MLS popularity, validity, heightens as proven goalscorers and young talent continuously shine

Adam Shefet, Sports Editor

Major League Soccer, better known as the MLS, is the highest level of soccer played in the U.S. As the popularity of the sport increases in the US, so does the popularity and prestige of the fairly new league. Since its inaugural season in 1996, the league has quickly established itself as a place for experienced veterans to end their careers and one for promising youth to show off their talent on the big stage.

In its early stages the MLS was struggling with attendance, stadium costs and finances. This caused the 12 team league to fall to 10 teams after two clubs had to shut down after the 2001 season. Since then the MLS has recovered, greatly as a result of the rise in popularity of soccer in the US. This rise came after the 2002 World Cup where the US unexpectedly made the quarterfinals of the tournament. 

Since the early struggles, the teams of the MLS have recovered to the point where the majority have their own soccer specific stadiums and attendances average at about 20,000 per game. That average surpasses the NBA and NHL, making it the third largest attendance of all sports leagues in the US, behind the NFL and MLB.

Due to the popularity and increase of money in the MLS, European stars that have just passed their prime are choosing to end their careers in the US. Where they would normally be falling in pecking orders of strong European teams, stars transfer to the US and become the best players on MLS teams while attracting more and more fans to the league.

The most recent example of this is Swedish international, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After playing for eight teams in six different European countries over the course of 19 years, Ibrahimovic traded Manchester, England for Los Angeles, Calif. In just his first game as a second half substitute, he scored two goals, one of them a volley from half field. He led the LA Galaxy to a win over cross-town rivals, Los Angeles FC, 4-3.

In his second season in 2019, he as well as Mexican international Carlos Vela, who plays for Los Angeles FC, have broken the goalscoring record for their respective clubs. Ibrahimovic has scored 30 goals in 29 games and Vela has scored 34 goals in 31 games. In the 2018 season, Venezuelan international, Josef Martinez scored 31 goals in a season in which he won the league MVP and MLS Cup.

“Vela and Ibrahimovic have upped the level of play in the league. They’ve set a new standard for an MLS forward. They’ve broken records and hopefully helped the MLS take the next step in closing the gap with European leagues,” said Matthew Slade, senior. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, young American talent is being scouted from the MLS and being shipped off to big European clubs. Tim Howard was the first young player to go to one of Europe’s elite clubs, Manchester United at 24 years old in 2003. In 2014, DeAndre Yedlin moved to London with Tottenham Hotspur at 21 years old from the Seattle Sounders and Matt Miazga followed suit in 2016 when he also traded the US for London with Chelsea at 21.

“MLS is developing talent and also embracing the notion that they can move players overseas. That makes it more attractive to players to commit to the league. They can either develop and move on, or make a career here,” said MLS agent, Richard Motzkin to ESPN.