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Jan 18, 2014

Asia needs to look to the MLS

It’s easy to get carried away with numbers when discussing China. 600 million, some said, watched Li Tie and Sun Jihai line up when Everton and Manchester City played in 2004. 450 million, some claim, are fans of basketball, with 300 million active players. Such stats range from downright delusional to definitely dubious -- but there is no denying that football is not the only game in the Middle Kingdom. In fact, plenty of Asian nations have a thing for American sports. There’s baseball in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and China is far from the only country that likes a bit of b-ball. There is even a regional basketball league in Southeast Asia, established by Inter owner Erick Thohir and QPR boss Tony Fernandes. When it comes to football however, little, if any, thought is given to North America.

In the real world there are talks of US pivots toward Asia but in the beautiful game, there hasn’t been much interaction. From time to time vague rumours about co-operation between J.League and MLS can be heard, and there was also a Pan-Pacific tournament held a few times in Hawaii in the previous decade, featuring Japanese, American, Australian and Korea clubs that sounded nice but didn’t really catch on.

It’s the same with players. In the past, Korea’s 2002 World Cup skipper and current head coach Hong Myung-bo headed there, as did Japan’s Daigo Kobayashi and Iran’s Khodadad Azizi. But the one who made the biggest impact is probably Lee Young-pyo.

Few Asian players can match the experience of the former PSV Eindhoven, Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund full-back who played 127 times for South Korea, a record for an outfield player from the country. Lee was a major success in the MLS with the Vancouver Whitecaps and despite hanging up his boots, has not left, choosing instead to stay on at the club and study the administration and operational side of things.

Lee has been there and done that on the pitch but understands that off it, there is a good deal to learn from a league that in some fields is streets ahead. Not long ago, Lee said that he had picked up useful knowledge during his travels: how to play football in Holland, how to win games in England and what was needed to run a club in the United States.

Yet Lee is a pioneer swimming against the tide. Asian countries look to Europe for football lessons. The USA is usually dismissed. When the Chinese authorities were looking to launch the Chinese Super League in 2004, they visited the usual big European leagues, as did South Korean officials in 2011.

They should have gone stateside. Even the K-League, the oldest professional league in Asia, is almost 100 years younger than England’s competition. By definition, most Asian teams are relative infants when compared with the granddaddies in England and Europe. They should be spending time with those closer in age and outlook. Surely the east has more in common with what is going on in North America.

What do federation officials in the old countries know of starting leagues in tough sporting markets, battling with indifferent -- even hostile -- media, to build new clubs and competitions from scratch? The kinds of clubs that are usually visited have been sporting titans for decades. Yet, Asian delegations still love to drop by the Emirates, Old Trafford, Camp Nou or the Allianz Arena.

The MLS has had to deal with American football, baseball, ice hockey and basketball and has survived and thrived. The situation is not quite so tough in much of Asia but it is more familiar than the experience in much of Europe. In England, football dominates the local sporting scene to an extent that it takes the headlines even when it is out of season.

The departure of Jermain Defoe to Toronto FC was not greeted positively by much of the English media but in truth, most journalists there are as ignorant as to the state of play in the US as those in Asia. A league-wide average of 18,600 fans puts it in the global top 10 and higher than any in Asia. The Seattle Sounders, a new team, regularly sell out to the tune of 44,000, and Vancouver, Portland, the L.A. Galaxy, Montreal, Houston, Salt Lake and Kansas all are around the 20,000 mark.

Such teams have established themselves in their local communities, and how to expand leagues safely is a major issue in a number of Asian leagues such as Australia, Korea, India and many others that have found it more difficult than they imagined. The Americans have been there and came out through the other side. In the meantime, they built a number of their own football stadiums, something that plenty of big Asian nations have failed to do, relying instead on city-owned arenas. Such a situation is a major drag on the potential of some of the biggest leagues in the world’s biggest continent.

In terms of marketing, fan engagement, community relations and administration, there is a huge amount for Asia to learn. And what is often overlooked is that the Americans have recent experience of failure. The NASL burned brightly for a while before fizzling out, but sometimes knowing what not to do is as important as knowing the right way.

The MLS is far from perfect but is much more relevant to Asian leagues than the behemoths of Europe. That is not to say that the standard on the pitch is higher stateside -- technically Japan and Korea are superior -- but off the field, the MLS is streets ahead, even if some of the rules on relegation and contracts may not be what Asia needs or wants at the moment.

It is not a zero-sum game. Europe is still the place to go for those who want to play at the highest level week in, week out, but Asia can only benefit from a closer relationship with the MLS.