From a European perspective, MLS (Major League Soccer – the top football league in the United States and Canada) has been often derided as a place for ageing stars to go in the twilight of their careers. In recent years, the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba and David Villa have ended their storied careers in the MLS. They have been joined by countless other stars in their thirties, hoping for one last swansong in the seemingly slower paced league. But MLS is growing in terms of both size and prestige, and its future looks very bright indeed. As a sport, soccer has now overtaken NBA Basketball and NHL Ice Hockey in terms of crowd attendances. If it keeps going in the same trajectory, Americans could soon be speaking of the ‘Big 5’ sports rather than the ‘Big 4’.
The league is formatted into two Conferences, Eastern and Western, which feature 11 teams in each. There are plans to expand to 24 teams next year, with another four likely to be added in the coming years. The team with the most wins across both Conferences are awarded the Supporters Shield at the end of the regular season. The top six teams in each Conference qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs, which climaxes with the MLS Cup Final. Unlike most European leagues, the MLS Cup supersedes the league title in terms of prestige and is the ultimate aim of each team’s season. Seattle Sounders are the current holders, with LA Galaxy being the most successful team overall (five cups).
The current MLS season sees Toronto FC and Sporting Kansas City leading the way in the Eastern and Western Conferences respectively. Both sides are testament to the MLS moving away from the trend of signing ageing foreign players. Toronto boast Sebastian Giovinco in their ranks, a player capped 23 times by Italy and in the prime of his career. Others to follow Giovinco to MLS in a bid to enhance rather than finish their careers include Giovanni Dos Santos, Joao Pedro and Romain Allessandrini. The season has reached its half-way point and looks like being one of the most exciting in recent times, with several sides still harbouring MLS Cup hopes. You can keep tabs on the latest action through the summer by checking out MLS betting at William Hill.
There are still several issues that MLS must address if it is to take the next step to be recognised as a truly strong football league. Most pressingly is the loss of young North American players to the European leagues early in their careers. Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic is one of the most exciting talents to come around in a generation, yet he has never played for a professional team in his native United States. Begin to address this balance and the seemingly necessary importing of foreign players could be a thing of the past in MLS.
That said, there is a real feeling that MLS is building something that will truly last. Europeans are too quick to pour scorn on Americans and their relationship with ‘soccer’. But, head off to a Portland Timbers or Seattle Sounders game and judge the atmosphere for yourself. Fans, passionate and loud, would not look out of place in Liverpool’s Kop stand. With more and more fans experiencing football in America, as well as a willingness from the authorities to put money into development, the only way is up for MLS.