Growing up in Southern California in the early 1990s, John Thorrington was as avid a soccer fan as one could be. He played competitively – eventually signing with Manchester United at 17 – but the American sporting landscape, with its lack of television options or a domestic league, made it almost impossible to create widespread passion for the game.
“I thought back to when we hosted the World Cup [in 1994] And how different it was,” said Thorrington. “I had never seen a high level match live in my life. I was 14 at the time it got here and you saw the interest it generated. And then the league began.”
Major League Soccer’s growth can often seem like it’s progressing at a snail’s pace, but there’s never been a better representation of how far the league has come than in Qatar for the World Cup. Apart from the top five leagues in the world – in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – MLS has the most listed players (36) of anywhere else. It was represented by more countries (12) than any league outside the top five and, for the first time in league history, it had a player on the winning team: Argentina’s Thiago Almada (Atlanta United).
None of this is to say that the caliber of play is approaching that of the highest levels in Europe, but for the league to have this type of impact on the World Cup despite its relative youth is as impressive of a milestone as MLS has ever reached.
“If you think about what the World Cup means in global football, with each country picking its best players and by and large the best teams are there,” Thorrington said. “I think it says a lot about the league and the increased level of participation we have in terms of the number of players and the countries represented by MLS players.”
Consider this: At 14 years old, Thorrington had never seen a live high-caliber soccer game in person, living in a country that didn’t have a professional league. At 43, he celebrated an MLS Cup as the co-president and general manager of one of two teams in Los Angeles, LAFC, which 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 the hosts Qatar and was one of the best players on the field. The next day, Gareth Bale – who chose to come to LAFC to help prepare for Wales’ first World Cup appearance since 1958 – captained his country against the United States. While the US it. Only one MLS player started in the game (Walker Zimmerman of Nashville SC), three others came off the bench (DeAndre Yedlin of Inter Miami CF, LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta and Seattle Sounders attacker Jordan Morris). Several others either played in the league before or were developed by MLS clubs.
“It’s incredible. When I first started in the league, it definitely didn’t have that much impact [globally]”, Yedlin said. Any time you see growth, it’s a positive thing and it’s growing very quickly. So, it just shows that MLS is pretty much one of the bigger leagues in the world. It’s a great thing for Americans. soccer.”
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If things work as designed, there will be less presence on the U.S. it. List when the tournament returns to North America in 2026, meaning a higher percentage of players in Europe’s top leagues. The hope, from an MLS standpoint, is that these are players who matriculate the league — starting at the academy level — and use MLS as a professional springboard. At the same time, expect clubs to increasingly pursue younger foreign players who can make an immediate impact in the league and use those performances to break into their respective 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 full national team did not come until September, near the end of his first season with Atalanta.
“Years ago, this wouldn’t have happened,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN in Qatar. “A national team coach would say, ‘Hey, if you go play in Major League Soccer, you’re no longer going to be part of the national team pool.’ We now have our games scouted by national teams because they have seen the success of playing for an MLS club and how it has continued their development, because they become a better player who can finally become a better national team player.”
Garber never wavered from the league’s long-term goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world. How this is defined has always been up for interpretation. What constitutes “best in the world,” anyway? If it’s the top five, there are years — maybe decades — of work to do. There is a good chance it will never happen. If it makes the top 10, there are some compelling arguments that MLS may already be there.
“It’s really difficult, and this is where I say you can use a varying number of metrics to try to capture quality: money spent, head-to-head competitions – it’s really difficult because MLS can’t get the experiment,” said Thorrington said. . “Almost every person who comes from a stronger league – and I’ve had the conversations, we’ve had the players – they come to MLS and you talk to them, whether it’s Wayne Rooney, whether it’s Thierry Henry, whether it’s Thierry Henry. Carlos Vela, one of those guys, playing in MLS is an eye-opening experience.
“It’s really hard to measure an MLS team based on the MLS conditions and the idiosyncratic nature of our travel climate, humidity, all the rest … and try to teleport that into another domestic league.”
We will get one intriguing 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) chance to play against Real Madrid. But even then, the minuscule sample size of Seattle’s participation in Morocco — in the midst of their 2023 preseason — prevents any meaningful lessons.
This summer’s League Cup — a new World Cup-style tournament involving Liga MX and MLS clubs — is another opportunity for MLS to measure its progress. Despite the Sounders conquering the CONCACAF Champions League last year, the common perception is that the Mexican league still reigns supreme in North America. From a popularity standpoint, that’s out of the question—Liga MX has consistently found a larger TV audience in the US.
Although there is a natural rivalry between the leagues that is rooted in their proximity, it is much more of a collaboration. As joint hosts of the 2026 World Cup, the US
“Anyone who is involved in soccer in the United States, Mexico or Canada, we look at the World Cup as a north star that we can work together over the next number of years to continue to build the game so that when the world Cup is here we can use it almost like rocket fuel to help develop the game,” said Garber.