Growing up in Southern California in the early 1990s, John Thorrington was as avid football fan as he could be. He played competitively – he eventually signed with Manchester United at the age of 17 – but the American sports scene, with its lack of television or domestic league options, made it virtually impossible to create widespread passion for the game.
“I was thinking back when we hosted the World Cup [in 1994] How different that was, said Thorrington. “I’ve never seen such a high-profile game live in my life. I was 14 when it came here and I saw the interest it generated. Then the league started.”
Major League Soccer’s growth often seems like it’s progressing at a slow pace, but there’s never been a better representation of just how far the league has come than in Qatar for the World Cup. Aside from the top five leagues in the world – in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – MLS has had more rostered players (36) than anywhere else. It was represented by more countries (12) than any league outside the top five, and for the first time in the league’s history, had a player on the winning team: Argentine Thiago Almada (Atlanta United).
None of this means the standard of play is anywhere near the highest in Europe, but for a league to have this kind of World Cup impact despite its relative youth is as impressive an achievement as any MLS has ever had.
“If you think about what the World Cup means in global football, where every country chooses its best players and pretty much the best teams out there,” Torrington said. “I think it says a lot about the league and our increasing level of participation in terms of the number of players as well as the countries that MLS players represent.”
Consider this: At 14 years old, Thorrington has never seen a top-level football game in person, and he lives in a country that doesn’t have a professional league. At the age of 43, he celebrated the MLS Cup as co-chairman and general manager of one of the two Los Angeles-based teams, LAFC, which featured five World Cup players.
During the first match of the tournament, Sebastian Mendes – a reserve midfielder at LAFC after being acquired on a mid-season deal – started for Ecuador against hosts Qatar and was one of the best players on the field. The next day, Gareth Bale – who had chosen to come to LAFC to help prepare for Wales’ first World Cup appearance since 1958 – captained his country against the United States. While the USA only started one MLS player in that game (Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman), three others came off the bench (Inter Miami’s DeAndre Yedlin, LAFC’s Kelen Acosta and Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris). Several other players either played in the league previously or were developed by MLS clubs.
“It’s unbelievable. When I first started in the league, it certainly didn’t have that much of an impact [globally]said Yedlin. Anytime you see growth, it’s positive and it’s growing very quickly. So, it just goes to show that MLS has become one of the biggest leagues in the world. This is great for American football.”
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If all goes as designed, there will be a lower presence on the US roster when the tournament returns to North America in 2026, which would mean a higher percentage of players in the big leagues in Europe. The hope, from an MLS perspective, is that these are the players who get into the league—starting at the academic level—and use MLS as a springboard to their professional career. At the same time, expect clubs to increasingly pursue young foreign players who can make an immediate impact in the league and use these performances to break into their national teams.
Almada, 21, is the perfect example. It was evident from a young age that he was a talented player, but his debut for the full Argentine national team did not come until September, near the end of his first season with Atlanta.
“Years ago, this wouldn’t have happened,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told ESPN in Qatar. “The national team coach will say, ‘Hey, if you go to play in Major League Soccer, you won’t be part of the national team group.'” That has changed dramatically. We now have our games scouted by the national teams because they’ve seen this success playing for a club. MLS and how that continued their development, made them become a better player who could eventually become a better player in the national team.”
Garber never strayed from the league’s long-term goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world. How that is defined has always been a bit of an explanation. What constitutes “the best in the world” anyway? If it’s the top five, there are years — perhaps decades — of work to be done. There’s a good chance that will never happen. If it’s in the top ten, there are some compelling arguments it might already be in MLS.
“It’s really hard, and here I’d say you can use a varying number of metrics to try to get quality: money spent, head-to-head competitions – and that’s really hard because MLS hasn’t had that experience,” Thorrington said. . “Almost everyone comes from a stronger league – and I’ve had these conversations, we’ve had these players – they come to MLS and you talk to them, whether it’s Wayne Rooney, whether it’s Thierry Henry, whether it’s Carlos Vela, any of those players, playing in MLS is an experience.” amazing.
“It’s really hard to measure an MLS team based on MLS conditions and the special nature of the travel climate and the humidity and all the rest…and try to transfer that to another local league.”
We’ll get one interesting point on February 2, when the Seattle Sounders become the first MLS team to play in the Club World Cup against winners from Auckland City (New Zealand) and Al-Ahly (Egypt), a chance to play against Real Madrid. But even then, the small sample size of Seattle’s participation in Morocco — in the midst of the 2023 preseason — precludes any useful lessons.
This summer’s League Cup – a new World Cup-style tournament featuring Liga MX and MLS clubs – is another opportunity for MLS to measure its progress. Although the Sounders won the CONCACAF Champions League last year, the popular perception is that the Mexican league is still the top spot in North America. From a popularity standpoint, this isn’t in question – Liga MX has consistently found a larger TV audience in the US than MLS – but it’s reasonable to assume that it retains many fans based on the idea that it’s the better product.
While there is a natural rivalry between the leagues inherent in their closeness, it is more than just a collaboration. As co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup, the United States, Mexico and Canada have an incredible incentive to generate as much collective enthusiasm for the sport as possible over the next three and a half years.
“Anyone involved in soccer in the United States, Mexico or Canada, we look at the World Cup as a northern star that we can work together over the coming years to continue to build the game so that when the World Cup is here we can use it as rocket fuel to help develop the game.”