Every time a European team comes over to the United States, the players are asked about the growth of Major League Soccer and the sport in this country.
Occasionally a player will say something interesting, which is why these types of stories continue.
On Tuesday, a day before the Bayern Munich-AC Milan preseason game at Soldier Field, Xabi Alonso and Holger Badstuber of Bayern and Riccardo Montolivo and Gianluigi Donnarumma of Milan took part in a panel to discuss American soccer and the development of technology in the sport.
All four players talked about how the sport is growing in the U.S. and that they hear MLS is improving, but Alonso had a slightly more in-depth perspective thanks for a former teammate.
“I recently spoke with Stevie Gerrard (of the LA Galaxy),” Alonso began. “Maybe people tend to think the level is not as high, but he really thinks that it’s very demanding. The players are really strong.”
As much as having players like Gerrard, who is 36 years old, in the league feeds into the “retirement league” stigma that MLS continues to wear around its neck, other players around the world will listen to his opinion of the league. Alonso played with Gerrard at Liverpool from 2004-2009 and hearing Gerrard say the league is quality will increase the chances of more well-known players joining MLS. As much as the retirement league stigma can be a negative, Gerrard speaking praise about the league to other players can possibly offset that stigma.
The second part of Alonso’s quote is not as positive about MLS.
“Of course what is different is the system of the competition,” Alonso continued. “Sometimes they lose a game and it doesn’t really have that impact, but for sure it’s becoming more popular for European players, for worldwide players to come to the States to play. That’s great news I think.”
The fact that MLS has playoffs to determine its most prestigious trophy is foreign to, well, foreigners. Leagues all around the world give the league title to the equivalent of the regular season winner and have cup competitions, both domestic and continental, to create playoff-type drama. On top of that 60 percent of MLS teams make the playoffs, which devalues the regular season. Apparently, this hasn’t gone unnoticed in other parts of the world.
While players like Alonso and Montolivo have become more familiar to American soccer fans because of the increased access to games in recent years, that goes both ways. Not only are the Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A being shown in the U.S., but MLS is being shown in Europe.
“They are on German television, some games you can watch there,” Badstuber said. “I think it’s good. I think that old players from Germany are going to go to the States, too, after their career in Germany because it’s a different culture, it’s a new life and they can learn a lot. This is a fact that players want to go to the States.”
The players are also aware it’s not just older players that have come over. Montolivo brought up Sebastian Giovinco, the 2015 MLS MVP who Montolivo has played with on the Italian National Team.
“Major League Soccer is definitely improving in trying to bring players not at the end of their careers, when at full strength,” Montolivo said through a translator. “For example, Giovinco came at 27 and he came to win.”
These players were at a promotional event so they weren’t about to trash MLS and make enemies of American soccer fans. Still, there was more substance to these quotes than you probably would have seen maybe five or seven years ago. Perception is reality and the perception of MLS does seem to be improving abroad.