When MLS was launched in 1996, the general perception in the world and the region was “America has finally arrived to the world of football and they will eventually win it all”. The world's most popular sport was up for the taking for its most powerful country. The perception was fortified when the USSF published an ambitious project to win the World Cup in 2010.
Of course, we now know that none of that happened. This week, four Mexican teams qualified to the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League, easily disposing of their American counterparts. The USMNT is as close to winning a World Cup as they were in 1996 and none of their players are even close to the World’s Top 10 in their respective positions.
What went wrong? Why America hasn’t developed into the monster that the world expected and the region feared? I will try to explain it in this column and I'll use the Liga MX as a comparison point.
The key point is that when, back in the times, the media prophesized the future American supremacy, they underestimated the enormous advantage that the rest of the world had over them. And that not only refers to the popularity of the sport itself, but a series of practices that are taken for granted in the strongest leagues in the world and essentially do not exist or are just starting in the MLS 20 years later.
Let’s start with the talent detection. In Mexico, all clubs have academies throughout the country, with decent-level coaches, and constant tryouts even in the most remote parts. In the United States, it’s customary that universities detect young talents, but that doesn’t work out for soccer, and clubs’ scouting systems are simply subpar. In fact, the best Latin players north of the border are usually detected by the academies that Mexican clubs have over there.
But that’s not all. If a young American stands out quickly is invited to Bradenton Academy, to train with the National Teams. But if not... Nothing. They do what they can with what they have. In Mexico, for each U17 called up to the National Teams, there are 5 more who will keep on training with their clubs, going on international tours and competing in youth tournaments organized by the Liga MX.
Then there is the infrastructure. Soccer is still not a mainstream sport in the US, therefore only some clubs have dedicated stadiums, training complexes are merely adequate and coaches are far from being the best in their field, simply because there is no money to pay them. Never in its wildest fantasies an MLS league club could think about building a training complex remotely similar to the one Mexican side Pachuca has, with numerous pitches, a hospital, complete technical staff for all their teams and the latest technological advances in training systems.
And most importantly, the talent. MLS has made headlines by signing illustrious players, albeit veteran, but the rest are considerably worse. The homegrown players, because of the deficiencies in preparation mentioned above and the foreigners, because of the salary cap and the lack of income that prevents teams to find quality footballers, and have to make do with the best Concacaf has to offer or unknown South American players who couldn’t cut it in Europe or Mexico.
And finally, the league doesn’t really help itself. The structure of salary cap made sense to start with, to avoid a repetition of the bad experience of NASL, but neither the world nor the football are the same as then. Similarly, the summer schedule prevents their clubs from competing with the best in the area, and even if they usually try to downplay them, those bad continental results discourage the fans. And let’s not mention the SuperDraft…
Ultimately, it can be argued that MLS and the US national team have had better results than they should, given the circumstances. But for the same reason, they are still far from being a danger to the most powerful footballing countries.
Since 1993 the US has advanced, no doubt. Soccer's popularity has increased to a point that was unthinkable in 1996 and it has found its own niche in an extremely crowded market. But in terms of international standards, as the world has also moved forward, the MLS seems to still be walking in the same place.
(Note: a version of this story was also published in Spanish, on Mexican site mediotiempo. I thought it would be interesting for both markets so I decided to publish it in English here)