By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 19, 2011) US Soccer Players – I'll start with a bit of a disclaimer: this isn't going to be an attempt to build up or knock down Major League Soccer either explicitly or implicitly. Future plans aside, right now North America's topflight should know they're not in the conversation for best league in the world. Coming up with a way to make that happen would need the type of qualifiers that might as well turn the discussion into best single-entity soccer league playing some games in Eastern Standard Time. It's just not the point.
With that in mind, let's take a look at an old discussion with a slight twist. What really is the best soccer league in the world for an American fan to watch on television?
For those of us of a certain age, once upon a time the answer was Italy's Serie A. It wasn't just that Italian soccer had the best teams – though arguably they did. It was that they put on the best show up and down the table week in and week out. That remains a sticking point for anointing a league best in the world. It's not just about the best teams.
Here's where we run into our first problem. Spain's La Liga would be many people's choice for taking Serie A's title. After all, that's where most people's pick for best club team and our defending Champions League title holders Barcelona play. Yet there's a convincing argument that what LA Liga really is in practice is a better version of the Scottish Premier League. Two clubs dominate, the rest play for third. Sure, that 3rd-place counts for a lot more than it does in the SPL, but the point is the same. It's a league of a couple of haves, and a whole lot of have-not's. To put it another way, as a neutral would you schedule a Saturday around games not involving Barca or Real Madrid? Even a 'maybe' takes them out of the running.
That's where the English Premier League steps in as the people's champion. They have no trouble stressing the quality up and down the table week-to-week even if the league only has a couple of true title contenders in a given season. It also originates in English, allowing easy access for North America. That counts heavily, with familiarity alone convincing people that the teams making up the numbers in the Premier League are probably a little better than those in the other major European leagues. Add in the American involvement that's lacking in significant numbers in Italy and Spain, and it's easy enough for the Premier League to take the title as most entertaining while scraping away the line between that and best in the world.
Germany is the new outsider pick. For those who know, it's a league of compelling matchups that don't necessarily involve the title contenders. It's also arguably the most open major league in Europe, lacking the buttress of a handful of clubs competing at a decided advantage over everybody else. Yes, they have Bayern Munich but that club's failure to win every other year has become as much of a story as yet another Bundesliga title. Without question, there's quality here. is it better than or even equal to what we're seeing from Italy, Spain, and England? Maybe, and Germany probably already has the edge on two out of three of those leagues.
What the Bundesliga presents is the twist on really calling a league best in the world. No one should be arguing that Germany has the world's best clubs. They don't, full stop. This isn't a league where you go three or four clubs deep in realistic Champions League title contenders, just as one indicator. What they do have is what the Premier League prides itself in, quality up and down the table. That's evident by the spacing in points at the end of the season as well as the entertainment value in not-quite-marquee games over the course of the season. It doesn't hurt that there's a history of American involvement in the Bundesliga.
Yet there's another old argument. IS the bottom half of the Bundesliga table really so compelling that it trumps what's happening in England? The quick answer is once again a maybe. As a neutral looking for quality, if you invest the time in the Bundesliga it's likely to pay that back as well as or even better than the Premier League.
Does that mean the Bundesliga is the new best league in Europe? I would probably argue yes. Does that mean it's the best league in the world for an American fan to watch on television? Maybe not. That league might not even be in Europe.
Right now, taking into consideration entertainment value along with quality of play the best week in – week out league regularly available on American television is Mexico's Primera. This has been the case for a few seasons, and it's only gotten better with Mexico streamlining the competition. Still two seasons, but a single table and with clubs openly spending on players to try to win now. Again, it helps that there are several Americans contributing and that the major teams that normally dominate the competition aren't currently in the positions of power.
Mexico long ago dropped the stereotypical physical play and running into every passing lane for a more open passing game that lets the skill players shine. It's a results now league, a by-product of multiple competitions along with having a Fall and Spring season. That means multiple games each weekend can impress, good for the American fan that normally has access to six or seven games. There's still the language barrier for a large part of the potential American fan-base, but people seem to be able to handle watching a weekly MLS game in Spanish.
There's also the not-so-minor point that Mexico features teams that US clubs play in meaningful competitions. That's a categorical difference between the Primera and the bright lights of Europe. Whether or not it's enough to get American fans to give the Primera more of a chance than only scouting it when that club is about to play yours or maybe when an American is involved? That's the question, but it doesn't change the quality on display round-by-round in that league.
So back to my question. Best soccer league in the world? No, that's still something for the European giants to determine. But best soccer league in the world for an American fan to watch on television? Maybe not, and that's a good thing for the Americans playing in Mexico and the quality of club soccer in this region.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.