American soccer. Those two words alone generate at least ten questions for a soccer fan from anywhere else in the world. Without fail, the first question is always: Why is it called soccer and not football?
I have never had the answer for this question but that’s just the tip of the curiosity iceberg. The United States, the holy land of bright lights and excess has always fascinated foreigners. A perfect example is the popularity of American football in England: evidenced most recently by Jacksonville Jaguars owner and businessman Shahid Khan’s bid to purchase Wembley Stadium for roughly $720 million for an NFL expansion team in London. Europeans are intrigued by almost anything that has to do with American culture so when the topic of our domestic soccer league comes up, there are questions … lots of questions.
It is thanks to David Beckham that Europeans began to turn their heads and start to wonder what was happening across the pond. He was the pioneer, the first superstar to arrive on American soil when he signed for The Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. Since then superstars like Kaká, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, David Villa and most recently, Zlatan Ibrahimović have played in the league. Having seen these household names (some of the biggest soccer stars of the last 20 years) choosing to end their careers in MLS, many foreigners have typed ‘Major League Soccer’ into Google out of curiosity.
I live in Sweden currently and while my Swedish friends interrogate me, I myself, start to take notice of all the differences between MLS and European leagues. And I must admit, I don’t have all the answers to their questions.
They start by asking, How can there be no relegation? What happens when a team finishes last? They just try harder next season?
This is unfathomable to Europeans but the answer is Yes, they just try harder next season.
Missing out on a playoff spot is essentially the same as finishing dead last. The season is over and there isn’t anything to do but try to correct the mistakes for the next season. This is another strictly American characteristic of the league: the playoff and championship game format that differs from the traditional competition format where the champion of a league is determined over the course of the whole season by their points total.
To Europeans, relegation and promotion are essential. Everything is at stake. It can be a dark time when the end of the season looms and a team is fighting for survival. Boos ring out from the home supporters and players hang their heads as they leave the field. Relegation changes everything: local support can dip, players seek new contracts at new clubs and jobs within the club are cut as budgets are lowered. The opposite is true for promotion: a team being promoted can change the entire economy of a town. MLS hasn’t implemented a relegation/promotion system for financial reasons, which leads us to another confusing policy.
The league is structured as a single-entity; it’s one big company. This means that when players sign contracts in MLS, they aren’t signing with a team, they are signing with the league. The league controls everything—have you ever wondered why every team in MLS wears Adidas? Again, there is no prominent league in the world that functions like this.
If the goal is to give each team a fresh start every season, it would appear that these rules are working because it is futile to even try and predict an MLS season. In 2016 and 2017, the MLS Cup was contested by the same two teams, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders but currently, both teams sit dead last in the East and West, respectively.
The mixture of players in MLS is truly bizarre and could only ever exist in this league. There is an enormous Central and South American presence, they appear on every roster in the league. Then we add the MLS Super Draft, homegrown players, and Designated Players to the mix. Imagine being a recent college graduate and getting drafted at an obscure 43rd overall and the next thing you know, you’re coming into a dressing room where World Cup winner Andrea Pirlo is lacing up his shoes. It’s truly bizarre and truly amazing.
The team names—Galaxy, Crew, Earthquakes, Revolution—only adds to the American-ness of it all. Soccer is the world’s game and it’s only fitting that we do things a bit different from everybody else. There’s no shame in saying that we have a ways to go before we can compete with the big European leagues but one thing is for sure, we’re on our way!