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Jul 17, 2007

Standard of play in MLS higher than one thinks

The Beckham Effect has spurred renewed interest in a classic domestic soccer argument, a fluid debate that spills out in footie-friendly pubs across a land with a growing awareness of the sport, thanks to Becks:

Where does Major League Soccer stand in relation to the other world leagues? What is the quality when held next to global standard-bearers?

Would an average MLS side get flattened regularly in a top-tier Western European league, such as England's Premiership, Italy's Serie A, Germany's Bundesliga or Spain's La Liga? (The consensus says, "Yep. And how.")

Or could the rank-and-file MLS starter stand alongside his peers in South America's top associations in Brazil and Argentina, or in some of the world's light-heavyweight leagues, such as the top flights in Mexico, Holland and Portugal?

A reasonable starting point is that MLS hasn't reached a level anywhere near the globe's A-list associations. Even the French League 1 seems like fine dining vs. America's chain restaurants, to use a culinary analogy. MLS players and managers seem to generally agree on that point. How close is the 12-year-old MLS to getting there, to consistently rivaling the quality of EPL or La Liga? On that point, some disagreement ensues.

"I wouldn't say we're quite at that level on a consistent basis," said Houston Dynamo assistant coach John Spencer, who finished his playing days in MLS after a career spent ricocheting through various levels of England and Scotland. "Those other leagues are more consistent in terms of their physical play, their athleticism and overall quality."

Spencer spent the meat of his career with Rangers in Scotland, at Chelsea in England's top flight and at Queen's Park Rangers in England's second tier. Outside of Rangers and Celtic, Scotland's longtime dominant forces, Spencer says MLS is every bit the league the Scottish Premiership is. Then again, the Scottish Premier League is hardly premier when held up next to Europe's more illustrious associations.

"Everybody wants it to be the EPL," he said of Major League Soccer. "But we can't have it overnight. Everybody in the country is still learning, whether it be players, coaching staffs, business people in the front office. You've got to remember, this league is just 12 years young. These other countries have been going at it for a long, long time. We've made giant strides already in the 5-6 years since I've been in this country."

Dominic Kinnear, head coach at league champion Houston, says MLS may not be as far from the English Premiership -- the fraternity by which most others are judged -- as some people believe. Just be careful, he says, about your image of the Premiership.

"When people say Premiership, they think of Chelsea, Man U and Liverpool." Kinnear says.

His point is that for every Arsenal or Chelsea, there's a decidedly less glamorous Watford or Wigan. Suffice to say, the hurly-burly match at Wigan's quaint little JJB Stadium isn't going to look much like an afternoon of sublime skill and flummoxing teamwork at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge.

As for individual player quality, the last prominent player to arrive here from the pool of "average" in England's Premiership became a smash hit in MLS. Juan Pablo Angel's formerly prolific strike rate at Aston Villa in the Premier League had waned over the two seasons prior to his spring arrival at Red Bull New York. Here he's clearly a class above the field, having already claimed MLS Player of the Month honors twice.

This would indicate that the quality of the average Premiership foot soldier is a significant notch above his MLS peer.

The players from the Coca-Cola League Championship (which is England's second tier) seem more comparable to MLS athletes. For comparison shopping, there's no better place to start than Toronto FC, where coach Mo Johnston seems bent on fashioning Major League's Soccer's newest expansion side into a British soccer look-alike.

Jim Brennan has shown himself to be an average MLS defender at the very best -- which is exactly what he was in the Coca-Cola Championship. He spent the bulk of his late 20s at Norwich City, where he was in and out of the lineup, never truly establishing himself as a starting fixture. He moved on a free transfer to fellow Coca-Cola Championship side Southampton in 2006 but was released a few months later.

He is now a starter for Toronto, albeit for one of the league's more wobbly defenses.

Toronto FC teammate Danny Dichio spent the bulk of his long career in England's second tier, generally starting and scoring at a modest clip. He made 63 appearances over two seasons (2005-07) for Preston North End, scoring five goals as the club bid unsuccessfully for promotion into the Premiership. That's a modest scoring rate by most standards.

Here, MLS doesn't compare as favorably. Dichio has five goals in just 12 matches for Johnston's side and now forms one-half of a dangerous striking tandem alongside Jeff Cunningham. So is it true what some British papers have said lately in the Beckham ballyhoo, that MLS soccer is closer in quality to England's third tier?

Outrageous and not true at all, says FC Dallas coach Steve Morrow. He has a good perspective, having formerly owned a Highbury address, toiling as a semi-regular for famed Arsenal in the mid-1990s. He was later an anchor at Queen's Park Rangers in England's second tier before moving to Major League Soccer in 2002. With the Dallas Burn, he was passable as an orchestrating defender, although limited for pace.

"Some of the players that come into this league from other leagues, they find it hard," Morrow said. "Some of the qualities here, the athleticism, the speed, make it difficult. I certainly found when I came over from playing in the Championship and the Premier League that the level was quite high."

Nowadays, constantly scanning the soccer landscape for ways to improve the FC Dallas roster, he rejects most MLS wannabes from lesser associations. "Some of the players I get offered, I have to tell the agents, or I tell people back home, 'Sorry, you aren't good enough to play in this league.' And they truly are surprised," he said.

Morrow believes the best MLS teams would survive in the Premiership. They certainly wouldn't compete for honors, he said, but neither would they plummet immediately into the relegation zone.

Examining individual transfers seems to paint a slightly different picture, however. There is a growing list of MLS All-Stars who merge into top European leagues only to make a nominal impact.

Clint Dempsey is the latest example. Dempsey was a growing influence with the New England Revolution the past two seasons. He was considered a top-flight MLS attacker (although the sheer numbers were just north of ordinary; he managed eight goals in 21 Revolution appearances last year).

The U.S. international moved last winter to Fulham in the Premiership on a $4 million transfer. And although he manufactured a memorable, vital goal (rescuing the West London side from relegation), Dempsey failed to seize a regular lineup spot for a bottom-rung Premier League outfit.

Or how about DaMarcus Beasley? He bothered MLS defenses from 2000-2004 but never became a lineup fixture after moves to Holland's PSV and England's Manchester City.

As for Mexico, a good league compared to others in the Americas but perhaps not above Brazil or Argentina: Mexican sides have generally dispatched MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Results from earlier this year may indicate a narrowing gap. And results in the upcoming SuperLiga, where four Mexican teams battle four MLS clubs, will be instructional.

It's not hard to see the MLS remaining a notch below the Mexican league in quality, for the economics are skewed so significantly in Mexico's favor. Simply put, lucrative TV contracts enrich Mexican teams, allowing them to chase far more expensive talent. Two or three average-wage players in Mexico could eat up about half of one MLS team's entire salary cap.

That's why elevating the collective MLS quality to, say, the level of the Dutch Eredivisie is tricky business, according to Kinnear.

"If you expand the roster, you have to expand the salary cap -- and maybe that's not the best thing for our league right now," he said. "It's a tough balance."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.