By Graham Ruthven
There was a time, not all that long ago, when it seemed as if Major League Soccer existed only to serve the U.S. national team. "You can't host a World Cup without a professional league," they said in 1994. So up sprung 10 teams in the space of two years, starting play in 1996.
Now the league is comprised of 19 clubs, soon to be 21, and with plans to expand to 24 by 2020. Soccer in the States has never been healthier, especially considering the development of the U.S. national team, with Jurgen Klinsmann leading his side to its seventh straight World Cup on the back of a record-breaking year. But are the two mutually successful, like was once assumed? Is one flourishing because of the other, and vice versa?
The debate has been set alight first by the transfer of U.S. captain Clint Dempsey to the Seattle Sounders in August, and now again by the freshly-sealed switch of Michael Bradley to Toronto FC. The American soccer fraternity is perpetually on the lookout for telling signs of progress when it comes to the development of the sport in the country. Every big-name, big-money transfer is accompanied with the footnote 'what does this mean for MLS?' And when it's a U.S. international making the transfer, 'what does this mean for the national team?' is also tacked on to the question.
2013 was a paradoxical year for the U.S. national team. On one hand, the U.S. enjoyed its best year on the basis of results, posting a record 16 victories. Yet in the space of six months, Klinsmann has seen his two best -- and most proven -- players squad numbers in two of Europe's best leagues (the Premier League and Serie A respectively) for MLS while Jozy Altidore, the team's top scorer by some distance, has failed to hit the ground running in the Premier League since joining Sunderland in the summer.
The German coach once made an impassioned plea to Dempsey in an attempt to push the player toward the next level in his career. "[Dempsey] hasn't made s---," he ranted. "You play for Fulham? Yeah, so? Show me you can play for a Champions League team. There is always another level."
Now Dempsey plays for the Seattle Sounders, a team as far from the UEFA Champions League as is geographically possible. Sure, Dempsey will be earning a record $24 million from the move (even more than Beckham) but is he likely to find himself pushed to another level in MLS? Probably not. Of course, after edging into his 30th year, Dempsey is unlikely to improve much regardless of the league he finds himself in. This is why the signing of Bradley, an accomplished midfielder who has played at the highest level, is even more significant for MLS. Unlike Dempsey, Bradley has plenty left in the tank at just 26.
Bradley was asked whether he'd asked for Klinsmann's advice before making to switch to Toronto. "He wants guys taking risks," said the midfielder, implying that the USA coach told him signing for an MLS team was a risk. Klinsmann won't say so as bluntly, but one could assume his disgruntlement at the choices his best players have made.
The development of MLS can be divided into three phases. First there was MLS 1.0, and like any start-up there were headaches and heartaches. Some things worked. A lot of things didn't.
Then with the landmark arrival of David Beckham came MLS 2.0 (although many point to the founding of Toronto FC as the starting gun for the league's second phase of development). The introduction of the Designated Player rule -- dubbed "the Beckham Rule" for a time -- gave clubs the chance to operate outside the restrictive salary cap when signing bigger name and higher quality players.
Commissioner Don Garber is currently leading the transition into MLS 3.0. The Manchester City and New York Yankees joint-owned New York City FC will join the league for the 2015 season, with Orlando City set to become the 20th franchise and a Beckham-owned Miami-based team expected to follow. But MLS 3.0 is about more than just new teams. Garber has set an ambitious objective by stating MLS will be one of the biggest leagues in world soccer by 2022. So what's the master plan?
The signings of Dempsey and Bradley are part of a larger project. The assumed career path of a homegrown MLS player is: 1) establish themselves at domestic level before 2) making the lucrative (and sometimes not so lucrative) move to Europe. Some dismiss the American game on the basis of this notion; 'Eurosnobs,' they call them. Garber is challenging that assumption, showing that American players can 'make it' as soccer players without leaving North America.
And then there's MLS' final frontier to factor in as well. While attendances and general interest in the league have increased multiple times over in the past decade TV ratings have remained low. Disproportionately low. The current deal with ESPN, NBC Sports and Univision is up for renegotiation, with all three contracts set to expire after the 2014 season. MLS is building the case it will present to potential broadcasters, with new franchises in markets like New York and Miami taking pride of place in the reshuffled portfolio.
But is Garber using the World Cup as his strongest tool of leverage? The 2010 tournament in South Africa was a watershed moment for American soccer, so perhaps MLS is looking to jump on the back of the U.S. national team as they prepare for Brazil 2014. Want to see the best of American soccer?, the thinking goes. It's in MLS.
In fact, it would now appear the two bodies are crossing each other. Despite the commercial and organizational overlap MLS and the U.S. national team are operating independently of each other to the point of contradiction, and that could be the greatest indicator of American soccer's growth over the past decade.
The signings of Dempsey and Bradley are part of an effort to show MLS is a credible destination for top-level players. Garber is trying to prove MLS is no longer the 'retirement home' it was once derided as and furthermore is a showcase for the best American talent. MLS has taken on a different mentality and it cares little for the U.S. national team.
Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer based in the UK. He has written for The New York Times, ESPN, MSN Sport and Scottish TV, among others. Follow him @grahamruthven.