Recently I was watching an MLS match and a familiar scene played out before me:
A player comes flying down the left wing with the ball at his feet, and a defender charges out to confront him. The attacker slows for a moment, which of course slows the defender, and then suddenly puts on a tremendous burst of speed that leaves the defender far behind. Now he’s all by himself out there near the touchline, with his teammates gathering in the box. He puts in a cross … and it sails far over everyone’s head and goes out for a throw-in — on one bounce. He overhits the cross by a good thirty yards.
As I say, a pretty (sadly) typical scene for the viewer of what my son calls My Little Soccer: absolutely elite athleticism combined with shockingly poor technique. This is also what makes it so difficult to compare MLS sides to the rest of the world. The FiveThirtyEight club ranking currently gives the Philadelphia Union the highest ranking among MLS teams, at 95th in the world — but that seems way too high to me: I just can’t see them beating any of the next 25 or so clubs on the list. Though every MLS team has some skilled players, the Union don’t have enough players with the requisite level of skill. But the strength and speed and stamina of the players are tremendously impressive.
Basically, when I watch MLS I feel that I’m watching world-class athletes from some other sport who just started playing soccer a year or so ago. I know that that’s not true, of course; I know that these guys have been playing soccer their whole lives. But it’s so rare — in comparison not just to the level of the European top five leagues, but to Championship and Bundesliga 2 sides — to see a delicate first touch, or an accurate cross, or close control of the ball in traffic, or several passes strung together, that that’s what it looks like. To me anyway.
I’d really like to enjoy MLS more, because, as I have noted, VAR in the Premier League is so utterly broken that I’m taking a break from watching that league. VAR can be shambolic elsewhere too, and in my view should be completely abandoned everywhere in the world — but the Premier League’s implementation of review is consistently appalling. If I’m going to regularly watch another league, though, it’s probably not going to be MLS.