Cleat Geeks

What Is Holding Major League Soccer Back?

No matter where you are in America, you have probably heard of Major League Soccer (MLS), the top-flight professional men’s soccer league in the United States and Canada. You hear of international superstars like Kaká, David Villa, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard leaving some of the most competitive and most lucrative leagues in the world to come play in the United States, a country where soccer has taken a backseat to other sports like American football, baseball, and basketball for the better part of a century.

But even with these superstar signings, the MLS is still a second-tier league at best when compared to the giants of professional soccer like the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, and the Spanish La Liga.

With the money American sports owners have, why haven’t they invested it, in order to make their clubs more competitive, which would then make the MLS itself more competitive?MLS_logos


1. There Is No Incentive To Be Competitive

The United States is one of the only countries in the world not to feature promotion-and-relegation in its league system. For those of you who do not know what that is, here is an example: the MLS club that finishes last in the league would be demoted (a.k.a. “relegated”) to the second-tier league., which in the U.S. and Canada is the North American Soccer League (NASL); in return, the NASL League Champion would be promoted to the MLS, taking the place of the team which was demoted.

This system encourages club executives to invest in their clubs so they do not slip through the League system, losing fan support and money in the process; however, MLS clubs do not feel this sense of urgency. No matter how few points a club accrues over the course of the season, executives can rest easy knowing their club will remain in the top-flight league year after year.

The argument for maintaining this closed membership is that American soccer leagues in the lower divisions, namely Division II and Division III, are so far behind the MLS, it is simply not feasible to introduce it to the pyramid; however, the reverse could not be more true. Only three of the NASL’s eleven clubs averaged less than 5,000 fans per game in 2015 and the top half of the League averaged well over 8,000 fans per game. While this is small in comparison to the MLS’ 21,000 fans per game average, the difference between the two leagues in terms of attendance is comparable to most other domestic leagues, including those in England, where soccer is king, regardless of level.

Even the United Soccer League (USL), America’s third-tier league, has a solid fan following: over a third of the league’s clubs average over 5,000 fans per game, with one, Sacramento Republic FC, averaging well over 11,000 fans per game.

If an MLS club has a poor first half, executives can easily conduct a “fire sale” and rebuild from the ground-up, knowing full well that their spot as a top-flight club will remain no matter how badly they perform on the field.


2. Salary Cap

MLS-Logo2No other top-flight professional soccer league in the world imposes the strict salary cap that Major League Soccer has. The salary cap, coupled with the single-entity business model the MLS operates under, has prevented MLS clubs and the League as a whole from attracting top-level domestic and international talent.

But what about guys like Kaka, David Villa, and Giovani Dos Santos – those guys are some of the most talented players in the world and they play for MLS clubs.

And while that is true, it’s because those players, along with over sixty other MLS players, are categorized as “Designated Players”. This rule allows clubs to sign players to contracts over the salary cap as long as they cover what the MLS will not.

Even Major League Soccer realizes that the salary cap is ineffective and continues to hold the league back, which is why they implemented this rule to allow clubs to swiftly move around the salary cap. If this rule was not in place, Major League Soccer would most likely have dissolved years ago, simply because the clubs would not have the quality internationally-recognized talent they have now.


3. Lack of Domestic Talent

35natxzDespite being the world’s wealthiest and most developed country, U.S. soccer talent still lags behind the talent that comes out of smaller, less developed countries like Mexico, Spain, and Ivory Coast, just to name a few.

But why? MLS averages more fans per game than the NBA and NHL, so there is definitely the interest and funds required.

The answer is painfully simple – there is no benefit to improving domestic talent when you can just sign international talent.

But what about the kid who dreams of playing for the Chicago Fire or LA Galaxy or some other MLS club? He works hard each and every day, honing his skills in order to become the greatest soccer player in America. And when he does, he realizes that the only clubs that are showing interest in him are international clubs…but why?

While Americans have definitely warmed up to the idea of soccer in the United States, the idea that America can field a truly domestic league that can field internationally-competitive teams is simply unfeasible.

What would change the idea that Americans can’t play top-level soccer? A deep run in the World Cup.

How do you win the World Cup? Have the best players in the world playing together.

Does America have the best players in the world? No.

If we invested the time and resources, could we develop the best players in the world? Without a doubt.


There are plenty of great aspects to Major League Soccer; in fact, many would argue that there are more positives to MLS than there are negatives. And while this may be true, the fact that the top-flight league in the world’s wealthiest and most developed country is not competitive when it comes to international soccer is pitiful.

This must change if soccer ever plans on becoming more than a novelty in the United States.

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