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Where would MLS rank among UEFA leagues?

Tuesday 6th November 2018
Parallels exist between Major League Soccer and the Dutch Eredivisie.
Parallels exist between Major League Soccer and the Dutch Eredivisie.

From the 1890s through the 1960s, professional soccer in America consisted of either part-time players or full squads imported from Europe to stage short summer leagues. Then the North American Soccer League began to build momentum, crashing through into mainstream Yank pop-culture when Pele signed for Cosmos in 1974. Encouraged by the country's fascination with the Brazilian star, Cosmos also signed his countryman, Carlos Alberto, then Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia while both were in their prime. Other teams followed suit. George Best came over. Eventually, so did Johan Cruyff.

The Dutch master came too late and was too disinterested to make a real impact. He'd wanted a new challenge after winning three consecutive European Cups with Ajax. That challenge waited in Barcelona. For a brief, shining moment, though, the Eredivisie was the best league on the planet. For just a little longer, money poised the NASL to be the biggest. Some even believe its success [and ability to lure top European players away from the Old World] is the reason jealous Brits stopped referring to the game as soccer in the 1980s. 

Then both competitions faded until the 90s, when Louis van Gaal led an Ajax revival in the Champions League, winning the 1994/95 final, losing the next. At the same time, the United States hosted the World Cup. Two years later, Major League Soccer was born.

In the 22 years since, MLS grew into a hybrid that feeds its top young talent to European clubs, think Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Brad Guzan and Christian Pulisic, and attracts fading stars with the promise of one more big payday before retirement. Hristo Stoichkov and Lothar Matthaus numbered among the first, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bastian Schweinsteiger the most recent. 

As if some naturally occurring, football-related electromagnetism bonds the two countries, the Dutch Eredivisie fell into the same category. Over the years, Dutch footballers spread across Europe after starting their careers at home. Rafael van der Vaart, Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt, Wesley Sneijder, Edwin van der Sar, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Arjen Robben, Daley Blind, Daryl Janmaat, Ron Vlaar, Memphis Depay, Stefan de Vrij, Bas Dost, the list continues to this day, with Justin Kluivert joining Roma. That said, the Eredivisie develops and pumps out international talent as well. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez are the most notable but PSV Eindhoven's Hirving Lozano appears destined for bigger things.  

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With a fully developed football culture embedded in the country, the Dutch league has no need to sign ageing stars. That said, both leagues are finding their living legends marketing boons but a competitive liability.

Major League Soccer stages an unbalanced 34-game regular season from which 12 teams emerge to contest the MLS Cup in a playoff. The post-season just began but the veterans are dropping like flies. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy missed the playoffs after blowing a 2-0 lead in the season's final game. Wayne Rooney and DC United charged up the table only to be eliminated in the first round.

The Eredivise plays a balanced double round-robin to determine its champion, with playoffs reserved for deciding relegation. Ajax and Feyenoord are running second and third but well behind PSV Eindhoven, whose lone playing legend serves as manager. Mark van Bommel's young, energetic squad doesn't include an old warhorse to lead the young stallions into battle. Somehow, they are perfect through the opening 11 games anyway.

Eredivisie Table

Playing legends in both leagues also entered upper management. Former Manchester City captain Claudio Reyna became and remains New York City FC's Sporting Director in 2013. Following a 10-year European career with stops at Fulham, Rennes, St Etienne, Rangers and Racing Santander, defender Carlos Bocanegra became Atlanta United's Technical Director. Before finding his natural calling pontificating from behind a microphone, Alexi Lalas served as General Manager with New York Red Bull then President of LA Galaxy. His tenure coincided with David Beckham's signing. On the other side of the Atlantic, Edwin van der Sar was named Ajax CEO shortly after he retired as Manchester United's No.1.

Just because the two competitions apply similar business practices and are navigating the same difficult straits through international football, doesn't mean they are on a par on the pitch. Both national teams surprised by missing out on the World Cup in Russia. FIFA ranks l'Oranje 15th, the US 23rd. Eight places isn't a large gap although it has significance. More important is each nation's potential. It's much easier to imagine the Dutch climbing back into the top four or five than picturing the US just making the top ten.

UEFA's club association coefficient based on the past five Champions and Europa League performances lists Dutch football 11th among member nations. If you give any credence to the FIFA Rankings, the eight-nation gap ought to shrink a bit, perhaps placing the Americans in with Croatia and the Czech Republic. Don't be outraged because you conflate Croatia's World Cup success with their domestic league's proficiency. They're apples and oranges. Instead, remember the Czechs were another country who didn't make the cut for Russia. Still, if imagining MLS among UEFA's 20 best leagues rankles, slip them down a bit further, maybe in there with Scotland, Belarus and Sweden. American soccer has a way to climb to reach its stated goal to stand among the world's elite divisions, but they've made great progress in 22 years. Don't think it will stop here.

MLS Fixtures
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


Total articles: 340

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