It’s already among world’s best

Growing up in Southern California in the early 1990s, John Thorrington wanted to be a football player as much as possible. He played competitively – after signing with Manchester United at the age of 17 – but the American sports landscape, with a lack of television options or a domestic league, was almost impossible to do. passion for the game.

“I thought about when we hosted the World Cup [in 1994] and that’s different,” said Thorrington. “I’ve never seen a higher game live in my life. I was 14 when it came and you could see the interest it had. Then the league begins.”

The growth of Major League Soccer can often be seen as progressing at a snail’s pace, but there is no better proof of how far the league has come in Qatar for the World Cup. . Apart from the top five leagues in the world — in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — MLS has the most players (36) of any other area. It was represented by more countries (12) than leagues outside the top five and, for the first time in league history, it had a player in the winning team: Thiago Almada of Argentina (Atlanta United).

None of this is to say that the caliber of the game will be at the highest levels in Europe, but to at least have that kind of impact in the World Cup despite its relative youth is surprising in a milestone like the MLS made it possible.

“If you think about how the World Cup is in international football, with each country choosing its best players and in many cases the best teams there,” said Thorrington. “I think it’s a big thing about the league and the increased participation that we’ve had in terms of the number of players and the countries represented by MLS players.”

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Consider this: At age 14, Thorrington had never personally seen a high-level soccer game, living in a country without a professional team. At the age of 43, he celebrated the MLS Cup as president and general manager of one of the two clubs in Los Angeles, LAFC, which represented five players in the World Cup.

During the first match of the tournament, Sebastian Mendez – a support player with LAFC after receiving a midseason trade – started for Ecuador against Qatar and was one of the players very good on the field. The following day, Gareth Bale – who chose to come to LAFC to help prepare for Wales’ first World Cup appearance since 1958 – captained his country against the United States. Together. Although America started only one MLS player in that game (Walker Zimmerman of Nashville SC), three others came to the plate (DeAndre Yedlin of Inter Miami CF, Kellyn Acosta of LAFC and the Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris). A few others who played in the league before being drafted by MLS teams.

“It’s amazing. When I first started in the league, it didn’t have a big impact. [globally],” Yedlin said. “Anytime you see growth, it’s a good thing and it’s growing fast. So it just goes to show that MLS is going to be one of the biggest leagues in the world. That’s good for American football. “

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If all goes as planned, there will be fewer U.S. roster spots when the tournament returns to North America in 2026, meaning a higher percentage of players in Europe’s top leagues. The hope, from an MLS point of view, is that players matriculate through the league – starting at the academy level – and use MLS as a springboard. At the same time, expect clubs to look for other young players who can make an immediate impact in the league and use those efforts to break their national teams.

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Almada, 21, is the best example. It was clear from a young age that he was a talented player, but his debut with Argentina’s full national team did not come until September, near the end of his first season with Atlanta.

“Years ago, that didn’t happen,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN in Qatar. “A national coach is going to say, ‘Hey, if you go play in Major League Soccer, you’re not going to be part of the national team anymore.’ It has changed a lot. Our games have been recognized by national teams because they have seen this success of playing for an MLS team and how they continue to develop, so that they become players. better to be able to be a good national team player.”

Garber never gave up on the league’s long-term goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world. The way you describe it, the better you describe it. What is “best in the world,” anyway? If it’s a high five, then it’s years — maybe decades — of work to do. There’s a good chance it won’t happen. If it’s the top 10, then there’s an argument that MLS could be there.

“It’s very difficult, and that’s where I say you can use different numbers to try to capture the quality: money spent, head-to-head competitions – it’s very difficult because it’s not MLS has that test,” Thorrington said. . “Almost everyone who comes from a very strong club – and I’ve had these conversations, we’ve had these players – they come to MLS and you talk to them, whether it’s Wayne Rooney, Maybe Thierry Henry, maybe Carlos Vela, one of these guys, playing in MLS is a sight.

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“It’s very difficult to measure an MLS team based on MLS standards and the idiosyncratic nature of our travel, the humidity, everything else…

We will have one interesting data point on Feb. 2, when the Seattle Sounders will become the first MLS team to play in the Club World Cup against the winner of Auckland City (New Zealand) and Al Ahly SC (Egypt), for the season to play with Real Madrid. However, the small size of Seattle’s participation in Morocco – in the middle of their 2023 preseason – prevents important lessons.

This summer’s Leagues Cup — a new World Cup-style competition involving Liga MX and MLS teams — will be another opportunity for MLS to measure its progress. Despite the Sounders winning the CONCACAF Champions League last year, the general consensus is that the Mexican league dominates in Latin America. From a popular point of view, it is not a question – Liga MX has always had a larger television audience in the US than MLS – but it is reasonable to expect that fans will continue to be concerned about the idea that it is the top product.

Although there is a natural rivalry between the lions due to their proximity, cooperation is more important. As the co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup, the United States, Mexico and Canada have a strong incentive to generate as much interest as possible for the sport in the next three and a half years. from

“Anything related to football in the United States, Mexico and Canada, we are looking at the World Cup as a north star that we can work together for years to come coming to continue building the game during the World Cup. Here we can use it like rocket fuel to help develop the game,” Garber said. .

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