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Theo Walcott claims MLS is catching up to the Premier League

it’s nice of him to say, but...

MLS: MLS Cup Final-Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew
The league may not be the best, but a championship’s a championship
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Those of you who have been around these pages a while know that I’m an Arsenal fan, and that I’m also a Portland Timbers season ticket holder. I am not, however, generally prone to compare the two leagues - one, because such comparisons are stupid and pointless mostly, and two, because the MLS is, to be charitable, not a tremendous standard of play.

I love MLS - it’s a tremendously entertaining league, the games are a blast, and the rivalries and storylines in it are every bit as good as whatever European league you’d care to follow. But I am also fully aware that technically, MLS is...not great. It’s gotten a lot better in the last 10 years, absolutely, but it’s still in its relative infancy as a league, and is still developing talent.

Entertain yourself someday by first watching a La Liga or Premier League game, then rolling straight into MLS, and tell me that Theo Walcott was sober when he said, yesterday, that

I'm sure American soccer, as you guys call it, is actually gaining very close to Premier League standard, definitely

Oh, Theo. You are a wonderful ambassador for the game, and you say all the right things to make sure MLS and its covering journalists get, as the kids say, all the feels. You’re great! Again, I love me some MLS; but watching MLS for even a couple weeks is pretty much proof that it’s NOT “gaining very close”.

One of the things I notice most about MLS is the sequence of events that surround a player getting the ball - any player, anywhere. In Europe and South America, that process generally goes

  1. see ball coming your way, figure out what to do
  2. get ball
  3. do what you thought in step 1

And that process generally takes nanoseconds - by the time a player gets the ball, he not only knows what he wants to do with it but is half way to doing it. In MLS, though, that process generally goes

  1. See ball coming your way
  2. Receive ball, often clumsily (seriously, MLS needs a First Touch school ASAP)
  3. Think about what to do
  4. Act

And while that process still happens far faster than you or I could do it, it’s a lot slower than the European standard, for sure. And again, this doesn’t make MLS a bad league, at all - it’s a very entertaining league. It’s just that the quality of play is not quite where Theo thinks it is.

MLS also has a refereeing problem - tl;dr version, MLS refs are terrible and let a ton of physical contact go unpunished. Nigel de Jong is thriving in MLS, if that tells you anything. Players take advantage of that, and the result is a very rough league, reminiscent of the 80’s First Division and early 90’s Premier League.

Until MLS players can act a lot more intuitively, and until MLS refereeing gets a whole lot better, MLS has a development ceiling, and all the lovely compliments in the world won’t break through that ceiling. That said, MLS is definitely something you should check out, if you’re in the US - go to a game, check it out on TV, just don’t expect it to be what you see on Saturday mornings during the Premier League season.