In my November article, I discussed the importance of youth clubs in our system of elite player development as one of the areas to be enhanced. This month we will talk about the Professional Leagues in our soccer landscape and their impact on elite player development. In the first article, we will have a 30,000 feet look at the professional leagues in the world and in our soccer landscape.
First, we should discuss the correlation of a professional league in a country and the success of its MNT.
Let us look at top 10 in FIFA rankings for MNTs.
Here is the list for top 10 soccer leagues in the world with their values in Euros:
There are many other soccer leagues rankings using different metrics. This one is using the value of the leagues. The numbers associated with each league can be derived using different algorithms. Some might use the market value of the teams and others might use the revenues generated by the teams. That is why you might see different rankings based on value.
USMNT is ranked 11 in FIFA rankings and MLS has a value of around 1 billion dollars. The above list of the top 10 valued football leagues does not include MLS, but still one can conclude that MLS is most probably in the 9th-12th ranking.
If you look carefully at both lists, there is not a very strong correlation between the ranking of MNTs and their corresponding leagues. Belgium, Argentina and Denmark are in the top 10 in FIFA rankings, but their leagues are not in top 10. The USMNT and MLS rankings are closely related, though. One can easily conclude that looking especially at Belgium and Denmark -- that a country can develop elite players who usually play in other leagues than their own. But they can still lead their MNT into success. Let us not forget that both are small countries in population and not a member of G20. Neither can be compared to the resources of the USA. Argentina is another case. It has a population of 46 million and is in G20. It is a hotbed for elite player development, but most of its MNT stars play in European leagues.
On the other hand, one should not forget that in the USA there are at least three leagues (NFL, MLB, and NBA) that are more valuable than EPL. Soccer is the fourth most popular sport to watch in the USA. In all of the top 10 nations and leagues, soccer is the No. 1 sport in the country.
We must be realistic in the next decade or two it will be if not impossible but rather very difficult for MLS to become the biggest professional league in the country or soccer to be the most popular sport to watch.
In order to move on the MNT rankings and play at least a semifinal in 2026, we must rely on a better player development system and an expanded professional league system both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Now let us have look at our professional leagues. As of today, there are three professional tiers (D1, D2 and D3) sanctioned by U.S. Soccer. There is no relegation/promotion in any of those leagues and each of these are leagues has different governance structures as well as different business models.
Division One has MLS with 28 teams in 2022. Division Two has the USL Championship with 27 teams and Division Three has three leagues: USL League One (11 teams), NISA (13 teams) and very recently formed MLS Next Pro (21 teams). For about three million Americans playing organized soccer there are only 100 professional men’s team for them to have the aspiration to play.
England -- which is, as part of the Great Britain, a G20 member -- has a population of 68 million and there are 115 professional clubs from the EPL down to the tier 5 National League. Turkey, which is also a G20 country and has a population of 83 million, has 133 professional clubs in four tiers. There are a total of 717 top division professional clubs in 53 countries in Europe. And the 717 does not include second or lower tier professional league clubs.
Clearly, there is room for expanding the number of professional teams. There are 19 states without any professional soccer team. There is ground to grow the professional teams both quantitatively and geographically. The key question is how.
How do you increase the number of professional teams/leagues in the country without sacrificing quality of play and undermining player development? How do you develop a business organization or a governance model for the leagues so that these leagues do not end up like the NASL? There are many other relevant questions regarding the issue of expansion.
I will try to answer those questions and where MLS is in terms of player development in our next article. This article was meant to be defining the as-is situation for professional soccer leagues in our soccer landscape, the next will be on suggestion on how and what “to be” for the professional leagues.
I wish all Soccer America readers a Happy New year and for the USMNT to qualify for World Cup 2022.
Ahmet Guvener (email@example.com) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.