ESPN’S Adrian Healey: MLS Is Among the World’s Top 10 Leagues

In an interview with Northwest soccer website Prost Amerika, ESPN commentator Adrian Healey—who covers La Liga, Serie A, the Premier League, the Dutch Eredivisie, the Champions League and MLS for the network—says that the U.S. circuit is now among the 10 best leagues on the planet.

“I would say it’s right in the mix now with something like the Dutch Eredivisie in terms of the talent, the standard of play and the infrastructure,” Healey told the site. “The only thing it doesn’t have yet is a history and a body of work, but that is coming. It has made amazing strides in just over a decade and a half.”

The last part of Healey’s statement is undeniable, and in truth the amazing strides have been made in the past decade alone. Consider that at the start of the 2002 season MLS had 10 teams, three investors, one soccer-specific stadium, no reserve division or academy system, and zero income from national TV contracts.

This year, the league has 18 investors, 19 teams (the Hunt family still owns two clubs), and several parties keenly interested in launching a 20th franchise, most likely in New York. There are 13 soccer-specific stadiums now, with a 14th on the way after San Jose’s stadium project was cleared to move forward this week, and the league surpassed the NBA and the NHL in attendance in 2011.

The reserve division resumed in 2011 with a 10-game schedule, and the MLS academy system is flourishing, having already produced a number of young players for the league. MLS has national TV contracts with Univision, ESPN, and NBC (and TSN and RDS in Canada), as well as myriad sponsorships, including an eight-year deal with adidas valued at more than $200 million.

Yes—amazing strides. Truly.

As for the second part of Healey’s comment, it’s not as bold a statement as you might think. The top four leagues in the world—pretty much everyone agrees—are in Spain, Italy, England and Germany. Most would probably pick France next, and after that … well, there’s not much consensus. But the idea that MLS could sneak in at No. 10—and the comparison to the Dutch League—are not farfetched.

MLS has been sending successful exports to Europe for years now, and players who’ve been on both sides of the Atlantic downplay the talent gap. Landon Donovan has lit up the Premier League in two recent loan spells. Thierry Henry’s game did not suffer from two years in MLS—he returned to Arsenal this winter looking almost as if he’d never left. And here’s David Beckham talking to Yahoo’s Martin Rogers about MLS:

“I don’t know whether it’s ignorance or snobbery or whether it’s that the people saying these things have never played the game or watched it being played here, but the standard is nowhere near as low as people have been saying it is. For a start, you have to be incredibly fit and physically strong to play here: America’s a country, after all, that produces some of the best athletes in the world.”

The most notable thing about those comments? They were made in 2007. MLS has gotten markedly better since then.

As for the middle portion of Healey’s remarks—the stuff about history, and a body of work being on the way—we need just one look at the Cascadia rivalries, or the talent on Los Angeles’s roster this season, or the league’s performance in the CONCACAF Champions League to say it’s a high-percentage prognostication.

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