MLS evolving into hotbed for emerging soccer talent

MLS is moving away from being perceived by many as a ‘retirement league’

Luis Binks (right) made the move to CF Montreal in search of meaningful minutes early in his professional playing career. MARTIN BAZYL/CANADA SOCCER

When Luis Binks signed with the Montreal Impact last winter, he had his fair share of doubters.

Binks, an England youth international, had been part of Tottenham Hotspur since he was six years old. Leaving one of the best clubs in Europe to join a soccer team in Canada was an unusual decision met with some scrutiny.

But the 19-year-old Gillingham native feels Major League Soccer (MLS) is misunderstood by many in his home country. In reality, MLS offers him a great place to develop his game.

“When I made the move over people were like, ‘why has he gone there? That’s a league where players go to retire, they go there to pick up a bit of money,’” said the centre back.

“But it’s definitely not like that at all. It’s a very competitive league, a very physical league, it’s a very demanding league, and I think it’s a great league to come and learn from.”

MLS is perceived by many as a “retirement league,” where some of Europe’s biggest stars – David Beckham, Thierry Henry, David Villa, to name a few – spent the twilight of their careers.

While end-of-career trips to North America remain a common occurrence among Europe’s best, the perception is changing. The league is increasingly becoming known as a place where young players can develop before moving to top leagues overseas.

Chris Smith of Squawka, a UK-based soccer news and analysis website, has covered the MLS for three years. He says MLS-grown players who have transferred to top European clubs and had success are helping encourage more young players to do the same.

“It isn’t a retirement league, it’s a development league,” said the Liverpool-born soccer journalist. “The icing on the cake on top of these kinds of transfers has to be Alphonso Davies, it has to be Tyler Adams, these players that are coming through and going straight into top five European leagues and dominating, that has to be the icing on the cake and the ultimate goal for every player who moves at this point as well.”

Listen to our full conversation with Chris Smith here:

Listen: MLS Evolution Discussion with Chris Smith of Squawka

Although it wasn’t the sole reason for his move, seeing players like Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich and Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig transfer to top European clubs after developing their game within MLS reassured Binks that he’d get plenty of exposure.

“It shows how widely watched the league is and how a lot of clubs do look at who is the next one to come through,” said Binks, who signed for Bologna of the Italian Serie A in August, but remains on loan at CF Montreal.

“I did definitely look at players who have used the MLS as a platform to go on and play in Europe.”

For evidence that regular MLS minutes could help kickstart a player’s career back in Europe, Binks needed to look no further than fellow Englishman Jack Harrison.

After spending his early playing days in the Manchester United academy ranks, Harrison left for America at age 14 to pursue a college scholarship. He would go on to play for Wake Forest in the NCAA and impressed enough in his lone year with the Demon Deacons to be selected first overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft.

Since spending parts of two seasons with New York City FC, the 24-year-old winger has moved back to his native England, playing a pivotal role in Leeds United’s promotion back to the Premier League this past Spring —while on loan from parent club Manchester City— and is now fulfilling his dream as a regular starter in what many would deem the top competition in world football.

As players continue to come through MLS and use it as a stepping stone towards Europe’s elite (England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy), the league is beginning to draw comparisons to the Belgian, Dutch, and Portuguese top flights. All three remain second-tier in Europe but are well-regarded as some of the world’s best development leagues.

“I’d say it’s turning into league’s like that in Europe,” said Binks. “Not the top-five major leagues but definitely places like Holland, Belgium.”

As a player who slipped through the cracks domestically, Ottawa native Jonathan David plied his trade in Belgium with Gent to begin his professional career.

After turning heads across Europe with his goalscoring prowess, David made the big-money move to French outfit Lille last summer for €30 million, a club record for the Ligue 1 side and the largest transfer fee for a Canadian international to date.

Although the MLS has become a viable option for young players, both homegrown and from abroad, to receive more playing time and develop their game, Smith says there’s some catching up to do before North America’s top-flight can compare itself to those second-tier European leagues.

“In terms of standards on the pitch, I’m not going to stand here and say that it’s as good as the Eredivisie (Dutch league) … it’s not quite there on the same level yet,” said Smith of MLS.

“But it is getting there, and you have to start somewhere.”

Binks can already tell that his move to the MLS has turned heads among youth players back home and could influence some of his peers to follow.

“I think by me coming here, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more try and make the move,” said Binks.

“I’ve spoken to people, and they totally understand why I’ve done it, and they’ve said to me that it’s something that if the opportunity came, they’d definitely look into coming overseas.”

Dylan Walsh, a journalist for World Football Index, echoed Binks’ sentiment in an article last September where he suggested moves from England to MLS could become a regular occurrence in the aftermath of the success the former Spurs defender has enjoyed with Montreal.

Amidst success stories like Binks, Davies and so many more young players, connections between European clubs and MLS are becoming more linear than ever before.

Bayern Munich, arguably world football’s top team today, formed a partnership with MLS side FC Dallas back in 2018 to create a pathway that helps make the transition to European football as seamless as possible for domestic youth players.

Fellow Bundesliga club 1899 Hoffenheim followed suit last September, reaching an agreement with FC Cincinnati to help bolster early player development.

While these relationships remain a rarity for the time being, Smith suggests MLS would do well to embrace similar opportunities in the future, for the betterment of both the on-field product and the perception of the league on the global stage.

“I think once clubs sort of harness that (opportunity) and realize that we can turn out our talent, and not be scared to lose it, because we’ve got something else in the pipeline, these partnerships will be great for the league’s perception.”

A quarter century of change

The right to host the 1994 men’s World Cup was granted to the United States by FIFA on the basis that one crucial condition was met: America must create a domestic professional soccer league of its own.

In the aftermath of the tournament, Major League Soccer (MLS) was born the following year before officially beginning play with
10 original teams in 1996.

With an aim to attract existing soccer supporters while also luring in fans of other North American sports, MLS experimented with both the laws of the game and the places which their clubs called home, deciding draws in an orthodox hockey-style shootout while suiting up largely on American football surfaces.

When they began to lose both traditional fan and curious newcomer alike in the league’s first five seasons, MLS received a somewhat unexpected jump in engagement and financial support on the back of the American national team’s surprise run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.

Between the 2002 and 2006 World Cup tournaments, the league made strides to become more traditional in its regulations, and as a
result, began to garner attention from abroad for some of its domestic

Goalkeeper Tim Howard moved from the now-defunct MetroStars to European giants Manchester United in 2003, while superstar forward Landon Donovan spent some time with German outfit Bayern Leverkusen’s first-team in early 2005 following a loan spell with the San Jose Earthquakes.

After an underwhelming ‘06 World Cup for the U.S.
national team, where they failed to win a match and went out in the group stage, 2007 proved a defining year for American soccer as “MLS 2.0” began with
the arrival of David Beckham.

Signing for the Los Angeles Galaxy as the
league’s first “Designated Player (DP)”, Beckham’s arrival to MLS brought
millions of new eyes to the league while also breaking previously existing financial barriers through the newly adopted DP transfer rules. 

Toronto FC also made history as the league’s
first Canadian expansion team and would prove to be one of its most influential
franchises for the next decade due to their on-field success and reputation as a landing spot for European-based stars such as Jermaine Defoe, Sebastian Giovinco, and Michael Bradley.

In the modern MLS era, the focus remained on
improving the product through the late 2000s and early 2010s, both in the on-field talent, and the physical infrastructure with more emphasis on
soccer-specific stadiums for the future.

As the league began to slowly catch up to the
rest of the soccer world at the senior level, a focus on forming academies and youth programs were of the utmost importance for the long-term financial
success of MLS. 

The arrival of European stars in the twilight of their careers began to be overshadowed by the emergence of exciting domestic players by the mid-2010s. 

Transfers such as Canadian Alphonso Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps to Bayern Munich and Jack Harrison from New York City FC to “big brother” club Manchester City in 2018 served as the early crown jewels for MLS’s ability to regularly develop top talents.

Since then, Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson, and countless other North American teenagers have successfully made the jump from MLS to top European clubs.

When the 2021 MLS regular season kicks off on April 17, it will mark a 25th anniversary for the league, with Austin FC joining play as an expansion side as the league’s 27th franchise, with plans for three more new teams to join the action by 2023.

As it begins to establish itself as a genuine source for talent production within the global game, MLS, now the largest first-division soccer league in the world, continues to break barriers today, a quarter-century on from its inception.

About this article

By: and
Posted: Mar 8 2021 7:08 pm
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports Soccer Sports