MLS is different from world soccer. Is that a bad thing?
Sports fans in North America have more major leagues, like truly big-deal major leagues, than anywhere else on the planet. The NFL is obviously the dominant one, and most countries have a similar dominant league - the Premier League in England, Serie A in Italy, the IPL in India, and so on. But beyond the dominant one, North America’s got just a fascinating collection of other leagues.
The second-biggest league might be an amateur, collegiate version of the dominant league - a “league” that has far more history and far deeper local roots than the NFL, to the point that you could make a fairly coherent argument that the true dominant league in the country is actually college football and not professional football, even given pro football’s preeminence in both the sports consciousness and the TV ratings.
The NFLs popularity is such that it’s part of the sports consciousness in the two smaller countries in North America, Canada and Mexico, even though zero of its teams play in either country. And yet, each of those countries has its own dominant league - the NHL in Canada, Liga MX in Mexico - that has a significant presence in the United States; 25 of the 32 NHL teams are in the USA, and one recent study estimated that about half of Liga MX’s fans are in the United States, even though none of the teams are.
The second-most-popular pro league, the NBA, is also the one that’s may be the most popular outside of North America.
Fifty years ago, the third-most-popular pro league, Major League Baseball, was more popular than every other league and sport combined, giving it a historical and traditional hold on the sports consciousness that continues to this day. And despite obvious declines in national popularity, the local popularity of its teams are durable enough that in many cities, the baseball team is the second-most-popular team in town, behind the NFL team.
The single most popular sports event of the year is March Madness, an event in a “league” that we haven’t even mentioned yet.
Women’s sports have historically been given short shrift, especially at the pro level, and yet are popular enough that not only are the two biggest women’s leagues - the WNBA and NWSL - close to being the two most popular women’s pro sports leagues in the world, but also the United States national teams in both sports are historically dominant internationally, and their players among the most famous athletes in the country.
And also there is Major League Soccer.
Major League Soccer is not quite like the world’s famous soccer leagues. It’s also not quite like any of the other leagues mentioned above.
Most of the world’s soccer leagues are closer, in spirit and history and effect, to college football than any of the rest of the USA’s pro sports leagues. In both cases, an essentially local sport grew up to become nationally relevant, but still retains the local flavor. What is the best comparison for Europe’s Big Five soccer leagues, if not the Power Five football conferences in the United States? It’s not just a numerical similarity; in both cases, local supremacy remains important even if a bigger-picture competition (the Champions League in European soccer, the College Football Playoff stateside) has increasingly usurped the attention of fans, especially those that happen to follow one of the powerhouse squads in the local leagues.
And unlike pro sports in the USA, in both European soccer and college football, there are essentially no practical restraints on the player market (other than the obvious difference between professional and quasi-amateur paychecks, comparatively). If all the best football players want to play at Alabama, or at Paris Saint-Germain, there’s no way to stop them, no agreement between clubs to try to equitably distribute talent or, except in certain cases, income.
And because there’s no equitable distribution, there’s also no mechanism to stop a club’s free-fall. If Nebraska football can’t sustain its historical run of greatness, it ends up with a couple of decades of being a Big Ten also-ran. If Nottingham Forest or Leeds falls victim to similar mismanagement, it spends a few decades scuffling in England’s lower leagues.
Major League Soccer’s not like that. But it’s also not quite like the NFL or the NBA.
I can tell you two stories about MLS. One of them will sound insanely positive and another one will sound insanely negative, and both of them are equally true.
Major League Soccer is, by leaps and bounds, the most popular soccer league in the history of the United States and Canada. Soccer, historically an afterthought sport that was seen as the province of immigrant ethnic groups and therefore somehow unsuited for the countries at large, has exploded in popularity in the USA and Canada to the point that it can legitimately be seen as a fifth major pro sport.
It is the only league and sport to truly emerge from the ranks of niche sports in the past hundred years, in either country.
At the top of all of that interest is MLS, where billionaire owners are clamoring to purchase new teams at historically-unbelievable valuations, and the league’s footprint expands every season. Year over year, interest in the league continues to increase, both on a local and national level, making it arguably the only league in North America that is actually growing.
Major League Soccer is the second-most popular soccer league in its own country based on viewership and fan interest (behind Liga MX) and arguably third-most-popular, or worse, when it comes to cultural importance (falling also behind some amalgamated version of European soccer). By almost any measure it is a distinct fifth place among men’s pro sports leagues in its home countries of the USA and Canada, with a vast gulf still separating it from fourth place.
Neither one of those stories has to be true or false to note that the one thing MLS is, for sure, is different. Different from the other pro sports leagues. Different from other world soccer leagues. MLS is its own thing.
And if it’s different, then the arguments are obvious: are these differences a good thing? Is it good to be different from every other league?
There are two important points to consider. First, is that difference caused by something unique to the league and otherwise important or insoluble? Second, if it’s not, is the difference actually a bad thing?
An example: The NHL, alone among the other leagues, drafts players at the age of 18 but then allows those players to go play in junior leagues, like Canadian junior hockey or American college hockey. This is due to something unique to the league - the history of Canadian junior hockey and its importance in Canada, the place that provides the majority of the league’s fan interest.
It’s a history that exerts such a hold on the NHL that, even now, junior-aged players from the CHL aren’t even eligible to play in the NHL minor leagues; they either have to play in the NHL, or back with their junior teams. To that, you can add that the border-straddling nature of the league also has to take into account American college sports, which similarly require an either-or setup; once you go pro, there’s no coming back to the NCAA.
It’s a difference that isn’t replicated anywhere else in pro sports. Baseball drafts players at 18, but if they choose to go to college, MLB teams lose their rights. The NBA and NFL draft college players, who are then ineligible to go back to college after signing pro contracts. But since there’s a unique reason that this difference exists in hockey, it makes sense.
In contrast, take a look at baseball’s payroll structure, which ties players to six - and, in practice, seven - years of being controlled by their original team, without a long-term contract, before finally being allowed to become a free agent. There’s no legitimate reason for this structure to exist, other than that baseball teams used to control players even more completely, and so it remains a hollow echo of the past. The only argument is that most baseball players take several years of minor-league development to become proficient, and this period of control is payback for that investment, an argument that’s severely undercut by how little is invested in minor-league players and how much player development seems dependent less on investment and more on sheer statistical probability.
Is there a unique reason for this to exist? No. Is the difference actually a bad thing? Yes, for everyone who’s not a baseball owner. It’s bad for players and bad for fans.
You do not have go very far into the MLS rulebook to find rules that are, to fans of any other sport, truly insane. For example, take the arrival of Honduran midfielder Kervin Arriaga in Minnesota, in early 2022. In order to bring Arriaga to play for the Loons, Minnesota had to give Austin FC $50,000 of future salary cap space, even though Arriaga had never played for Austin FC, had never signed a contract with Austin FC, and in fact had no relationship with Austin FC whatsoever.
But since Austin FC had placed a (secret!) “discovery” claim on Arriaga, Minnesota had to give Austin something for those rights, in order to maintain the convenient fiction of Major League Soccer.
That “convenient fiction” is the legal fact that all MLS teams are technically “owned” by Major League Soccer. The teams are true franchises, the same as if McDonald’s owned and operated 29 franchises in 29 cities. This “single-entity” structure allows MLS to skirt rules about collusion and monopolies that have ensnared the owners in other sports. Legally speaking, MLS owners are shareholders in the same business, and can collude and monopolize all they want, just like the shareholders in other businesses. You can’t be guilty of collusion if the call is coming from inside the house.
This structure allowed the league to survive struggles that should have sunk the whole ship. At one point in the early days, MLS had ten teams and three owners. It wasn’t until oil scion and FC Dallas owner Clark Hunt sold the Columbus Crew, just ten years ago, that every MLS team had a different owner - excuse me, “owner-operator,” to use the league’s own parlance for its quasi-independent team owners.
But it also makes things very strange, like the discovery list, or any of a number of other terms that have no meaning outside MLS - the re-entry draft, general allocation money (or targeted allocation money!), or the now-dead allocation ranking, just to throw out a handful. The league has to allocate its players somehow, and it can’t have its teams out there in a free-for-all competing for players, or the fiction of MLS would start to look legally problematic. So it maintains these oddities, just so it can continue to plausibly claim that, actually, the teams are just franchises of one larger operation, and definitely not a whole bunch of independent organizations that are illegally colluding with one another.
These things are jokes among MLS fans, and indecipherable to anyone outside that sphere. I dare you to try to explain general allocation money to a friend who’s a casual MLS observer without him or her saying some version of “Why do they do that?” (or, more often, “Why do you know this?”)
But is there a unique reason for these things to exist? Yes. The reason is that MLS has, from the very beginning, been structured for survival, not competitiveness.
Any history of the MLS quickly discovers that its founding is impossible to separate from the demise of the North American Soccer League. The NASL burned brightly at times, mostly in connection with Pelé and the New York Cosmos, but memories of summer days at a packed Giants Stadium in New Jersey or Met Stadium in Minnesota are obscured, in hindsight, by the almost laughable instability of the rest of the league.
The NASL played 17 seasons from 1968-1984, and during that time, 67 teams - 67! - played at least one season. Not one of them managed to play all 17 seasons. Only a handful managed more than ten. Three different franchises moved at least three times; one - the Washington Darts / Miami Gatos / Miami Toros / Fort Lauderdale Strikers / Minnesota Strikers - managed to have five different identities.
You will not be surprised to hear that this did not lead to widespread media and fan interest across the country. Many teams are fondly remembered, like the Kicks in Minnesota, but even they lasted just six years before folding.
This may seem like ancient history, but only three and a half years separated the end of the NASL and July 1988, when FIFA awarded the 1994 Men’s World Cup to the United States, one of several factors that led to the beginning of MLS. The ongoing desire to not repeat the mistakes of the past shaded all the decisions that were to come, including the league’s founding with all of its convenient fictions and single entities in place.
Does that hurt the sport? Sure. Does it make it seem, in a way, un-serious, at least compared to what we know about all those traditional leagues, in North American sports and in soccer around the globe? Yes.
Is it worse?
It’s endlessly noted that American sports’ traditional measures to ensure competitive balance (drafts, salary caps, luxury taxes, etc.) are at odds with the prevailing perception of the winner-take-all, dog-eat-dog mindset that seems to prevail in so many other parts of American culture - and that conversely, in Europe, which tends more to adopt we’re-all-in-this-together types of systems, sports are cutthroat and restraint-free.
It does provide an awfully nice point of comparison. So let’s note this:
In European soccer, there is no dominant club that does not play in one of the largest metropolitan areas in its country. Madrid and Barcelona, combined, have about the same population as the next 16 biggest Spanish cities combined; Madrid and Barcelona dominate Spanish soccer. The seven biggest clubs in English soccer are based in London, Manchester, and Liverpool, three of the five biggest cities in England. Milan, Naples, Rome, and Turin are the four biggest cities in Italy, and account for every Serie A title for the last 50 years, save two.
Bayern Munich, based in the fifth-largest metropolitan area in Germany, is practically an underdog story.
On the other side of the Atlantic, which North American sport has similar issues with balance? It’s baseball - the sport that has made the smallest effort to ensure that all of its teams are in the same financial and competitive boat, the sport where it’s basically a given that the Yankees and Dodgers will be in the playoffs every season.
Meanwhile, in the other pro sports that aim for balance, being competitive is less about money and more about management. Here in Minnesota, I’m probably more sensitive to this than I would be if I was a fan of a coastal team, but you can see the differences. The Wild and Vikings, both pretty well managed, are often good or great; the Timberwolves, terribly managed for decades, are always awful. The Twins, meanwhile, are only competitive because of MLB’s divisional structure, which puts them in the regularly-awful AL Central.
MLS’s structure is ludicrous, sometimes, and hard to understand, almost always. It’s determined to give every team a chance, even if that means artificially hamstringing a few at the front.
But is it worse this way?
That might depend if you’re in a city that would host MLS’s New York Yankees, or in a city that would host MLS’s Minnesota Twins.
MLS exists the way it does for historical reasons, but also because the league wants every team - rich or poor, Midwestern or coastal, league-original or expansion - to start the season with a fighting chance. It not only is different from European soccer, it’s intentionally, explicitly different. It’s doing it for historical reasons, but also because it can’t afford to have fans completely checked out everywhere but in New York and Los Angeles. It has to survive everywhere, not just where the teams happen to be good.
That’s a good reason, or at least, good enough. It’s better for fans overall, even if it’s not better for every specific fan.
Major League Soccer is not quite like any other league, not in soccer, not in North America, not anywhere. It’s its own thing, but ultimately, being its own thing is the best thing it could be.