Saturday, February 15, 2014

Is the MLS Ready to Become a Serious Soccer League Amidst Big Name Acquisitions?

American soccer is surely an effort on the rise! As attendance figures continue to increase and new expansion teams get discussed, it seems as though the MLS is generally on a strong course of improvement each and every year!

But yet there is still that nagging feeling of doubt that it will never truly be able to compete against the likes of the English Premier League or La Liga in Spain. These European leagues generally house all of the best players in the world and have the most popular teams on the planet. But in the last few months, the MLS has continued to take strides forward and may soon become one of the serious soccer leagues around! Is it ready to take this step ahead?

Ever since David Beckham arrived to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, the league has put an emphasis on recruiting the top talent from abroad. For players seeking new opportunities and an exciting project in the later years of their careers, the MLS has become quite the attractive destination. Famous past players have included Freddie Ljundberg, Torsten Frings, and Rafael Marquez. Currently, the likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Tim Cahill, and Obafemi Martins all spend their days in this league. Having such superstars grace the MLS has been integral to its overall improvement and allure in drawing in new fans.

Now the MLS has brought in English striker Jermaine Defoe to the MLS. Having played over 50 caps for the England national team and with over 200 goals scored in the English Premier League, Defoe will be joining Toronto FC and should greatly help the team improve after being one of the worst teams in the league last year. Defoe is a natural goal poacher who is quick and crafty with the ball at his feet. Expect him to do quite well!

But in the past 12 months, Major League Soccer has taken a new step in boosting the league; it is now recruiting the top American players from abroad to returning home and competing in the USA. The first major player to arrive was Clint Dempsey, who joined the Seattle Sounders last August.

Clint Dempsey leaves Spurs
Dempsey & Defoe Reunited in the MLS
The move was a complete shocker as Dempsey had recently expressed a desire to play in the UEFA Champions League and had only joined Tottenham one year prior. But that move did not really pan out (nor did Tottenham qualify for the Champions League) and Dempsey sought out the move back to the USA.

While he arrived in the middle of the season and failed to make much of an impact immediately, I would expect this talented player to become one of the major MLS stars in 2014. Helping to establish a big time West Coast rivalry between his Sounders and the Los Angeles Galaxy (featuring American international Landon Donovan), any encounter between the pair will be highly anticipated.

But the league has not stopped there! This January, the MLS brought in two more experienced American internationals. One such player is Maurice Edu, who joined the Philadelphia Union on loan from Stoke City. The mighty defensive midfielder had over 100 appearances for the Scottish giants Rangers before he moved to Stoke, where he has found limited chances.

While still technically under the ownership of that team, I foresee the move to MLS becoming permanent at the end of the season. With Philadelphia, Edu will have the chance to help support young American striker Jack McInerney in his development that watches him improve each year. Additionally, the team recruited Argentinean winger Christian Maidana, making them a potentially strong team gearing up for a turnaround in 2014.

The talent boosting continued with American midfield enforcer Michael Bradley joining Defoe in Toronto. Bradley has become one of the key players for the USA National Team and most recently played for AS Roma in the Italian Serie A League.

He is a strong physical force in the center of the field and he has a knack for scoring goals in big games, like he did against Slovenia at the 2010 World Cup. And while both Dempsey and Defoe are on the wrong side of 30, Bradley is just 26 and entering his prime years as a soccer player. For the MLS to recruit one of the best American stars who could surely be playing at a top European club is a massive statement of intent. The league is now drawing great players who have their best years ahead of them.

While we already mentioned the ill fortunes of Toronto FC in recent seasons, the future is suddenly quite bright for this club. With Canadian star Dwayne De Rosario in the twilight of his career, but still fully capable, throwing Defoe and Bradley into the mix should elevate this team to the MLS playoffs as soon as this year.

And with clubs like the New York Red Bulls, 2013 MLS Cup Champions Sporting Kansas City, the revitalized Philadelphia Union, and the persistent Houston Dynamo, the Eastern Conference will be as competitive as ever in 2014!

And that is precisely what I expect to happen with the influx of new stars to the MLS: increased competition! Not only will this be great for the league, but it will be especially so for its fans. With so many teams housing international and American soccer stars, the MLS is finally coming to the point where it must be taken seriously.

The talent alone will help make the games more exciting and should enhance the development of young American players like McInerney, Omar Gonzalez, and Graham Zusi. In 2014, there could be as many as 10 teams with a legitimate chance at taking the MLS Cup and that will surely make for a summer of thrilling soccer in this country!

Additionally, the prospect of watching the top American players compete on home soil will draw scores of fans to games. Landon Donovan is not alone anymore as the face of American soccer. With Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Maurice Edu rejoining the league, the MLS is on the cusp of becoming a prominent soccer league in the world and will now showcase the top talent of American soccer and worldwide soccer with the continued arrival of international veterans!

© Nicholas Spiller & Soccerphile.com

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