Here’s a question that comes up sometimes: How do Major League Soccer teams compare with English teams? I thought I would take a shot at it.
Clearly, it’s impossible to answer for sure. Even on their summer tours, the English clubs are just starting their preseason, they don’t play their full-strength teams, and the MLS sides – while in the middle of their season – often play reserves, as well. So you kind of have to set those games aside.
Other aspects of comparing England and MLS include the travel and support. What if you dropped an MLS team in England? How would they do? Well, they would find the travel easier, and they would benefit from having a few thousand of their fans at every away game. As for the players … we’ll get to that.
It’s the reverse, of course, if you drop an English team into MLS; they would be shocked at the distances traveled, and they would have very little support away from home. They would also have to figure out playing on turf in many stadiums. And best of luck to them playing in Texas or Florida in the summer!
The way I see it, there are three ways to answer this question. You can ask the players, check the money, and check the (supposedly) stats-based comparisons.
MLS vs Premier League: What do the players say?
Every year, ESPN does an anonymous poll of MLS players, and in 2017 one of the questions they asked was “How would MLS teams fare in the Premier League?” Their answers were all over the place, but two-thirds of them thought the best MLS team could survive in the Premier League.
Of course, they don’t want to piss on their own league, and most of them have never played in England. That’s two grains of salt. One player, Liam Ridgewell (then) of the Portland Timbers, told an English paper that MLS was “about like the Championship.”
“You get such a mix,” he went on. “You get to play against New York City and against [Andrea] Pirlo, [David] Villa and [Frank] Lampard and you will play another team that haven’t got all those DPs [designated players] and you are playing a different game.”
The problem with what players say about MLS vs England is that, whichever league they’re in, and even when they are anonymous, they will largely be respectful. So we need a more analytical approach.
MLS vs England: The Money
Wages: What do the players get paid?
The worldwide market for soccer players is, at least in theory, completely open. China wildly overpays, and England has so much TV money that they get charged a premium for players, as well. But, in essence, the best players all over the world get found, get paid, and can move around as they wish – and the biggest, best clubs have the most money. So when Liverpool line up against AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup, we assume just from the shirts, transfer fees and paychecks that Liverpool’s players are much better across the board.
As this article suggests, then, nobody in MLS would ever stay in the Premier League. The average total MLS team salary in 2016 (the time of that article) was $8 million. Leicester City, when they won the Premier League in fairy-tale fashion that year, had a payroll of about $63 million. The lowest in the Premier League that year? Bournemouth at $33 million. Aston Villa, a terrible team who got relegated that year, paid their players $85 million!
I found some figures for the Championship that are a few years old, but they show that the clubs paid their players from $8 to $49 million. Again, those are a couple years old, so we can only assume that by now they are higher.
So where does a team with an $8 million payroll land? The bottom of the Championship.
Speaking of the Championship, this article found that the average player salary there in 2020 was £29,000 a week, which is about $40,000 per week. So the average Championship player makes in ten weeks what he would make in an MLS season.
This 2019 survey found similar numbers. It says the Premier League leads the football world by paying an average annual salary per player of $3.97 million. MLS, meanwhile, ranks seventh at an average of $410,000 per year per player.
For me, that makes it pretty simple: I get $410,000 x 11 to put together a team, and you get about ten times as much? We all know how that game is coming out.
Of course, those are averages. What about individual clubs? Well, in that survey the lowest-spending team in the Premier League was Sheffield United at an average salary of $910,000. The highest in MLS was Toronto at $758,000.
Transfer Fees: Ranking Players by Worth
Going back to our original theory on money, players all over the world are evaluated for their talent and potential, then they wind up with a financial “value” that would, in theory, be their transfer fee, or value of their contract. When you hear talk of a team “buying” a player, this is what they mean.
There are many asterisks we could put on this, and MLS is a weird league in the global marketplace because players are actually contracted to the league, not the team … but you get the basic idea.
So who spends what on “buying” players? Well, this article says the Premier League spent an average of £16.2 million, or $22.3 million, per transfer in the 2019-20 season. The highest ever in MLS was the $15 million Atlanta United spent for Ezequiel Barco.
In the Championship, the most recent figures I could find were these by club, showing the highest spenders in that league averaging $49 million on transfers per season. The lowest spenders in the Championship at that point, Hull City (now in League One, not coincidentally), spent $7 million per season on transfers.
The Bottom Line on MLS vs England in Financial Terms
To get and pay players, you have to spend money. The more money you spend, the better your players. And the website Transfermarkt.com tracks all of this, assigning values to clubs based on the players on their roster. The most valuable team in MLS, by this measure, is LAFC at $92.5 million, with the league as a whole coming in at $1.2 billion, or an average of $44.4 million per club.
That LAFC value would put them around 7th in the Championship, where the average club value is $79 million.
By this measure, the average MLS team is right around the middle of the Championship, right between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town. So, based on money alone, there’s no way that even the best MLS team would ever stay up in the Premier League.
England vs MLS: How Do They Compare on the Pitch?
Statistics are coming along in the world of soccer, and they could be helpful here.
The website fivethirtyeight.com has a list of Global Club Soccer Rankings. You can read how it works here, but it boils down to a Soccer Power Index (SPI) based on a predicted score between any team and a neutral team on a neutral field. As of this writing, it has Manchester City #1 in the world, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea also in the top 10. The lowest-ranked Premier League team in their system is Sheffield United at #140 in the world.
Where are MLS teams in the FiveThirtyEight system? LAFC again comes in at #1 in the league … and #179 in the world. Their 51.0 SPI would put them eighth in the Championship. The lowest MLS team — FC Cincinnati with an SPI of 23.7 — would land 10th in League One.
Another website using this data is Global Football Rankings, where the Premier League is ranked #1 in the world, the Championship #9, and MLS #20. League Two is ranked 33rd.
That site has a handy comparison tool that lets you see how clubs would finish in a theoretical season mixing the two leagues. We can already assume that MLS vs the Premier League is no kind of matchup — and they confirm this — but comparing MLS to the English League Championship is more interesting. In that hypothetical league, the top seven spots would go to Championship sides, and 10 of the bottom 11 would be MLS teams.
My Final Verdict: MLS is Pretty Much League One Plus
Based on seeing, as of this writing, more than 100 games live in England and around that many in the US, and watching the Portland Timbers every week, I think the level of play and individual quality in MLS looks about like the upper half of League One, maybe the lower stretches of the Championship. I think the very best teams in MLS — like Toronto’s double-winning 2017 side — would easily manage to stay in the Championship. But I don’t think they would challenge for promotion.
MLS vs the Premier League? Not competitive at all. You could set up a tournament with the three relegated Premier League clubs plus the MLS Cup finalists and the Supporters’ Shield winners, play a round-robin, and the American clubs might win a game from six.
Of course, none of this matters, because the leagues aren’t going to be playing each other for real. Nor are they actually competing for fans: Most MLS fans have an English side they support, and nobody cares. Just don’t think that America’s best would have any chance on the field against England’s.