Growing up in Southern California in the early 1990s, John Thorrington was as passionate a football fan as one could be. He played competitively – eventually signing with Manchester United at 17 – but the American sports landscape, with no television options or a domestic league, made it virtually impossible to create widespread enthusiasm for the game.
“It takes me back to when we hosted the World Cup [in 1994] and how different it was,” said Thorrington. “I’ve never seen a high-level match live in my life. I was 14 when he came here and you saw the interest he created. And then the league started.”
The growth of Major League Soccer often seems to be progressing rapidly, but there has been no better representation for the World Cup than Qatar. Splitting the five biggest leagues in the world – in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – MLS had the most players (36) among other places. It was represented by more countries (12) than any league outside the top five and, for the first time in the history of the league, it had a player in the winning team: Argentinian Thiago Almada (Atlanta United).
None of this is to say that the standard of play is anywhere near the highest in Europe, but for the league to have such an impact on the World Cup with its respective youngsters is such an impressive milestone that MLS has ever reached.
“If you think about what the World Cup means in world football, with each country picking their best players and usually the best teams there,” Thorrington said. “I think that says a lot about the league and the high level of participation that we have both in terms of the number of players and the countries that are represented by MLS players.”
Consider this: At 14, Thorrington had never seen a high-caliber soccer match in person, living in a country without a professional league. At the age of 43, he celebrated the MLS Cup as the co-chairman and general manager of one of the two teams in Los Angeles, LAFC, that featured five players in the World Cup.
During the first match of the tournament, Sebastian Mendez — a backup midfielder with LAFC after being acquired in a midseason trade — started for Ecuador against hosts Qatar and was one of the best players on the field. The next day, Gareth Bale – who opted to come to LAFC to help Wales to their first World Cup appearance since 1958 – captained his country against the United States. While the United States only started one MLS player in that match (Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman), three others came off the bench (Inter Miami CF’s DeAndre Yedlin, LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta and Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris ). Many others either played in the league before or were promoted by MLS clubs.
“It’s unbelievable. When I first started in the league, it definitely didn’t impress that much [globally]”Whenever you see the growth, it’s a positive thing and it’s growing very quickly. So, it just shows that MLS is becoming one of the great leagues in the world. It’s a great thing for American soccer,” Yedlin said.
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If things go as designed, there will be less on the U.S. roster when the tournament returns to North America in 2026, meaning a higher percentage of players in Europe’s top leagues. The hope, on the part of MLS, is that they are players who come through the league – starting at the academy level – and use MLS as a professional springboard. Also, expect clubs to increasingly pursue young foreign players who can make an immediate impact in the league and use those performances to break into their national teams.
Almada, 21, is the best example. It was clear from a young age that he was a talented player, but his debut with Argentina’s national team didn’t come until September, near the end of his first season with Atlanta.
“Years ago, it wouldn’t have happened,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN in Qatar. “A national team coach will say, ‘Hey, if you go play Major League Soccer, you’re not going to be part of the national team pool anymore.’ It has changed dramatically. Now our games are watched by national teams because they saw the success of playing for an MLS club and how they continue to develop, becoming the best players they can eventually be. the best player of the national team.”
Garber never shied away from the league’s long-term goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world. How it is defined is always somewhat open to interpretation. What is “the best in the world” anyway? If it’s in the top five, then there’s years—perhaps decades—of work to do. There’s a good chance it won’t happen at all. If it’s a top 10, then there are some compelling arguments that MLS might already be there.
“It’s really hard, and here I mean you can use any number of different criteria to try to get quality: money spent, head-to-head competition — it’s really hard because that MLS doesn’t take that test,” Thorrington said. . “Almost everybody who comes from a stronger league — and I’ve had this conversation, we’ve had these players — they come to MLS and you talk to them, whether it’s Wayne Rooney, whether it’s Thierry Henry, whatever. Carlos Vela, For one of these guys, playing in MLS is an eye-opening experience.
“It’s really hard to measure an MLS team based on MLS conditions and the inherent nature of our travel climate, the humidity, all the rest of it … and try to kind of teleport it into another league. internal.”
We will get an interesting data point on February 2, when the Seattle Sounders will become the first MLS club to play in the Club World Cup against the winner of Auckland City (New Zealand) and Al Ahly SC (Egypt). . the chance to play with Real Madrid. But even then, the small sample size of Seattle’s participation in Morocco — halfway through their 2023 preseason — precludes meaningful lessons.
This summer’s League Cup — a new World Cup-style tournament involving Liga MX and MLS clubs — is another chance for MLS to measure its progress. Although the Sounders won the CONCACAF Champions League last year, the common perception is that the Mexican league still dominates North America. In terms of popularity, it’s not a question – Liga MX has consistently had a larger television audience in the United States than MLS – but it’s logical to assume that it gets a lot of viewers based on the perception that it’s a better product.
While there is a natural rivalry between the leagues in their approach, it is more of a collaboration. As co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup, the USA, Mexico and Canada have a unique incentive to generate as much collective enthusiasm for the sport as possible in three and a half years.
“Anyone involved in soccer in the United States, Mexico or Canada, we look at the World Cup as a north star where we can work together over the next few years to continue building the game so that when the World Cup is here we will be able to use that almost like rocket fuel to help develop the game,” Garber said.