As the United States prepared to host the 1994 edition of the FIFA World Cup, they had no elite soccer league within the country.
The first MLS season followed three years later in 1996 and, since then, growth has been steady. Overseas players help light up the competition and many of the sport’s biggest names have played in MLS in the last 25 years.
That very first edition of MLS in 1996 featured just ten teams. In keeping with elite leagues in other US sports, those sides were split into two Conferences – East and West. DC United were the eventual winners of that first competition and they remain a competitive force in MLS today.
The 2021 MLS tournament now includes 27 teams, and sides from the US have been joined by a number of franchises from over the border in Canada.
New teams come on board on a regular basis: the David Beckham-owned Inter Miami signed up in 2020 while, in 2021, Austin FC became the newest member of the league.
Beckham’s former club LA Galaxy are the most successful team in the history of the competition with five MLS Cup wins. DC United are just behind with four while Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City have also won the MLS Cup on multiple occasions.
The competition has come a long way and its global appeal has been aided by the presence of some major overseas talent.
Beckham may have inspired LA Galaxy to two of those five MLS Cup wins, but was he the greatest player to have appeared in the division? His Galaxy teammate Robbie Keane is Ireland’s all-time leading goal scorer and he also enjoyed a productive period with the club.
Elsewhere, Spain’s World Cup winner David Villa enjoyed a prolific four campaigns with New York City FC, scoring 77 goals in 117 league games.
Sadly for US soccer fans, the great Swedish international Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t stay around for quite so long. The striker was here for just two years with LA Galaxy but his ratio was phenomenal with 53 goals in 58 games.
Thierry Henry, Kaka, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Frank Lampard are among the many other greats to have played in MLS. Their presence has lit up the competition, but has it been at the expense of the game’s development in the US?
One of the biggest challenges for US Soccer’s governing body is to make the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) competitive on the international stage.
There have been some impressive performances and the side has made it to the knockout rounds of the World Cup on five previous occasions.
Success has come in the CONCACAF Gold Cup with six titles, the most recent of which came in 2017. It’s a respectable record but the USMNT is always viewed as huge outsiders in online betting markets when the most sought-after trophies like the World Cup come around.
Overseas players have been blamed in some quarters for the country’s lack of development. For every Henry or Ibrahimović, a homegrown player has to miss out.
It’s a delicate balance for the clubs and the organisers of MLS. In order to attract a wider audience and bring more money into the game, they simply have to bring in the best foreign players that are available. The funds that they bring into the division are vital and much of that funding is being used to develop US soccer.
Hope for the Future
There has been significant investment in soccer academies in recent years. Every franchise has a youth development program which is funded, in part, by TV money that comes into the sport.
More big overseas players equal more funds and that’s why current foreign stars such as Gonzalo Higuain and Javier Hernandez are so important.
As a result of academy investment, a number of high-quality young players are coming through the ranks but there is more work to do.
Traditionally, the best domestic talent in US soccer has moved overseas in order to develop their game and that pattern is continuing. Key members of the current USMNT roster include Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargent and Sergino Dest of Barcelona.
It’s inevitable that those players will want to test themselves in Europe’s biggest leagues. The moves will aid individual development but they won’t help MLS to become more competitive moving forward.
There is some good news. A number of young MLS players were included in the squad to face Trinidad and Tobago at the end of January 2021. They are seen as the future of the men’s game but the challenge is to keep them in MLS rather than see them move overseas.
MLS is getting more global attention and that increase in popularity can help the national side to succeed on the international stage. The task is to keep developing those academies and to stop the drain of young talent to overseas clubs once they graduate.