Influx of foreign players into Major League Soccer

By | March 16, 2015

With the start of the 2015 Major League Soccer (MLS) season and the newly signed Collective Bargaining Agreement, there are many notable things going on for soccer in the United States. Specifically, it is important to note the increasing presence of foreign soccer stars playing in the MLS. Now more than ever before, foreign players are scattered throughout the league, from Kaka’s debut with Orlando City FC and David Villa’s arrival with New York City FC, to the future introductions of Frank Lampard with New York City FC and Steven Gerrard with Los Angeles Galaxy. Aside from these players already playing or contractually scheduled to play at some point in the current MLS season, numerous other foreign players have also expressed interest the league. So what’s going on here? Why has MLS suddenly become so attractive to foreign players? And what else needs to happen in order to make MLS one of the best soccer leagues in the world?

New foreign MLS players, from left to right: Frank Lampard, Kaka, Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, and Steven Gerrard. Source: http://twicsy.com/i/nBEeKh

New foreign MLS players, from left to right: Frank Lampard, Kaka, Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, and Steven Gerrard. Source: http://twicsy.com/i/nBEeKh

After Kaka’s first game with Orlando City FC, in which he scored the tying goal, he stated that:

“A lot of players are looking for this league now. [In] five, ten years it will be one of the biggest in the world.”

Some of the major reasons for player attraction towards the MLS include the lifestyle (where stars are not mobbed by fans everywhere they go), the increasing level of play in the league, and the increasing amount of money available (where the top players in MLS have salaries that are comparable to other salaries from European leagues).

The league is growing in size and wealth and the presence of these foreign stars is certainly part of the reason why. The infographic below shows the steady growth of interest and viewership of MLS fans.

Rising interest in Major League Soccer amongst different types of fans. Source: http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/339372/MLS_fans_from_SBJ.png

Rising interest in Major League Soccer amongst different types of fans. Source: http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/339372/MLS_fans_from_SBJ.png

In an interview with MLS commissioner Don Garber, he discussed the recent influx of high profile foreign players and how the league has been strategizing for and managing its growth in size in popularity and wealth. He commented about the future steps needed to make the league one of the best in the world:

“player salaries and budgets are only one aspect of what makes the top leagues great. It’s the quality of play, and that’s not just in what players’ earn, it’s also investment in academies, and an infrastructure. You combine that with the out-of-budget investment we’re making, both on the youth side and the designated player side, and then you add terrific stadiums and passionate fans. And you connect all those dots, I believe that will make us one of the world’s best.”

It’s definitely a good sign that MLS is investing in American soccer and building the league from the ground up. Perhaps we are all currently witnessing the start of something great for American soccer and MLS.

8 thoughts on “Influx of foreign players into Major League Soccer

  1. Per

    I alla from Sweden in Europe and trying to understand soccer in USA and Canada. I have sedan some great games by the USA national team in the world cup, and they är playing better and better. MSL need more competition and freedom. First it must be pure competition with 20 teams, the two team finishing last should be moved down to the lower series and the two winners of the lower series should be moved up. You must have a serie system, with League A, B, C, D etc. Not a given monopoly to the same bunch of team year after year. The 35% transfer fee must be abolished. To promote national players participation max foreghin players can be reducest to six on the pitch. There är many different leagues in US and I do not yet understand how it all works. Neymar gets 500.000 Euro per WEEK in Paris, highest pay today in Europe.

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  2. Dennis

    I am excited about the growth of soccer in the USA. Where would the best MLS teams rank in the EPL? I am really curious as to how the MLS top tier would perform in England.

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  3. Anthony Russo

    Great post Connie! I think that the star-power that the MLS has been attracting these past few years certainly have led to a palpable buzz for the league. Although many Americans turn their support to European leagues in favor of some of their domestic options, I am confident that the MLS will one day be able to compete with its overseas counterparts. I was actually able to watch NYFC’s first match against the NE Revolution, and it seems as if David Villa has more than enough left in his career to prove to be a dynamic addition to both NYFC and the MLS as a whole.

    Interestingly enough, I recently read an article on bleacher report about Cristiano Ronaldo’s desire to move to the MLS upon the expiration of his contract in 2018 (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2400266-cristiano-ronaldo-reportedly-planning-mls-move-after-contract-expires-in-2018). For a player that has gained celebrity status across the globe, a move to one of the main US metropolis’ is a perfect move for his career. Whether it be in NY, LA, or Miami, Cristiano Ronaldo will be able to market his brand outside of soccer (similar to what Carmelo Anthony is currently doing while in NY) while still providing MLS fans with consistent on-the-pitch spectacles. At 33, Ronaldo will be by no means in his peak, but he will still be younger than Lampard (37) and Gerrard (35) when they made their move to the MLS.

    I am confident that this influx of foreign talent will result in a snowball effect. Once the first few players break the barrier and choose to play for the MLS, many foreign players will follow suit, thus hopefully garnering enough foreign exposure for the MLS to catapult it to an international limelight.

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  4. Pingback: Growing the Game ... or Unleashing It? - Soccer in Colorado

  5. Brian Wolfson

    I agree with Frannie’s second to last sentence, where she says that “While it is nice that the MLS is receiving such big names, having so many older players in the twilight of their careers may hurt the quality of play in the league.”

    I am very skeptical about Kaka’s comment that the MLS will be one of the biggest leagues in the world in 5-10 years. The league is still very new in the US. Yes, in the last 2 summers many key European stars have moved to the MLS as the article notes, but almost all of them are at the end of their careers. That is why I do not see the MLS becoming one of the top leagues in the world, because the best players of the world are choosing to go there only in their last few years of play to earn more money and perhaps experience a new league that is less stressful than the one in Europe. Until MLS teams can attract and keep top-quality players at their prime–i.e. having Ronaldo playing in Seattle, Messi in LA or Ibrahimovic in NY RedBulls at the prime of their careers, the MLS will not be one of the best leagues in the world.

    Maybe in 5-10 years this will change, and we’ll see the best South American players flocking to the US instead of going to Europe, and many Europeans coming to the US to play. However, despite the monetary and lifestyle incentive, I think this is very unlikely as players grow up dreaming of one day playing in legendary stadiums across Europe and making their mark in the club’s history–not necessarily playing in a new league with no relegations and a much smaller fan base.

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  6. Soccer In Colorado

    Thanks for the ideas, but please don’t just regurgitate the MLS spin on football in the US and abroad and their role in it.

    While MLS may be growing (albeit slowly), the other leagues they are competing against to become “one of the best soccer leagues in the world” are growing at a much faster rate, thus MLS is actually falling behind, not catching up. Any rhetoric MLS espouses about being a “top league” is just that, rhetoric. With their current business model (which they claim is losing $100mm/year), they will never catch up with the big football leagues, no matter how many foreign players they sign.

    An interesting blog on the faltering MLS business model is here. MLS investors are leaving a lot of money on the table for the reduced risk of restricting competition via a cartel
    http://siliconbeach.vc/2014/05/football-6-mls-after-19-years/

    – MLS’s new TV deal (beginning in 2015), the largest in the league’s history, with Fox, ESPN and Univision, raises their TV figure to USD 90MM for eight (8) years
    – NBC signed a deal with the EPL in 2013 for USD 85MM per year for three years, to televise EPL games in the United States
    – The EPL recently signed a three year domestic television deal for an estimated USD 8 billion (5 billion pounds), or USD 2.67 billion per year versus MLS’s USD 90MM per year deal

    LigaMX regularly doubles the ratings of MLS. Those fans aren’t switching allegiances…

    “Liga MX Again Top Soccer Draw

    Last Saturday’s Cruz Azul/Atlas Liga MX Clausura match drew a 0.5 final rating and 948,000 viewers on Univision, the week’s top soccer audience on any network. The match topped the MLS on ESPN2 (539K) and the top English Premier League audience on NBCSN (482K). Liga MX has now generated the top soccer audience in five straight weeks and eight of the past nine.”

    Last weekend MLS trumpeted a “ratings boost”, but they were actually the lowest sports TV ratings of the weekend in the US, behind women’s ncaa basketball, nascar, etc.

    Also, the idea of bringing in high-priced foreigners and paying them 10x more than rank-and-file players is a tried-and-failed business model. At some point, if MLS truly wants to be a top league (and I don’t think they do), they’ll need to increase wages by 10x across the board. That means raising the salary cap from 4mm to 40-50mm.

    Finally, MLS and the US Soccer Federation are actually killing US soccer, not investing and improving it. US Soccer is so much more than MLS. Think of the dozens of independent, lower level teams, think of the immigrant culture that doesn’t watch or attend MLS. What MLS is actually investing in is a protectionist cartel for a few billionaire owners who are mitigating their risk by monopolizing soccer resources. Why can’t the NY Cosmos or San Antonio Scorpions have access to Division 1 soccer and the benefits that brings? Why should Robert Kraft have access to Division 1 soccer in perpetuity with no competition?

    It’s a mockery how MLS is shaping the narrative to their benefit. Soccer is HUGE in the US (Witness the 110,000 in Michigan recently, the fact that the USA sent more spectators to Brazil than any other country, the fact that LigaMX and EPL crush ratings compared to MLS).

    Soccer in the US doesn’t need to “grow”, it needs to be unleashed.

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  7. Frannie Sensenbrenner

    Connie,
    I really enjoyed your post! I agree that it is exciting and significant that there has been an influx of foreign players to the MLS. I think it is also important to note the high profile American players that have made the decision to move from European leagues to the MLS. For example, Michael Bradley moved from Roma, in Serie A, to Toronto FC in the MLS. Jozy Altidore moved from Sunderland in the Premier League to Toronto, and Jermaine Jones transferred from Beşiktaş, a Turkish team, to the New England Revolution. Having the stars of the national team that capture the American public’s attention during the World Cup play in American should continue people’s interest in the sport.
    Another significant development in the MLS is the number of star European players who come to play out the end of their careers in America. The most famous example of this is David Beckham, who left Real Madrid in 2007 to play for the LA Galaxy. David Villa, who recently scored the first goal in New York City FC’s history, is another example. While it is nice that the MLS is receiving such big names, having so many older players in the twilight of their careers may hurt the quality of play in the league. I hope that the MLS continues to grow and be successful; how it will do so is yet to be determined.

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  8. Justin Fu

    While I do think that the influx of foreign players into the MLS is a great sign for the growth of the league, there are also several more things that must occur before an MLS can rival the European and even great South American leagues as you have noted. The comparison between the MLS and the English Premier League in the LA Times article you cited is interesting, but I’m unsure of the exact parallel between the two. The article claims that:

    “MLS’ blueprint for growth is one that has worked before. Two decades ago Italy’s Serie A was the top league in the world. But its teams were so deep with talented, veteran players that stars such as Ruud Gullit, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli jumped to England in search of playing time, starting a foreign invasion that eventually aided in making the English Premier League the world’s most popular and lucrative soccer league.”

    However, I believe that before the best leagues in the world (English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and Bundesliga) are “saturated with talented, veteran players, that the leagues in other European countries must be filled as well. This is to say, that the level of play, as Don Garber mentioned, must surpass it’s competition before the MLS can truly successfully bring in genuinely talented, world class players on a large scale. Indeed the uptick in foreign players is a promising sign, but more importantly is the infrastructure that the American system has set up and it’s disparity between European frameworks.

    Great post, Connie!

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