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How MLS compares to other leagues in playing domestic talent

Mar 18, 2018; Frisco, TX, USA; FC Dallas midfielder Roland Lamah (20) celebrates his first half goal against the Seattle Sounders at Toyota Park. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach the first international “break” of the Major League Soccer season, a lot of smart people have been pointing out that there seems to be fewer domestic players in the league.

This concern coincides with the United States failing to qualify for the World Cup and the Canadian national team not exactly making huge strides.

Domestic players make up approximately 52% of all of the contracted players in MLS (including Canadians) and so far this year 40% of the minutes are going to domestic players, according to data provided by America Soccer Now.

But how does this compare to top leagues around the world?

The chart below shows how MLS stacks up.  This is how you read the chart:

  • The X-axis shows the level of domestic players in the top flight of the league.  In other words: The farther right you go, the greater the league is made of domestic players. 
  • The Y-axis of the chart shows the ELO rating of the national team. In other words: The higher up a country is, the stronger their national team side.
  • The size of the bubble represents the average value of a top flight team in the league.  The larger the bubble, the more valuable the league.

As you can see, most top leagues around the world have between 40-60 percent of their players domestic and MLS is right in the middle. The exceptions to this range are South American leagues, which employ a much higher percentage of domestic players (Brazil’s top flight is made up of more than 90% Brazilians!) and England, where the Premier League is made up of 32 percent English players.

Now the classic argument would be that if a league plays less domestic players, the national team suffers.  The number one team in the world, Brazil, has the highest rate of domestic players in the world.  This argument is not only being raised here in the U.S., but also in countries like Italy and England (both leagues have less domestic players than we do).

I propose a different sort of reasoning: If MLS’ ambition is to be a top performing and valuable league, then it must recruit top foreign players. 

Take the difference between Brazil’s league and Germany’s. For all intents and purposes, their national teams are at the same level — but the German league is much more valuable.  This is likely due to higher spending on players, but it also correlates to a higher percentage of foreign players than Brazil.  Same can be said about England.  The EPL could introduce rules to cut down the number of foreign players, but the adverse effect would be the talent level of the league would go down, and with it the value.

MLS has the same dilemma. As MLS greatly increases spending and raises the quality of its teams, inevitably much of those resources go to foreign players. This is because, frankly, there aren’t enough talented Americans.

We could employ the same thinking as the South American teams, but it would mean that our league as a whole wouldn’t be as good or valuable. For example, Colombia produces better players but MLS is already the better league.

In reality, MLS has to walk and chew gum at the same time.

It has to be OK with increasing funding at an exponential rate to increase the quality of the league, but it has to equally provide incentives for clubs to drastically expand the academy network to raise the caliber and quality of American and Canadian players. 

The former has been embraced by almost all clubs as seen by the increase of TAM spending.  The latter has been embraced only by a few clubs, and this is something MLS will have to ponder moving forward.

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