By Paul Kennedy
FIFA President Sepp Blatter's recent commentsto Al-Jazeera about MLS certainly struck a nerve.
“There is no very strong professional league," he told interviewer Marwan Bishara. "They have just the MLS but they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber told SI.com he was "a bit surprised" by Blatter's remarks, while a petition asking U.S. Soccer to retract its support of the FIFA president has been started and already has more than 1,000 signatures.
The accuracy of Blatter's statement depends on your definition of "strong" or "recognized."
It's a classic half-empty, half-full look.
No, MLS does not have the standing on the American sports scene that, say, the EPL has in England or the Bundesliga has in Germany or La Liga has in Spain.
But can you name any other league in the world that has doubled its annual total attendance in the last decade like MLS has?
If the argument means television ratings, then Blatter has a point. For all the progress MLS has made in its 17 seasons, it has made no significant in-roads in terms of drawing a national television following.
Blatter framed his disappointment with MLS's lack of progress in the context of FIFA's decision to hold the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
"It's been 18 years, it should have been done now," he said. "But they are still struggling."
There's a couple of ways to frame the decision to bring the 1994 World Cup to the United States:
1) U.S. soccer promoters needed for the World Cup to be held in the United States to jumpstart the creation of a pro league.
2) FIFA needed to organize the World Cup in the United States to develop a heretofore untapped market.
And here's the rub: MLS owners might not have made a pile of money in the U.S. market but FIFA certainly has.
In the 18 years since the 1994 World Cup -- indeed in the last decade -- World Cup television rights in the United States have gone from being worthless to being most lucrative in the world.
As a technical matter, FIFA owes MLS owners for making that all possible. In 2002, they created SUM to buy the English-language television rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups that had otherwise gone unsold following the collapse of ISL, FIFA's marketing arm.
On a broader level, MLS owners have invested millions of dollars in the promotion of soccer in the United States.
Their hope, of course, has been that investment would pay for itself in terms of increased ticket sales at MLS games, increased sales of the products and services sold by MLS sponsors and increased rights fees for the broadcast of MLS games. If anyone else benefited along the way from that investment in heightening interest in soccer, so be it.
So who owes whom?
No, MLS would not exist but for FIFA's decision to bring the World Cup to the United States in 1994.
But no, FIFA would not have a gold mine in the United States but for the continued investment of MLS owners.
And for that Sepp Blatter is ungrateful.