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Football is already the world’s most popular sport, and it appears that the United States and China have finally clued into the trend. Over the past decade, the United States has welcomed international stars who have grown Major League Soccer, starting with the stunning acquisition of David Beckham. The past few years have witnessed unprecedented amounts of money spent by the Chinese Super League, drawing top talent in their prime.
American and Canadian clubs without expensive designated players now face long odds to win the MLS. CSL clubs signing costly players curry the favor of China’s political machine. The addition of big money players has changed the complexion of these leagues permanently, creating growing markets locally and abroad. Some stakeholders in EPL have experienced anxiety due to these trends, worried about the quality of top-division U.K. football in the long run.
A survey recently revealed that the majority of MLS players believe a top team in their league would be able to compete in the Premier League without being kicked down to the English Football League Championship. In fact, 50% of respondents revealed that an MLS team would finish between 10th and 14th, avoiding the threat. Interestingly, 17% believe that a North American side would finish between 5th and 9th. 33% of the 123 MLS players believe that a squad would finish between 15th and last, risking relegation. No one believed that a team from the United States or Canada would finish in the top four, indirectly confirming the validity of this anonymous survey.
Considering that MLS recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, the fact that so many players view the league with optimism is something that should be considered a winning trend. When the league started, nobody predicted that pro football would be able to compete against the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, or even the National Hockey League. Depending on the model used to determine league rankings, pundits have listed MLS anywhere from the seventh best league in the world down to the 12th ranking. If anything, Major League Soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, jumping sharply in the rankings as teams lure stars from the EPL, La Liga and elsewhere.
More often than ever, players are arriving in North America while still in their prime, instead of playing in the MLS as a retirement league. Considered the best player by most, Sebastian Giovinco arrived from Juventus while in top form, and would crack the lineup of some EPL squads looking for an explosive striker. Steven Gerrard mentioned he was taken off guard by the quality of football, stating that “when you come here and sample it yourself, you see how strong it is and how fit and professional the players are.” The fact that teams such as Columbus, Seattle and Portland have made the MLS Cup finals in recent years suggests that stars aren’t the only source of success. A cohesive team environment and a lot of hustle can make up for shortcomings in some cases, although the talent gap would likely be too much to handle for any pro American side.
The commissioner of the MLS, Don Garber, has been extremely vocal about his goal to transform the MLS into one of the best leagues in the world by the time 2022 rolls around. In 2017, Atlanta and Minnesota plan to begin play, and the 2018 season should feature a second Los Angeles team to challenge the Galaxy. At some point in the near future, Miami is likely to join the MLS. A dozen more cities all over the United States have also been considered for expansion. As the money continues to grow, so shall the MLS. Perhaps more powerful has been the passion with which local football fans have embraced their team, leading to zealous fanbases in Toronto, Portland, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and other key markets.
“We will soon be able to sign whoever we want, when we want.” For some in the Premier League, this declaration by Chinese Super League stakeholders has sent chills through their spine. The CSL has followed through on their promise, with Shanghai SIPG spending £64 million to lure Oscar away from Chelsea. Shanghai Shenhua signed Carlos Tevez to a record £64 million, two-year contract. Even more incredible, reports suggest that Chinese clubs have offered as much as £257 million for the services of Ronaldo. The superstar Portuguese striker would have made £1.6 million per week under the arrangement. Joining the £20 million+ transfer club would be Hulk, Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Odion Ighalo, and Axel Witsel. The sole Chinese national in this group is Chendong Zhang, who transferred to Hebei China Fortune.
While these numbers are impressive enough, the overall total of these transfers have certainly raised eyebrows. For the first time in pro football history, the CSL outspent the EPL during the transfer window. Teams from China spent €258.9 million in early 2016, while the Premier League paid €247.3 million to attract top-flight talent. All this activity spurred Chelsea manager Antonio Conte to state, “The Chinese market is a danger for all… not only for Chelsea, but all the teams in the world.” Ironically, other leagues in Europe felt the same way about the cash splashing around the EPL.
While the current threat appears overstated because of limits on foreigners allowed, and the teams able to write such pay cheques, there’s a good chance that the CSL will continue to grow over the upcoming decade. Sky Sports inked a deal to show CSL games live in the UK, and President Xi Jinping, a football fanatic, declared that he wants China to win the World Cup in 20-30 years, supporting the billions in cash needed to quickly grow their professional scene. On the other hand, reports of half-full stadiums and Chinese players furious with sharply reduced pay suggests that money alone won’t be enough.
The surprisingly growth of MLS and the ridiculous amounts of cash thrown around by the CSL certainly takes a chunk out of the Premier League, but for now it remains a mosquito bite, doing little damage to the on-field product and popularity of the EPL. Propped up by considerable tradition, and international billionaires, the EPL will remain the top league in the world for decades.