1:55 pm Mar. 30, 2012
An executive from Major League Soccer told me in an interview a few years ago that he got annoyed when people complained about the standard of play in the relatively new American league.
"I challenge you to come and sit with me at a game and watch what goes on the field and show me where there is inferior soccer or players than what you hold up as your ideal," he said.
Which was totally what he was supposed to say—as a cheerleader for American soccer (and a former international player himself). But our league isn't close, really. And as a matter of fact, it's probably falling somewhat farther behind, relative to the English Premier League.
It's not that Major League Soccer hasn't gotten better since its first season in 1996. It definitely has. But the top-flight game in England in that same time period has been utterly transformed: Driven by revenues from TV rights, it's now a global all-star league that is only technically national.
Take Chelsea, the team most of my English dad's family roots for. In the 1990s, the team of Dennis Wise, Frank Sinclair and Gavin Peacock also became the team of Ruud Gullit, Roberto De Matteo (their current manager) and Gianluca Vialli.
They're now a global brand, and a soccer behemoth, thanks in part to a vastly increased payroll under the ownership of Russian plutocrat Roman Abramovich.
This internationalization has happened throughout the league, whose standard of play is vastly improved from the days when English soccer was known for being hard-fought but distinctly un-pretty. As a matter of fact, the very expensive, very talented Chelsea team that took the field that beat Benfica in a Champions League match in Lisbon earlier this week isn't even among the country's top four teams at the moment. (Those would be, in order, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham.)
So basically the English clubs now play in an elite world league, and the best of them also play regularly against elite teams from other European countries—the Barcelonas and and Milans who hover above the rest of the soccer-playing universe.
I'll continue to root for our domestic league to get bigger, and to do my best to develop meaningful feelings for the New York Red Bulls and all that. But I'll be watching the British and European teams whenever cable sees fit to put them on my TV. It's just where the action is.
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