WARNING! WARNING! OPINION PIECE INCOMING!
I’ve grown to love Major League Soccer. Let’s begin by noting that I’m susceptible to such things based on the sport that MLS plays and the place they’ve found as a development league. I played soccer for most of my childhood and I’m still a big fan of the game. I was ecstatic when NBCSports picked up the Premier League and I’m looking forward to the Bundesliga being shown in the U.S.
Having said all that, don’t write me off just yet if you’re not a fan of MLS. Read on.
The level of play in MLS is not on par with the top European leagues, some of the mid-tier European leagues, and might not be – probably isn’t – the top soccer league in North America. Mexico’s Liga MX might hold that, but it’s too close to say for sure.
The level of play in MLS is also not as bad as their casual reputation would imply. This isn’t a hockey style dump and chase league anymore. More and more teams are playing a solid possession style. Individual highlights don’t show the whole of the league, but we are seeing things like this:
That doesn’t eliminate plays like this:
Not being the best quality doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to watch and competitive. Regardless of how you feel about the need for MLS to be a top-tier league before it piques your interest, it’s climbing. The plan to lure talent through American stars and international, over-the-hill stars is working. They haven’t gotten to that point where you have to dive in for prime age superstars and hope your league can support it, but that day will come.
Talent Acquisition Model
American soccer fans love U.S. National Team players. Unless you’re a Ronaldo or Messi, there are few players that would be bigger stars in MLS than the likes of Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, or (maybe eventually/sooner rather than later) Tim Howard.
It makes sense, in some ways, but it isn’t the only route that MLS is taking to increase its prestige. Sebastian Giovinco is an Italy international that formerly held the #10 shirt, is in his prime at age 28, and played for Juventus. He’s diminutive at just 5’5″, which might explain how he got picked up by MLS after they offered him $7 million per year, making him the highest paid Italian in club soccer in the world.1
It’s been successful though, he’s playing as well as he should in a lower-tier league like MLS but also bringing legitimacy to MLS’s ability to sign talent away from Europe that could play on Champions League-level clubs.
The more traditional way that MLS is bringing in talent and name recognition is through players over age 30 and usually over 35. I’ve written about it recently and in the past. David Villa, Frank Lampard, Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard, and Jermaine Defoe have all given their namesake to MLS for at least a few seasons. Names like Andrea Pirlo ((Very recently seems to be confirmed to join NYCFC)) and Didier Drogba have been rumored or essentially confirmed for an MLS spell.
Are they anything close what they were in their primes? No, of course not. Are they still fun to watch? Hell yes. Is it the right route for MLS to build to attracting younger talent? Probably.
This is still soccer. Diving is a thing in the sport. But guess what, it has already become a thing in every sport. The NBA is probably the most egregious in recent years, and to their credit they’re penalizing it.
If I had to guess though, MLS is doing a good job of putting the clamps on it a bit. I’ve seen less give by the refs to players hitting the deck and more players staying on their feet than I have in other leagues. It’s not universal and it’s on the margins, not a huge difference, but it’s there and I’m all for it.
Diving gives an advantage to your team. In the NFL you’re getting 10-15 yards for the penalty you draw:
In the NHL – the most unassailably manly and pure non-diving sport that has ever existed2 – it might give you the biggest advantage of all, a power play:
In the NBA, you’re getting to the charity stripe:
It would exist in MLB too if it mattered at all. You see it from time to time on fake outs on hit by pitches that skim a uniform.
Again, it’s still a big part of the sport and despite that diving is getting bigger in every sport, it’s still most egregious in soccer because of the way they so often stay down and roll around. It’s something you get used to though.
The Labor Cycle
Now we are hitting the biggest and nerdiest reason that I’ve fallen for MLS. They’re a young league that JUST got limited free agency. No, that doesn’t have a big effect on the field…yet. But, it makes following the league and its growth all the more interesting.
Maybe I’m being a bit of a sports hipster looking to the young league that fewer people like than the rest. But I enjoy watching building/rebuilding. I loved to follow the Houston Rockets rebuild. The Chicago Cubs tear down. The Houston Astros. Blah blah blah. I love to follow all of that. I guess it makes sense that my interest in that flows through to the overall league itself as well.
I’m DVRing and watching MLS games constantly right now. Maybe it’s because the NBA and NHL playoffs finally ended (although my MLS interest flew to the forefront before they ended). All I’ve got right now is MLB and MLS. Whatever the reason, I’m all in right now.