This article appears in the May 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
MLS has long maintained that it wants to be counted among the best leagues in the world. Someday. When that day may come is a little less definitive, but recent European developments -- no EPL squads in the Champions League semis, signs that more stars are heading to Spain, financial woes plaguing the EU -- prove just how quickly the game can change. And MLS could be a potential beneficiary of this power shift.That's not to say the U.S. loop will achieve global dominance soon. But some key factors indicate that MLS may be closer than you'd think.
The newly relaxed Designated Player rule allows squads to exceed the meager salary cap ($2.55M) and sign as many as three Beckham-type stars. And while EPL clubs often spend themselves silly -- Portsmouth became the Premier League's first bankrupt squad in February; Liverpool and Manchester United are both strapped with huge debt -- MLS' centralized structure keeps costs in check while generating new revenue via ticket sales, concessions, broadcast rights and transfer fees from exporting better talent overseas.
With 16 squads on display this season, and two more (Portland and Vancouver) set to launch in 2011, MLS is poised to nearly double in size since 2004 and pull within striking distance of the 20-team contingent found in most European leagues. Houston recently approved construction of a $95M privately funded downtown stadium, the league's 11th soccer-specific venue. The new digs don't just help MLS inch toward profitability; they also enable the league to present a more attractive product, one that resembles the global variety in both appearance and intensity.
Of course, some strengths are a weakness. The league's tight cap and single-entity structure may limit its ability to attract elite players, who benefit from the fierce interclub (and interleague) competition of the open market. Plus, MLS' March-to-November schedule is out of sync with Europe's top leagues and FIFA's fixture dates.
Those are serious challenges, but MLS has vowed to face them. Someday.
Doug McIntyre is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and Insider.