ones in particular), but unlike many, I feel that $ is not the only reason players leave MLS for Europe. Some just want to play in places where football is king and it is part of the fabric of everyday life. This is why Seattle and Toronto will be a hot spot for players in the coming years, as they have the atmosphere and support that matches European models.

  5. Vnice says:

    Great piece. I have always felt this way. Hell, people go fucking NUTS for their college football (gridiron) teams, and they have constant player turnover. Supporting a team is on par with representing your town, your identity. Players come and go…so what? I love the Timbers, so matter what league, no matter what the record is, no matter who plays for them. Same with Celtic and St. Pauli.

  6. Rex says:

    MLS needs to get to a point where they only feed the big leagues in like EPL, la liga, etc. They’ll be in good shape if they can keep from losing guys to Scandinavian leagues, Turkey etc.

    I still wouldnt call it a development league. I ton of MLS players dreamed of playing professional soccer. They know that their place in MLS. Just because you not the at the very top doesnt mean youre a development league.

  7. Jetplane says:

    You know I’m really glad you wrote this. I’m so sick of the futbol snobs acting like MLS isn’t worth following because it isn’t the best league in the world. I guess its a result of the US having the best basketball, baseball, hockey, and gridiron league in the world. We’re raised following the best of the best, why change when it comes to soccer?

  8. tokunbo akinadewo says:

    one of the reasons that it’s a development league is that it’s forced to have its season in the european offseason so that it doesn’t compete with football, basketball and hockey. [yet the russian season overlaps with two of those three sports, with no problem — i guess it helps when one person owns all of the sports teams in a town; either way, he still gets all the ad revenues.]

    if it wants to be a Real League[tm], the season needs to be concurrent with the big leagues. and, again, before some of you cry about the “weather”… remember, the russians and the scandinavians do play outside on grass in the winter. if the precious american snowflakes can’t handle playing in zero-degree weather, well….maybe they should look for other work. i think the players in the league often go to europe to show they can hang with the big boys for this very reason.

  9. Nick says:

    Talk about a having a defeatist attitude. I certainly wouldn’t call MLS a “development league” when it’s the top-tier league in the USA and Canada and it has turned the corner financially. I think there will be increased parity between the MLS and European leagues as time goes on.

    A few demographic shifts are moving in favor of MLS and American soccer. 1) Urbanization – people are moving away from rural areas to cosmopolitan centers. 2) Older generations that support baseball are giving way to younger generations who do not have the same allegiances. 3) American Football and Medicine – science will continue to show that American Football causes knee, neck and brain injuries that become debilitation when you get older. I don’t know many middle-class urban parents that will allow their children to play HS football anymore.

  10. tokunbo akinadewo says:

    um, nick, the problem with your argument is that futbol is the domain of the poor. there are a few generational footballers, but for the most part, futbol is in the rest of the world what basketball is in the united states [and baseball is in the spanish-speaking caribbean]. so talking about how middle class parents won’t allow their kids to play $SPORT is really irrelevant because children of the middle class are the exception and not the rule in professional sports — which is one of the first things you can tell from the accents of the players in any european league; there’s a reason that david beckham or wayne rooney don’t give many interviews. you can also point out, fairly quickly, the pugliesi and calabresi who play for lazio or sampdoria or fiorentina.

    also, 20 years of headers in futbol isn’t exactly conducive to long-term neck and brain wellness, and this is another place where your argument loses steam.

    it’s a development league. it really is. in epl, it would be a championship league, while, for example, the qatari, bahraini and emirati leagues [other leagues where washed up players go to pasture] would be league one and league two. what the american league offers that these other ones don’t is the tasty green card where the spouses and children can come and hang out in the usa for les vacances. it’s a major draw.

    but it won’t be the draw that the major european leagues are until their season is as long as that of the european leagues. and that’s not going to happen anytime soon. from a scheduling point of view, the american league is an off-season afterthought, much like the wnba.

  11. Joe says:

    Totally agree. Going to MLS games and rooting for an MLS team is, before anything else, just ridiculously fun. The price-to-enjoyment level is great. You can’t beat the price of tickets, and hanging out in the supporter’s section of a team that boasts a good group is a great time. Competition is competition, no matter what level it’s on. I’m sure there are plenty of boring EPL games people have paid many pounds to go see, just as I know there have been many great MLS games that people have paid many fewer dollars to see. I don’t know what else you can really ask for out of live sports other than to get your money’s worth and enjoy watching something you love.

  12. Vnice says:

    Calendar has nothing to do with MLS’s development status. Mexico is certainly NOT a development league, yet shares a very similar calendar.

    The fact is, though, American soccer is not in a position to compete against NBA, NFL, or MLB. It probably will never be. MLS will never be on par with EPL or La Liga. Although I wouldn’t mind being on par with the Dutch or Greek leagues.

    And to the guy who said we need to stop losing players to lower Euro leagues…the top leagues there also lose guys to those leagues. So, your point it moot.

  13. Gitecmo says:

    Every league around the world, with the exceptions of the EPL, La Liga and Serie A , are all developmental leagues,

  14. Seybold says:

    I agree with Gitecmo, although at this point the EPL and Serie A are beginning to look like feeder leagues for La Liga.

  15. John says:

    As others have pointed out, MLS is a great value for futbol supporters in the U.S., even though their real allegiance may lie overseas (Aston Villa in my case). No matter what is done, the NFL will still be king here due to their marketing prowess. MLS is probably more on a par with the NHL in the U.S. (but the NHL is king in Canada).

    What would be worth considering is promotion/relegation between MLS and USL Division 1. Give the USL teams like Portland or Carolina an incentive. Maybe the Kansas City’s of the world would take things a bit more seriously if they knew they could get relegated. Right now, management can field a mediocre team with zero consequences (as long as they have the money to keep paying the salaries).

    To be honest, there is far more passion in watching a relegation 6-pointer in a last-day-of-the-EPL-season match than watching the Big Four when the outcome is usually known.

  16. KCB says:

    Great post. Always good to hear other MLS fans that have a similar view point on things. This is what I tell the people I know that “love soccer” but don’t watch MLS when they ask me why I’m a Kansas City Wizards fan cause they suck (and I will openly admit that). It’s about supporting Our Game in Our City. Either we can support or clubs and watch them grow, the league grow, quality on the field improve, etc. or we can be like the Euro Snobs that stick there nose up and refuse to attend a live match in their city. If YOU LOVE THE GAME YOU’LL SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL CLUB! How are the MLS clubs ever supposed to improve if the “soccer fans” in LA, KC, NY, etc. just ignore the local club? You’ll never see great players play in your own city with that attitude.

    RELEGATION, it will never happen in the MLS. It’s a Euro Supporters Pipe Dream. The MLS owners, execs, players, etc. will never buy into it because there’s no advantage to them to implement relegation. So Get Over It!

  17. soccer goals says:

    I will be a feeder and marketable league as MLS grows.

  18. Ryan says:

    exactly! well written. the mls is all we have, so why not cheer? there are tons of loyal fans of minor league baseball and small colleges, and someone pointed out earlier, they have huge player-turnover ratio.

    that’s why we love our sounders. players come and go, but we show up to cheer for the badge on the front not the name on the back. nasl/apsl/a-league/usl/mls…this support now has always been there, and we accept that mls is never going to be like a top euro league. but what’s so wrong about just enjoying being at a game with your fellow man drinking a beer, regardless of skill level? even in its ugliest form, it’s still the beautiful game.

  19. TTY says:

    MLS is the best development league in the world. Look at the guys- M. Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan, Jozy, Davies, Feilhaber, Edu, Holden Beasley, etc, etc.

    See tomorrow’s best stars today, is a good theme.

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