How MLS sparked North America’s invasion of European football | MLS


If any evidence was needed to prove European clubs are increasingly looking to Major League Soccer for talent, it came in the January transfer window. No fewer than 33 players left North American soccer’s top flight to head across the Atlantic with two of those players (Daryl Dike and Ricardo Pepi) entering the list for the top five most expensive transfers in MLS history.

Bundesliga club Augsburg made Pepi their club-record signing while Dike joined West Brom. Teenager Kevin Paredes left DC United for Wolfsburg, James Sands signed for Rangers on loan from New York City FC and George Bello joined Arminia Bielefeld, having made his breakthrough at Atlanta United. Even after the January transfer window closed, Arsenal completed a deal that will see US men’s national team goalkeeper Matt Turner move to London this summer.

Each will hope to follow the precedent set by the likes of Alphonso Davies, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, who all used MLS as a springboard to top European clubs.

All this business marks a fundamental shift in MLS. Once derided as a ‘retirement league’ due to the number of ageing stars lured to Canada and the United States by the promise of one last bumper pay cheque, the competition is now more concerned with producing, or at least harnessing, stars of the future. Far from being a retirement league, MLS is now a development league.

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This hasn’t happened by accident. A greater emphasis has been placed on youth development in the post-David Beckham era. The reliance on the college game for homegrown talent has been systematically eased. MLS has brought youth development in-house with a new youth-focused division, MLS Next, set to start play this year. The idea is that a more holistic network of more than 130 clubs will aid mobility between the levels of North American soccer for the best players.

Some clubs have already created a youth academy industry for themselves. Pepi certainly wasn’t the first graduate shipped to Europe by FC Dallas who have earned a reputation as American soccer’s most productive club when it comes to youth.

Other clubs have followed FC Dallas’ lead. The New York Red Bulls boast a highly productive academy that has forged the likes of Adams, Duncan and Caden Clark while the Philadelphia Union have sent Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie to Europe in recent times. In the past, scouts would explore American soccer in the hope of unearthing a gem. Now, scouts expect to find such jewels.

MLS is producing young players tailor-made for the modern game. For decades, American soccer prioritised athletic ability over all else. US teams were known for working hard and giving it their all, but as the sport started to value technical ability over physical capacity it became clear a change in approach was required.

There may still be some vestiges of the old prejudices and preconceptions left over, but those in the know recognise how North American soccer’s conveyer belt is rolling off players in a very different mould than was the case even 10 years ago. The current talent pool is deep with dynamic ball-players. It’s no coincidence that American youngsters are now more attractive to European clubs than ever before.

In terms of the product on the pitch, it’s debatable whether or not MLS’s convoluted transfer rules and general structure has helped or hindered the league. It does, however, help give many young players their start in the professional game. Academy graduates are afforded opportunities they wouldn’t receive in other leagues. By constructing a division led by top-level players, like Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela, underpinned by academy prospects, MLS has, perhaps inadvertently, created the ideal environment for youth development.

Of course, MLS clubs still spend money on big-name signings. Toronto FC haven’t long landed Italy attacker Lorenzo Insigne on a four-year contract worth a reported league-record $15m-a-year. Before Insigne’s signing, Hernandez and Vela were the highest-paid players in the league, each taking home $6m or more a-year. Gonzalo Higuain, Alejandro Pozuelo and Josef Martinez also currently play in MLS.

But there is no denying the increased emphasis on youth across MLS. For American and Canadian soccer, the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted across the two nations and Mexico, is a guiding light and is almost certainly a motivating force behind the youth drive on both sides of the border. If Canada and the USA perform well at Qatar 2022 and the 2026 World Cup, their success will have its roots in the academies of their shared top-flight.

The relationship between MLS and US Soccer has been too cosy for the liking of many who believe the two organisations would benefit from a greater degree of separation, but their union is now bearing fruit in the young players coming through the system. Last month didn’t happen by accident and there may be many more months like it in the future.



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