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Impact of MLS on the United States in International Competitions

USA Men's Team

It has been many years since MLS was formed, with the league growing from 10 teams in 1996 to 20 teams by 2024. That means more players and staff are needed too, not to mention a growing fan base injecting much more cash into the different franchises.

The league is more competitive, more popular, and plays a higher standard of soccer than ever before.

Competition for top players is fierce, but the structure of the league means the distribution of players is about more than how much you can afford to pay. Unless of course, a club can promote a youth team player to their first team, courtesy of the homegrown player rule.

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because the United States had an international soccer team long before MLS come along. They haven’t ever ranked very highly on the world stage, but then, they haven’t historically had a very large pool of players to choose from.

The growth of MLS, and specifically the focus on training homegrown players, has changed this. The question I want to answer, is whether it has impacted their performance in international competitions?

World Cup Performances

USA World Cup

The United States came 3rd in the World Cup way back in 1930, but things were very different back then, so it’s not useful to include in our analysis.

The country’s best performance in recent history was their 2002 campaign in Japan, where they finished in 8th place after making it all the way to the Quarter Finals.

This was 6 years after the very first MLS season, so it’s reasonable to think the new league may have had an impact on the quality of players available for the national side.

However, since then, they have only got as far as the Round of 16, and in 2018 they didn’t even qualify.

This is partly down to the luck of the draw – some groups are harder than others – but with an expanding talent pool year on year you would expect to see a National team getting stronger, not stagnating or worse still, going backwards.

In fairness, there has been some unbelievable talent on the national stage over the past few decades, and the quality of football has improved worldwide. The United States of today may well be better than the United States of the 1990s, but if other countries have improved in equal measure, it’s meaningless.

In other words, the calibre of the competition in the World Cup is incredibly high, and it will take a long time for the United States to make real sustained progress in the tournament. But what about lesser known international events?



A replacement for the old CONCACAF Championship, the Gold Cup is a continental tournament, so the quality of teams taking part is comparatively low. Teams like Curacao, Belize and Grenada are unlikely to trouble a squad from the USA.

That said, Mexico compete and often win, so the Gold Cup is not without its challenges. They also have invitees, with Brazil and Columbia being two of the stronger teams invited to take part in the past. To give you an idea of how difficult the CONCACAF Gold Cup is, when Brazil took part in 1996 they fielded their under-23s team… and came 2nd.

Nonetheless, the USA has a strong performance record here, winning on 7 occasions since 1991, and coming 2nd on 5 more.

Interestingly, after their 1991 win, the USA went 4 years without winning the cup. They lost out 3 times to Mexico and once to Canada. Their next win came in 2002, the same year as their best World Cup performance in recent history, so they were obviously benefiting from an improved talent pool at that time.

They have shared the trophy fairly equally with Mexico since then. But they have also come 4th twice since 2015, a poor result for the United States in a tournament at this level.

Has MLS had a positive impact on the national team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup? I would say so. It’s been up and down, but the drought ended not long after Major League Soccer was launched.

COPA America

USA Copa America

The United States have only been invited to play in the COPA America on 5 occasions, achieving 4th place in 1995 and 2016.

So the country’s joint best performances were before the MLS and 20 years after it began. This suggests no real progress has been made by the national team since MLS, but once again, we have to appreciate where the United States were starting from in comparison to other nations.

The competition in the COPA America is much tougher than the Gold Cup. World Cup winning teams like Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil all take part.

In these parts of the world football is ingrained in society, and for many, is seen as the only way out of poverty. No wonder they produce such dazzling talent as Messi, Luis Suárez, and Kaká, all of whom have shone during their stints in MLS.

Homegrown Players in the USA National Team

Home Grown Player Impact

The summary of all this is that MLS doesn’t appear to have improved the fortunes of the national team, at least not on the face of it.

They have won trophies in lesser-known competitions since the league’s inception, but in bigger tournaments, not much has changed.

However, the homegrown player rule was only introduced in 2008, so it hasn’t had long to have an impact. Think about it. A 10-year-old in 2008 would only be 20 years old in 2018, and big international tournaments only come around every 2-4 years.

What’s more, grassroots level interest in soccer only built momentum in the last 10 years. All those American kids who dreamed of being soccer players are only just maturing into adulthood. It is the next two decades that will tell us the real answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article.

Plenty of players from the homegrown route have earned international caps though. As of 2024, 43 homegrown players have donned the United States jersey. The number of homegrown players coming through the ranks is growing each year, so I believe this number will grow rapidly over the next decade.

This is like turning a huge cargo ship. It will take time. The changes won’t be immediately noticeable, but the ship is turning nonetheless.

The MLS hasn’t helped produce a squad of World Cup-challenging young soccer players yet, but that’s because it has only just built enough momentum to do so.

Look at this graph of the team’s FIFA world ranking:
USA Mens Soccer Team FIFA World Ranking History

Since 1996, FIFA’s world rankings have had the USA as high as 4th and as low as 36th in the world, but their average position has been 20th. Zoom in to only look at the past 5 years though, and that average position climbs to 16th.

So progress is there, but it’s hiding under the surface.