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Our City: Arguing the Importance of MLS with a Non-Believer

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I enjoy a good soccer debate as much as the next person, but when my friend argued that MLS wasn’t even necessary for the development of American players I was shocked enough to try to understand his point.

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

This past week a friend of mine, we will call him Kyle, proposed a shocking argument to me during one of our many discussions about U.S. Soccer, MLS, and the European leagues. Kyle is, admittedly a “Euro-snob” who despite going to a few Orlando City games over the past few seasons has never enjoyed or even had much time for MLS. Our debates have always been good natured and he has, to his credit, always listened to my points about the importance of developing the American game, players, and fans.

This week Kyle doubled down with what felt like a final argument. He argued that U.S. Soccer didn’t need MLS, that the players who have developed over the past decade or so would have either developed anyway through the college soccer system or through overseas development academies. He suggested that either the best players developed to their potential through training with European clubs such as Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Bobby Wood, and Ethan Horvath, or those who have developed through MLS could have either come through college or could have played for smaller European clubs.

Kyle suggested there hasn’t been one player who has come through MLS in the last 10 years that he couldn’t live without. Citing the failures of the 2016 qualifying run as his key reason, he challenged me to name one player that MLS has developed that couldn’t have developed elsewhere.

As for American fans, he held firm that it was better for people in the U.S. to watch European and South American soccer on TV and enjoy attending the summer friendlies between large clubs than it would be to attend MLS games.

I was flabbergasted, to say the least. As a faithful believer in the importance of a domestic league, I’ve always felt MLS was a critical aspect in the continued development of soccer in this county. To his first point I argued players like Tyler Adams, Matt Miazga, and Zack Steffen as players who have come through MLS, to which he asked, could they have played in a small regional minor league or college until a larger club came for them to further their development?

While I was surprised by the argument, I was also caught off guard at my inability to really defend MLS. When I joked about this, he was quick to remind me that I love Orlando City and MLS not because they are good for American soccer, but good for…well MLS and Orlando City — that the league and it’s clubs are self-serving sports entertainment machines with little interest in the altruistic vision for developing soccer as I often assign to the league.

To be clear, I do believe that having a top-tier league in the United States is a critical aspect in developing the game here. Having lived through the dark ages of soccer between the old NASL and MLS, I can say things are certainly better across the board. At the same time, and the reason I’m devoting this space to my friend’s argument is I am an open-minded listener who understands debates like these have merit. His points aren’t technically wrong. I think his examples are cherry-picked and his thesis is a bit broadly painted, but his points are valid. I’ve long believed that the self-congratulatory tone surrounding the expansion clubs in Orlando, Minnesota, Atlanta, L.A. and soon Cincinnati, Nashville, and Miami, have masked a need to continue to develop the league. While I don’t think most people will agree with my friend Kyle on all counts, I imagine the comments for this column will include some agreement on his points.

On a more personal note, I’d like to note that this is my last “Our City” column. The demands of teaching at two different colleges have meant that I need to focus my energies in a new direction. It has been an absolute pleasure writing this column and working with the staff at The Mane Land over the past few years. I’d like to thank everyone I’ve worked with and collaborated with, especially my editor, Michael Citro. I’ve made some lifelong friends, gotten to post my thoughts and musings on the club I love, and hopefully encouraged you my faithful readers to look at the game, the league, and the club in a different way.

Thanks for reading, I’ll see you in the stands!