Here’s a question that comes up sometimes: How do MLS teams compare with English teams? I thought I would take a shot at it.
Clearly, it’s impossible to answer for sure. Even on their summer tours, the English clubs are just starting their preseason, they don’t play their full-strength teams, and the MLS sides – while in the middle of their season – often play reserves, as well. So you kind of have to set those games aside.
Another way to look at it is: What if you dropped an MLS team in England? How would they do? Well, they would find the travel easier, and they would benefit from having a few thousand of their fans at every away game. As for the players … we’ll get to that.
Same thing if you drop an English team into MLS; they would be shocked at the distances traveled, and they would have no support at all away from home. They would also have to figure out playing on turf.
The way I see it, there are three ways to answer this question.
What do the players say?
Every year, ESPN does an anonymous poll of MLS players, and one of the questions they ask is “How would MLS teams fare in the Premier League?” Their answers were sort of all over the place, but two-thirds of them thought the best MLS team could survive in the Premier League.
Of course, they don’t want to piss on their own league, and most of them have never played in England. That’s two grains of salt. One player, Liam Ridgewell of the Portland Timbers, told an English paper that MLS was “about like the Championship.”
You get such a mix. You get to play against New York City and against [Andrea] Pirlo, [David] Villa and [Frank] Lampard and you will play another team that haven’t got all those DPs [designated players] and you are playing a different game.
One of those big stars, Didier Drogba of Phoenix in the second-tier USL (and formerly of Chelsea, Montreal and others), said that the MLS needs to work on players’ travel and playing surfaces to be one of the big leagues in the world. But that’s from a players’ perspective.
What do the players get paid?
The worldwide market for soccer players is, at least in theory, completely open. China wildly overpays, and England has so much TV money that they get charged a premium for players, as well. But, in essence, the best players all over the world get found, get paid, and can move around as they wish – and the biggest, best clubs have the most money. So when Liverpool line up against AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup, we assume just from the shirts, transfer fees and paychecks that Liverpool’s players are much better across the board.
As this article suggests, then, nobody in MLS would ever stay in the Premier League. The average total MLS team salary in 2016 (the time of that article) was $8 million. Leicester City, when they won the Premier League in fairy-tale fashion that year, had a payroll of about $63 million. The lowest in the Premier League that year? Bournemouth at $33 million. Aston Villa, a terrible team who got relegated that year, paid their players $85 million!
I found some figures for the Championship that are a few years old, but they show that the clubs paid their players from $8 to $49 million. Again, those are a couple years old, so we can only assume that by now they are higher.
So where does a team with an $8 million payroll land? The bottom of the Championship.
What’s happening on the field?
Statistics are coming along in the world of soccer, and they could be helpful here.
The blog Sounder at Heart did an analysis of MLS vs. Europe that is somewhat interesting. It shows that Premier League teams complete a few more of their passes, get more crosses in per game, play more short passes, hit fewer long balls, and generally pass a lot more per game. For me, this shows that the players are better – no surprise, of course. They also take more shots per game, and from closer in. They have fewer passes intercepted, commit fewer fouls and get called offside less often (barely).
And just for kicks, here’s a comparison of the various league records, also from a couple of years ago. (Example: England’s top scorer, Alan Shearer, got about twice as many goals as the MLS leader, Landon Donovan.)
My Final Verdict: MLS is Pretty Much League One
Based on seeing more than 80 games live in England and around that many in the US, and watching the Portland Timbers every week, I think the level of play and individual quality in MLS looks about like the upper half of League One, maybe the lower stretches of the Championship. I think the very best teams in MLS — like Toronto’s double-winning 2017 side — would probably manage to stay in the Championship. Just.
Of course, none of this matters, because the leagues aren’t going to be playing each other for real. Nor are they actually competing for fans: Most MLS fans have an English side they support, and nobody cares – although it does get confusing when those English teams come over and play your MLS team.
One thing that isn’t confusing: The Premier League teams are better. Just ask the LA Galaxy, who were defending champs when they played at home against the (then) defending English champs.
Even with all the reservations above, that 7-0 loss at home to Man United says something about the quality of players, don’t you think?