Major League Soccer has to be one of the most unique leagues in all of football. While in countries such as England and Spain, the sport is the dominant face of national sport, the MLS has to compete alongside NHL, NFL and other behemoths of world sport. This uniqueness is also found within the history. While the modern top leagues go back decades, MLS does not. La Liga? Started in 1929. Bundesliga? 1963. MLS? 1996. The sense of new and different is in my view, a fundamental part of my admiration for the league.
Critics of the league will often bemoan the lack of promotion and relegation. Love it or loathe it, it’s not a part of the league, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. The lack of promotion and relegation though has created a unique atmosphere in American cities. One of the biggest and enjoyable talking points of the league is who “deserves” to be an MLS team. The idea of “proving” themselves leads to some interesting narratives within the footballing landscape. For me, it’s great to see cities like Orlando and St Louis prove to everyone they deserve MLS, with fans driven to aid their clubs for the future, as Orlando fans proved with their push for funding from the state. In a way, the quest for MLS franchise state gives the clubs a little more heart and identity as the fans can truly be seen as central to their clubs, and, for the outsider, watching the league grow in this way is nothing short of great.
People also criticise the league’s draft system. There is no doubting that it is quite complex for those outside of American sport. However, once you take the time to understand it, you can see its benefits. For a start, the MLS Super Draft is an event worth watching. By keeping the event self contained, it raises the interest of the league’s fans. Prior to the build up, the league and it’s excellent media staff will educate everyone on just who the prospective big stars are, what each team is looking for and how the day is expected to go. Within the draft, you can hear some truly great stories. Kekuta Manneh is one of these great stories. He arrived at the draft as an 18 year old with his adopted parents. Born in Gambia, Kekuta’s rise from the age of 12 through various clubs was brought to a temporary standstill as his mother’s death changed his life. At the age of 15, a link to the U.S.A. meant he took the bold choice of moving to Atlanta and waiting to see what happened. He later moved to the Texas Rush where he met his foster parents and had the education he had never had the opportunity for. In 2012, Manneh had the possibility of trials with Liverpool and Monchengladbach. Now 18, he scored his first goal this year for the Whitecaps in a 2-2 draw with FC Dallas. It’s stories like this and the opportunities within the teams to stake a place that make the draft enticing.
Of course though, people watch the sport for the on pitch events. While it is obvious that the league still has a way to go in improving the on pitch quality, it is already of a good standard. While people know of the league due to superstars like Thierry Henry, Marco Di Vaio and until recently, David Beckham, the MLS has produced its fair share of stars. Landon Donovan finally succeeded in Europe during his Everton loan spell. Kei Kamara impressed on loan at Norwich. Brek Shea recently moved to Stoke City. While MLS has exported plenty of stars, this is not to say that their are none still in the league. Graham Zusi is a key component of Sporting Kansas City and is one of the league’s best players. Chris Wondolowski is one of the league’s greatest strikers and continues to prove so at San Jose Earthquakes. The fact that the league continues to create good talent bodes well for a league that is striving to improve on the pitch.
Also on the pitch, the game is made all the more exciting by the league’s competition. Promotion and relegation does not at all guarantee an exciting league. Look across the top leagues. Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate Spain, the top four in England is extremely predictable, Bayern are looking like reasserting themselves as the sole dominant force and PSG’s finance has bought the French league. Increasingly, fans have to look at the chasing pack and the relegation candidates for competition. In MLS’s short history, there has been 9 different MLS Cup champions from 1996 to 2013, and no-one has won it more than twice in a row. MLS offers a refreshing alternative to leagues that are often won by those with the biggest wallet. Choose any team to follow, and there’s no telling where that team could end up in a few seasons following them.
With the increase in technology, footballs fans have increasingly looked for a secondary league to enjoy. For me, MLS’s greatest strengths is its media. The league not only produces comprehensive highlights on your phone, iPod and online that can be accessed in the UK, it also looks to educate its fan base. A quick look on MLSSoccer.com will show you videos of match previews, goal breakdowns and major news. On top of this, the league looks to educate its new fanbase and makes immersing yourself in a new league all the easier. This is one of the greatest attractions of the league.
Difference? I’m all for it.