You may not have heard, but Landon Donavon – the face of American Soccer – is retiring. He went out on top Sunday, securing his sixth MLS Cup and the third MLS Cup of the last four-years for the LA Galaxy. So, it’s official – the Galaxy are the early 2000’s Patriots. Sorry that I am not sorry, LA. While Donavon’s greatness as an MLS player is unquestionable, many talking-heads in the North American Soccer world wonder about his commitment to the MLS, and whether his career – like those of Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard – might have been aided by a longer stint in Europe. While trying to frame it positively (How good could Donovan have been???) the talking heads are actually making a negative statement – the MLS may have made Donovan a worse player.
Hypothetical scenarios aside, the MLS has been enduring a bit of a beat down from USMNT head coach, Jurgen Klinsmen, who has, on numerous occasions, spoken poorly of the MLS despite the fact that ten US players on the 2014 team came from the league. The MLS has steadily risen in terms of overall league quality, ranking somewhere between 12th and 7th on the global level. While the MLS is nowhere near, say, the English Premier League, I think it’s fair to say that it is slowly becoming a league that doesn’t just exist for aging EPL stars to keep gettin’ dem checks.
The best argument for the league’s rise is from the 2014 World Cup – one of the rare times where players from leagues all over the world actually compete against one another. The final finished the way it always does – Germany v. Argentina. Superpower v. Superpower. European-league superstars against other European-league superstars. But the narrative that was lost in the final was that three of the four teams that emerged from CONCACAF made it to the knockout round (sry, Honduras). Costa Rica even made it to the round of eight (beating Greece doesn’t mean much – but they almost beat the Netherlands) and Mexico and the United States (arguably) almost advanced just as far. All three of these teams accomplished this with a scarcity of EPL or European groomed talent (notable exceptions aside). All of which is to say – the boys can play.
Extend the radius a little further to countries that are not named Uruguay and Brazil in South America, and the takeaway was undeniable – the best players in the world don’t all play in the top leagues. Colombia and Chile’s success proved as much.
Jurgen Klinsemann’s point – that the European Leagues are tougher, better leagues – is undeniable. But for every success – Dempsey, Bradley, Tim Howard – you have players like Jozy Altidore who never seem to find their footing overseas and end up with dwindling playing time and, as a result, stagnant progress.
The MLS hasn’t done itself any favors combating Klinsemann’s stance. Don Garber (league commissioner) and a slew of MLS owners have lashed out at Klinsmann when they should really be thanking him for bringing players like Jermaine Jones into the fold. Moreover, the MLS should really just let league play speak for itself. Anyone who actually followed the MLS playoffs this year had a thrilling time following the action. While the Galaxy win was hardly a surprise, it was also exceedingly difficult to accomplish. The league has parity and, with that, a rapidly growing fan base.
It’s unlikely that the MLS will ever achieve the same kind of juggernaut status as the EPL or La Liga, but it is possible for it to become a top-five league, and that kind of domestic quality is what may actually lead to a more successful USMNT World Cup run. While it’s true that domestic league quality does not translate to World Cup success – just ask England – in the United States the MLS is the best hope that US soccer has for attracting more young athletes to the game. And, if nothing else, it makes the World Cup more fun if you know who any of the players are before the tournament starts.
Given the success of the CONCACAF in the last World Cup, now is a great time to start paying attention to league play. Last autumn, the CONCACAF Champions League started and was watched by – practically no one. The stadiums outside of the U.S. looked completely barren, and the coverage was terrible at best. All of this despite the fact that, outside of the European Champions League, this is one of the most competitive soccer tournaments in the world. The CONCACAF Champions League features the MLS and Mexico’s premier league, Liga MX, which is currently ranked just above the MLS in world league standings (6th). If the MLS wants to make a statement as a powerful world league, it can, and should, pour more energy into the Champions League because it can actually be entertaining as hell.
If you’ve got nothing better to do in February (and I know for a fact that no one has anything to do in February), you can watch the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, which still has two MLS teams (The Montreal Impact and D.C. United) in the running. If you’re sick of watching players take dives just outside the box and cheeky English commentary, if you want to feel smug when the next World Cup rolls around and to actually know the players on the U.S. and Mexican teams, then tune in – you hipster soccer star, you.