Il jogo bonito, the beautiful game or however you like to call it has just begun its 19th season in the United States in its present form. Yes, the 2014 Major League Soccer (MLS) season has started and I for one could not be happier. Not that I have any aversion to U.S. sports but home is where the heart is and so it is with soccer. 19 MLS teams, 10 in the east and 9 in the west battling for soccer superiority. This is no longer an experiment. This is no longer a foray into the wilderness. The USA has never before had a soccer league like it. Sure, as wonderfully chronicled in Beau Dure's Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer, there have been mishaps and misadventures. But this league is here to stay. This league, ably championed by Commissioner Don Garber, has managed to get past financial, social and legal challenges to set itself up as a contender. It wants to be somebody. If anyone doubts that, take a look at the current USMNT. Or check out the U.S. talent that now plays around the world. Or even easier, quickly review any of the best goals from any MLS team in 2013 or the current season. Quite rightly, as Thierry Henry says, if you don't know the MLS game, don't mess with it.
Comparisons are inevitable, and provide ammunition for both the detractors and believers. And so with this in mind I thought it would be interesting to see where the league stood in terms of a few superlatives when compared to an established league. I don't think it will lead to any other seismic conclusions other than confirm how far the MLS has come and is here to stay. For the purposes of efficiency and familiarity, and with all due respect to La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and all other leagues out there I have chosen the English Premier League (EPL) as my objective benchmark. Although the EPL was created in 1992, soccer in England can actually be traced back to 1888 when twelve clubs decided to establish the Football League First Division. This was renamed the EPL in 1992 but without any change in the competition structure.
The first record of a game played in the United States according to Football Association rules was between Princeton University and Rutgers University. I don't quite know what Association rules these were but apparently each side had 25 players! Rutgers won 6-4. Professional soccer in the United States has been around since 1967 although in its current competitive format Major League Soccer has existed since 1996. So how does an 18-year-old emerging league compare to a 126-year national institution? Let's cherry pick a few superlatives and find out.
The worst kept secret in MLS right now belongs to Landon Donovan who is one goal shy of becoming the leading goal-scorer ever in MLS. With 134 goals he is currently tied with Jeff Cunningham who no longer plays. I wait with bated breath every week to see if I will witness history in the making but no goal yet. It's cool Mr. Donovan, it's only week three.
In the EPL there is one name and one name only that stands head and shoulders above everyone else: Newcastle and England legend Alan Shearer who in a career spanning 18 years scored 283 goals. Remarkable stuff.
For those interested in most goals by a player in a season, MLS gives the EPL a run for its money with 27 by both Roy Lassiter and Chris Wondolowski who are just behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Shearer's 31 in the EPL.
The most goals scored in a game by a single player currently stands at five, both for the EPL and MLS. Four players have done this in England (Andrew Cole, Alan Shearer, Jermain Defoe, Dimitar Berbatov) while for MLS the one-and-only Clint Mathis is the only player to have done so in 2000 for the Metrostars against the Dallas Burn.
I think the world over knows that Manchester United have won more EPL titles than any other club at 13 and that DC United and LA Galaxy share the spoils with four titles each in MLS. But as an interesting aside the longest winning streak in EPL is 14 by Arsenal. I'm sure Arsene Wenger wishes that were the case now! The LA Galaxy though has one more, winning 15 consecutive times from 1997-1998, the most wins in a row by an MLS team. That run must have been helped to some extent by Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman who holds the MLS record for most shutouts in a career at 84.
For the EPL, this record is held by David James who in his illustrious career kept 173 clean sheets playing for eight different clubs.
In terms of teams and final scores, an interesting symmetry exists between the EPL and MLS. Highest scoring game in the EPL? Portsmouth 7-4 Reading on September 29, 2007. And in the MLS? That took place nine years earlier, on June 5, 1998 when the LA Galaxy defeated the Colorado Rapids in Colorado. Final score line? 4-7. Weird.
Similarly the biggest home win by a club in the EPL is Manchester United's 9-0 against Ipswich Town on March 4, 1995. In the MLS the biggest win ever was by the LA Galaxy again who put eight goals past the Dallas Burn on June 4, 1998. Final score? 8-1 to the Galaxy, another nine extravaganza. Remarkably in the same game, Armenian Harutyun Karapetyan scored the fastest hat trick in MLS history, putting three past the Dallas Burn goalkeeper in just five minutes.
Harut's record though is 27 seconds slower than the irrepressible Robbie Fowler's, who put three goals in the net while playing for Liverpool against Arsenal on August 28, 1994 in just 4 minutes and 33 seconds.
For the fastest goal ever MLS beats EPL to the punch. On October 20, 2013 Tim Cahill scored against the Houston Dynamo for the New York Red Bulls from 22 yards out in just eight seconds after the match had begun.
In the EPL thirteen years earlier Ledley King was just 1.9 seconds slower. He scored for Tottenham Hotspur against Wigan Athletic in just 9.9 seconds on December 9, 2000.
If there is one conclusion one can reach based on this quick review of superlative stats it is the rich history that exists in Major League Soccer and how much progress has been made in such a short space of time. As a lifelong soccer fan from England, with first my home team Reading FC, then Arsenal and now my adopted New York Red Bulls, I am enjoying MLS tremendously. I don't know whether it will be the current 50 million U.S. soccer fans or the millions of kids playing out there today who will carry the game forward. A recent ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report however revealed that both MLS and MLB can now claim 18 percent of 12-to-17 year olds as fans of the sport. Both at the local and national level this is a great base for future growth.
In a similar manner, I am also looking forward to watching the USMNT take the field in Brazil in a few months time and seeing what they can do. Perhaps their performance can bring the World Cup to U.S. soil again. The one-and-only time that happened in 1994 the tournament, won by Brazil, drew an average attendance of 68,991 per game, a World Cup record that still stands today.