Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The MLS: Can it become more than a footballing retirement home?

On Monday Mexico's captain, Rafael Márquez, joined his former Barcelona team-mate Thierry Henry at the New York Red Bulls. The two are the latest in a growing line of players to cross the Atlantic to play their football in America.

As more players follow the trend I wonder if the MLS will ever be more than a footballing retirement home? Will it be able to rival the likes of the Premiership, Bundesliga, La Liga or Serie A one day? Can 'soccer' grow to compete with the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL in the hearts of American sports fans?

I am obviously getting a bit ahead of myself by even asking these questions. Although more players are being tempted to America, the MLS remains a second-rate league. The likes of Lothar Matthaus, Youri Djorkaeff, Freddie Ljungberg and David Beckham may have all chosen to go State-side to end their careers but this was most probably inspired by the lifestyle rather than the football.

A move to America may be a backwards step in their professional career but it allows players to escape from the attention and pressure on them while playing in Europe. How many people would recognise Freddie Ljungberg on the streets of Seattle? It is a chance to continue to earn big money playing football, albeit at a less competitive level, while living in places like LA or New York. The appeal is clear.

I believe, however, that the MLS could, over the next decade or two, become more than a league for mediocre Yanks and those in the twilight of their footballing lives. The quality of football continues to improving as does its lure for players in Europe.

The performance of the U.S.A in South Africa will have only helped this progress. Most of the players in their squad may have played their club football outside of America but it will have boosted the profile of the sport. Ultimately, the main obstacle that football faces in the U.S is that it struggles for recognition amongst the other sports.

The more attention on soccer, the more interest and money it will receive. Big names like Beckham and Henry playing in the MLS will only accelerate this cycle. With the fan base of the sport increasing, there may well be greater investment into the game.

Opportunities and facilities for youngsters are already improving and this should translate into a better quality of American players turning professional. This will mean that over time the MLS should become more competitive and this, in turn, will help bring in more high quality foreign players.

This is, of course, a hypothetical model. Signs of the process beginning do exist nonetheless. Since Beckham's move in 2007 interest in the sport has grown and now, with the likes of Henry and Márquez following suit, the profile of soccer is on the up.

Ticket sales, replica shirts sales and television coverage is all steadily increasing, or so I read. If the Americans can implement an infrastructure similar to those that exist for the Basketball, American Football, Baseball and athletics then the quality of soccer is sure to improve.

Soccer may never eclipse America's own sports but this is not to say that MLS players cannot become household names or that the sport cannot eventually bridge the gap in quality with Europe. Perhaps the Americans will be the footballing force to fear at World Cup 2034.

It will be interesting to see if the big names that are hopping across the pond will effect this process. Will the MLS become the new home for the hottest talent or will it just remain the home for ageing pros and ridiculous commentary?

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

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