It’s already one of the best in the world

Growing up in Southern California in the early 1990s, John Thorrington was the most avid football fan he could be. He played competitively — eventually signed with Manchester United at 17 — but the American sports scene, with its lack of domestic league or television options, makes it virtually impossible to generate widespread passion for the sport.

“I thought back to when we held the World Cup [in 1994] and that’s different,” said Thorrington. “I’ve never watched a high-profile match live in my life. I was 14 years old at the time it got here and you can see the interest it generates. And then the tournament begins.”

the growth of Big football tournament It often seems like it’s progressing at a snail’s pace, but there has never been a better representation of how far the tournament has come than Qatar for the World Cup. Outside of the top five leagues in the world — in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — the MLS has the most players on the roster (36) than any other league. It is represented by more countries (12) than any other league outside the top five, and for the first time in league history it has a player on the winning team: Argentina‘S Thiago Almada (USA Atlanta).

This is not to say that the caliber of play is approaching the highest levels in Europe, but for the tournament to have such an impact on the World Cup despite its relative youth is a milestone. impression that MLS has ever achieved.

“If you think about what the World Cup means for global football, with every country picking its best players and generally the best teams being there,” said Thorrington. “I think it says a lot about the league and the growing engagement we’re having both in terms of the number of players and the countries that MLS players represent.”

Consider this: At the age of 14, Thorrington had never seen a major football game in person, living in a country without a professional league. At the age of 43, he celebrated his MLS Cup championship as co-chairman and general manager of one of two teams in Los Angeles, LAFCincluding five players at the World Cup.

In the first game of the tournament, Sebastian Mendez – LAFC’s backup midfielder after being acquired in a mid-season deal – started for Ecuador against host Qatar and was one of the best players on the pitch. Tomorrow, Gareth Bale — who chose to come to LAFC to help prepare for Wales‘ World Cup for the first time since 1958 – captain his country against USA. While the USA started just one MLS player in that game (Walker Zimmerman of the Nashville SC), three others came on from the bench (DeAndre Yedlin of the Miami CoalitionLAFC kellyn acosta and Seattle Sounders the attacker Jordan Morris). Several others have played in the league before or developed by MLS clubs.

“It was unbelievable. When I first started participating in the tournament, it definitely didn’t have much of an impact [globally]”, Yedlin said. “Anytime you see growth, that’s a positive thing and it’s growing very quickly. So it just goes to show that the MLS is becoming one of the bigger leagues in the world. It’s a great thing for American football.”

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If everything goes as designed, there will be less presence on the US roster when the league returns to North America in 2026, meaning a high percentage of players in Europe’s top leagues. than. Hopefully, from an MLS perspective, it’s players who get through the league — starting at the academy level — and use MLS as a stepping stone to pro. At the same time, it is expected that clubs will increasingly pursue younger foreign players who can make an immediate impact in the league and use those performances to make their way into the national team. their respective families.

Almada, 21, is the prime example. Obviously from a young age he was already a talented player, but his debut with the Argentina national team came in September, near the end of his first season with Atlanta.

“Years ago, that wouldn’t have happened,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN in Qatar. “A national team coach would say, ‘Hey, if you play in the Major League, you’re not a member of the national team anymore.’ We now have our matches scouted by national teams because they have seen this success playing for an MLS club and how that continues to grow, helping them become an better player and can eventually become a better player of the national team.”

Garber has never shied away from the league’s long-term goal of becoming one of the best in the world. How that is defined is always a matter of explanation. Anyway, what constitutes “best in the world”? If it’s in the top five, there’s years — maybe decades — of work to be done. There’s a good chance it will never happen. If that’s the top 10, then there are some compelling arguments that MLS could have been there.

“That’s really hard and that’s where I say you can use a lot of different metrics to try to capture the quality: money spent, head-to-heads – it’s really hard because MLS doesn’t have that test,” said Thorrington. “Most people come from a stronger league – and I’ve had these conversations, we’ve had these players – they go to the MLS and you talk to them, whether it’s Wayne Rooney, for whether it’s Thierry Henry, whether it’s Carlos Velaany of these people, playing in the MLS is an eye-opening experience.

“It’s hard to judge an MLS team based on MLS conditions and the specific nature of the tourist climate, humidity, all the rest… and try to move that team to a national league. other interior.”

We’ll get a fascinating data point on February 2, when the Seattle Sounders will become the first MLS club to compete in the Club World Cup against champions Auckland City (New Zealand) and Al Ahly SC ( Egypt), for the chance to play with Real Madrid. But even then, the very small sample size of Seattle’s involvement in Morocco — in the middle of their 2023 pre-season — precludes any meaningful lessons.

Leagues Cup this summer — a new World Cup-style tournament involving Liga MX and MLS clubs – is another opportunity for MLS to measure its progress. Despite the Sounders’ conquest of the CONCACAF Champions League last year, the general perception is that the Mexican league still reigns supreme in North America. From a popularity point of view, that’s not without question — Liga MX has consistently found a larger TV audience in the US than the MLS — but it’s reasonable to assume that this league retain many fans based on the notion that this is a superior product.

While there’s a natural rivalry between the leagues stemming from their proximity, it’s more of a partnership. As co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup, the United States, Mexico and Canada have incredible momentum to generate as much collective enthusiasm as possible for the sport over the next three and a half years.

“Whoever gets into football in the United States, Mexico or Canada, we are looking at the World Cup as a northern star that we can work together for years to come to continue building the star game.” until the World Cup is here, we’ll be able to use it almost as rocket fuel to help develop the game,” Garber said.


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