You may have been waiting for a moment. Some particular event or period of time you can point to as having ushered in the “arrival” of soccer in the United States. It’s been a long wait. A generation or so.
Chances are you never got your moment because these things happen incrementally. Or they should, anyway. Because sports that arrive in a flash tend to peter out almost as quickly. Anybody remember NASCAR? Or … jai alai?
The issue is that these are really two separate debates. One is about fan culture and the sport’s popular appeal. The other concerns the playing level and development of talent. On both counts, the argument that soccer has long since arrived can be made easily and convincingly.
On the playing level front, the recent recognition of four MLS players as major international prospects, for which they have been rewarded with transfers to significant German and English clubs – or are about to be – feels significant.
Teenaged Canadian wunderkind winger Alphonso Davies has already left the Vancouver Whitecaps for Bayern Munich in a July transaction. He’s impressed his new colleagues and overseers at the slumping German powerhouse, where Nico Kovac declared him to be “ear-marked for the first team” – even though Davies isn’t even eligible to play until Bayern can register him in the January transfer window.
New York Red Bulls midfield metronome Tyler Adams has been transferred to sister Bundesliga club RB Leipzig – possibly for free, although that only matters for MLS’s tousled accounting mechanisms, since the clubs share an owner. The 19-year-old is expected to be a contributor there in fairly short order, to complete the U.S. national team Bundesliga midfield triumvirate with Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund) and Weston McKennie (Schalke).
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, at just 23, quietly gathered six national team caps in 2018 and, did so while in conjunction with his outstanding form for the Columbus Crew and his MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award. And he appears to have earned a move to Manchester City for a reported and not-inconsiderable fee of $7 and $10 million. He isn’t likely to start much there, given that the incumbent Ederson has given little cause for dislodging, cost much more, and is only 25 himself. Nonetheless, Steffen’s value is being paid out tangibly.
Finally, Atlanta United’s 24-year-old forward Miguel Almiron does’t seem long for MLS. He’s been linked to Newcastle United, West Ham United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, and wherever he goes, Atlanta is sure to receive many multiples of the $8 million it paid Lanus for the Paraguayan international two years ago.
The $32 million fee that’s been bandied about for Almiron – and take that for what it’s worth, but it suggests that the sum will be high no matter where it ends up – will smash the league’s record transfer fee. That record, by the way, was just broken by Bayern for Davies – about $14 million, possibly rising to as high as $22 million, depending on the report. The old record had stood for a decade, going back to Jozy Altidore’s $10 million move to Villareal from the Red Bulls.
Certainly, a global hyperinflation in transfer fees plays a role here. But even if adjusted for that inflation, the international valuation of MLS players has jumped.
If ever there was a sign – or a watershed, if you really need one – that MLS, and American soccer by association, has arrived in the global game and validated the domestic game’s growth, it’s in those transfer fees.
There’s no charity in the transfer market. It’s one of the more precise mechanisms for valuing things in any marketplace for sports talent. If young North American players – or North American-based players, anyway – are valued at these fees, it suggests that the clubs in the market finally price the promise of those players as equivalent to European or South American prospects. And that might mean as much, or more, than how the U.S. or Canada performs at a World Cup once every four years.
The World Cup, after all, is seen as the key measurement of progress. Yet it’s such an irregular event, which, as we now know can sometimes be missed altogether, that it isn’t actually terribly useful. The data set is tiny. And the influence of luck is enormous.
But the respect evident in these transfer fees is tangible. And it breaks through a thick barrier for a league that never had a problem attracting old, fading talent but wasn’t nearly so successful in attracting elite young players. Almiron’s progression stateside and his likely jump up to the Premier League is a replicable proof of concept for the league. Something it can point toward the next time it tries to sign a 22-year-old Paraguayan national teamer.
That, above all else, signals the arrival into new territory for MLS.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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