Let’s See How Far We’ve Come: MLS Nationalities in ’96 and ’14

Player development and increasing competitiveness on the field continue to be key benchmarks for MLS.  Nothing helps bring financial success to sports leagues like winning teams and high levels of play from top class athletes.  For MLS, the recipe of success has been building a fan base in a unique market and a combination of homegrown and foreign talent.  Business of Soccer has profiled the nationalities of players in the league to show how MLS teams build their rosters.  A comparison of players’ nationalities and salaries helps fans understand if teams place value on foreign or domestic talent.

READ: Foreign or Domestic: The Spending Habits of MLS Clubs in 2014

To show just how far the league has grown in quality, a comparison of the nationalities of all players in 1996 to 2014 will show just how the league has evolved in competitiveness and as a business.

Below is a bar graph of the number of domestic and foreign players in 1996 and in 2014.

Obviously the number of players in the league in 1996 is significantly lower because there were only ten teams that debuted in 1996.  MLS has nineteen teams in 2014 with twenty set to play in 2015.  Below is another graph which represents the percentage of foreign-born players in the league and U.S.-born players in 1996 and 2014. It should be noted that there is a disparity in the average number of players on each roster in 1996 and 2014.  1996 had fewer players on the roster with 24.7 compared to 29.4 in 2014.

This graph is even more telling on the financial and competitive state of the league.  In 1996, there were fewer roster restrictions on clubs, but many teams still erred on the side of caution when creating their rosters.  For the most part, clubs took fewer risks on expensive talent from abroad.  The North American Soccer League folded in the 1980s because players’ salaries crippled financial viability of the league.  Therefore, the league opened with significantly more American-born players because they were mostly unproven and relatively inexpensive.  Regardless of the cost, the league hoped that a few domestic players would emerge and the marketability of the league would be based off of these players.

The competitiveness and quality of the league in its inaugural season pales in comparison to the diversity that the league boasts in 2014.  Any league which strives to compete globally should strive to be more heterogeneous rather than homogeneous.  Most leagues around the world have more domestic players than foreign players, however, the number of foreign and domestic players is balanced on some of the best teams in the world and in the best leagues.  Drawing from top talent around the world, including domestically, creates the most competitive play on the field.

This also shows the growth of the league over the past nineteen years.  In 1996, players from thirty-five countries were represented.  That number has almost doubled with sixty countries represented in the 2014 player pool.  The league has taken decidedly more risks since 1996, signing foreign players to larger contracts in order to help raise the level of play in the league.  This did not occur overnight.  The credibility of MLS has grown incrementally as foreign players in the league are constantly speaking about the professionalism and competitiveness of the league.  With more diversity MLS has also increased its marketability to attract more foreign players and begin to step out of the shadows of some of the larger leagues in the world.

A little perspective can go a long way in understanding just how far MLS has come since its inaugural season.  The league has grown and expanded both on and off the field since 1996.  Despite its short history, MLS has taken the fast track and mimicked the models of other diverse and competitive leagues around the world.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.