Europe's Next Big Soccer Stars Will Come From … Major League Soccer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The league’s new business model is preparing local and international talent like never before.
By Matt Foley
Marcus Samuelsson, the New York restaurateur of Red Rooster and Food Network fame, is seated on a soccer ball, smiling for cameras while trying not to visibly shiver from the cold. His hot pink sweater and New York City Football Club (NYCFC) scarf are no match for the 30-degree winds blowing through Rockefeller Plaza this Friday afternoon in Manhattan. Next up, he’ll take a few shots in a 24-hour exhibition game where the club’s players and New Yorkers will mix it up over a day’s play. Some of those players might not be at the club next year. But don’t shed tears. For the club, and for Major League Soccer, that’s an even bigger sign of success than endorsements from celebrities like Samuelsson.
Historically a subpar professional league known as a pit stop for aging stars like David Beckham, today’s MLS is increasingly becoming the source that’s sending bright young stars to the world’s biggest leagues, developing a reputation as a sought-after developmental league. In January, Atlanta United sold Paraguayan attacking midfielder Miguel Almirón to Newcastle United in the English Premier League for $27 million — an MLS record. Almirón is one of seven MLS players acquired by major international clubs since the start of 2018.
I think people [around the world] acknowledge MLS as a league to be reckoned with.
Alexander Ring, New York City Football Club captain
NYCFC sold Jack Harrison to Manchester City last January. The same month, Mexican club UNAM purchased Houston Dynamos’ Erick Torres — he has since moved to Club Tijuana — and Turkish club Besiktas bought Orlando’s Cyle Larin. In August, Alphonso Davies, a 17-year-old product of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ youth academy, was sold to Bayern Munich for a then MLS-record $13.5 million. In December, Manchester City bought Columbus Crew goalie Zack Steffen. And earlier this year, New York Red Bulls sold Tyler Adams to Germany’s RB Leipzig.
“I think people [around the world] acknowledge MLS as a league to be reckoned with,” says Alexander Ring, NYCFC captain and Finnish midfielder. “It’s better than the Dutch or Belgium leagues already. You can see by the transfers that the league is attracting good players you wouldn’t have seen even four years ago.”
Those incoming funds are helping close the loop on a sustainable player development model that the MLS and its clubs are now building: Buy young players with potential, watch them accrue value as you win games and sell them. Then cycle those returns back into another batch of youth prospects and foreign imports that will one day become sellable.
American soccer fans might prefer to see MLS become more of a powerhouse feeder system for U.S. soccer and less of a rental league for foreign players, but the two go hand in hand. The MLS began requiring teams to operate academies in 2006, and each team now oversees hundreds of youth players. Most have dedicated training facilities and residency programs, with annual costs averaging $3 million to operate. Transfer profits go a long way toward building out those programs — and improving the overall quality of players in the league.
“The level of soccer that’s being played now is completely different from when I joined [the MLS] in 2010,” says NYCFC and U.S. men’s national team goalkeeper Sean Johnson. “You see that with the new players coming in, and with the higher-quality, aggressive coaching around the league. That helps us compete on an international level.”
One homegrown player reaping the benefits of MLS growth is NYCFC midfielder Keaton Parks, a Texas native on loan from Portuguese club Benfica. Second-year coach Domènec Torrent was a key catalyst in Parks joining the American club. After winning 24 trophies in 11 years coaching alongside Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, Torrent took the head job in New York last season. He’s the type of high-level coach that the MLS never would have attracted when resources were thinner in years past.
“[Torrent] has a long record of success with the biggest clubs in the world,” says Parks. “I think we can all agree that European soccer is the best in the world, but there’s a lot of American players going to play in Europe now, and I think [the rest of the world] is learning that U.S. soccer and the MLS are quality.”
According to Johnson, a turning point for MLS came after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A strong showing from the CONCACAF nations (USA, Mexico and Costa Rica all advanced through the group stage) led to a surge of excitement about soccer in the U.S. “There was a real buzz around the country,” says Johnson. “Since then, there’s been exponential growth in terms of attention paid to the league and a commitment to watching soccer in America.”
For sure, prioritizing investment in MLS youth academies pays dividends much slower than recruiting a player like Almirón from Paraguay before selling him for a huge profit two years later. But globally, no league has succeeded without a strong domestic set of players who can compete on par with international stars. And the MLS needs to look only at its own recent history to see how investing in local talent makes sense. Before USMNT striker Jozy Altidore was an internationally known star, he was a homegrown New York Red Bulls teenager playing in the MLS. When Spanish side Villarreal purchased Altidore’s contract for $10 million in 2008, it set the stage for what we’re seeing now in a more diverse, deep MLS. Clearly, building a proven developmental league benefits American players as well.
Clubs know that, which is why they’re tapping MLS academies more than ever before. In February, Sporting KC announced plans to launch an elite tournament, called the Patterson Cup, for youth academies both domestic and abroad. This type of invitational is typical in Europe but hasn’t happened in MLS to date. “Our goal is to create high-quality competitions for MLS academy teams every year,” Sporting KC Academy Director Jon Parry said via statement. “With Sporting KC’s access to the best soccer facilities in the Midwest, we are excited for the Patterson Cup to become a destination for MLS academies well into the future.”
Such competitive youth tournaments are far from the finishing touch for MLS, but it’s one more step in strengthening a new business model that’s allowing American soccer to fly like never before. Celebrities donning MLS scarves are just the cherry on the cake.