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The Evolution of Overseas Player Representation in the MLS

By: Andy Cooper

Since OptaPro first started covering the MLS, the competition has grown and expanded at breakneck speed.

Back in 2006, 300 players appeared in the League’s regular season, which saw twelve franchises split into two conferences. Fast-forward a decade and the total number of franchises had grown to twenty, with 509 different players all seeing game-time during the 2016 campaign.

With average attendances rising every year since 2013 and a total aggregate season attendance now in excess of 7 million, interest in the MLS appears to be at an all-time high. Indeed over 55,000 people turned up to watch Atlanta United’s first ever MLS fixture earlier on this month, with over 250,000 people combined turning up watch all of the matches played over the opening weekend of 2017.

Although two-thirds of each franchise’s player roster still has to adhere to an annual salary cap of $3,845,000, the increase in the number of teams and the introduction of the designated player rule has seen league-wide salary expenditure rise considerably during the last decade. Since 2008, franchises have also been allocated eight international player slots, which are tradeable, which given the League’s expansion to 22 teams this year means that there are now 176 slots open for international players. Compare that to 2006, when only 90 of the League’s players were from countries other than the United States and Canada.

Given all these developments, we thought it would be interesting to see how the make-up of players participating in the MLS has changed over the past decade.

At the same time, we also wondered if there had been any correlation with the number of American and Canadian players active in the MLS, with the total number of players from both of these countries based in Europe. Are there now more players playing in the ‘Big-Five’ European leagues as a direct result of the growth, expansion and development of the MLS?

In this Blog, we will try to find some answers.

Part 1: Changes in the Make-Up of MLS Rosters

Throughout this Blog, all our findings relate to figures measured bi-annually, focusing on the 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 MLS campaigns.

Due to the increase in the number of MLS franchises, we have chosen to measure changes in the number of American and Canadian players based on the total percentage of players who appeared in at least one game during a regular season.

As you can see in the graph below, since 2006 there has been a drop of over 20% in the percentage of total players who are American. Following the rule introducing international slots in 2008, you can see there was an 8% drop, which dropped again to a total of just over 50% in 2012. These figures steadily recovered over the next two years, but dropped again quite substantially in 2016.

As the American figures have dropped, you can see that since the introduction of the first Canadian franchise in 2008 (Toronto FC), the total percentage of Canadian players has remained around the 4% mark, but there was a notable increase between 2014 and 2016, when the number of players rose from 20 to 24.

* = must have appeared in at least one regular season match

Whilst the percentage of MLS players from the US has fallen during the last 10 years, it is worth remembering that due to the expansion of the league, there were more Americans playing in the league last year, 242, compared to 2006, when the number stood at 206.

However, since 2012 there has been a noticeable decline in the number of players playing in the League from North and Central American countries as a whole, which takes on greater significance when you consider that in 2016, the MLS had expanded from 19 to 20 franchises.

Between 2006 and 2012, there was a sharp increase in players from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia, which will come as no surprise given that period coincided with the introduction of the international player slots, but whilst the number of South American players has stabilised since 2012, the number of European and African players has continued to rise. There has also been a small reduction in players from the AFC confederation playing in the MLS.

Back in 2006, the overseas country with the most players in the MLS was Mexico, seven of which were affiliated to Chivas USA. Fast-forward a decade and the number of Mexican players had shrunk by two-thirds, with only 3 players represented last year.

Following the introduction of the international slots, there was initially a sharp increase in the number of players from Argentina, but their numbers have fluctuated considerably over the years. After four years of steady decline, when they dropped from 20 players in 2008 down to 9 in 2012, they have since picked up and last year they had more players in the MLS than any other non-American/Canadian country, with 25. There are also a lot of Brazilian players in the league, with their numbers remaining pretty consistent since 2010.

Last season there were 20 English players, continuing a steady increase since 2010, but probably the most interesting country is Colombia. From having no players in 2006, their numbers rose considerably, up to 30 in 2012, before declining sharply down to 9 in 2014. Their numbers have since recovered, with 16 players competing last season.

In addition to looking at the total number of players who appeared in the MLS, we have also looked into the nationalities of the players who played in more than 1500 minutes of the total regular season. This roughly equates to players who played in at least 50% of the total regular season on-field minutes available.

Focusing initially on the Confederation of each player’s nationality, we have again seen a steady decline in the proportion of players coming from North and Central American countries, with the total percentage dropping on each occasion during the period reviewed.

From 2006-2014, South America was the continent providing the most players outside of North America, but last season it was overtaken by Europe, who provided just under 19% of the total 228 players who played in more than 1500 minutes. This meant that nearly 1 in 5 of these players were European.

It is also fascinating to look at the breakdown of the overseas countries providing regular first-team players to the franchises. The chart below shows how there has been a steep rise in the number of players from Argentina who have played over 1500 minutes in a regular season, rising from 5 in 2012 to 14 last year. England has also seen a similar increase in numbers during the same period.

In contrast, the number of players from Colombia and Brazil has dropped, with the numbers for the latter dropping from 11 in 2014, to 5 in 2016.

In 2016, the overseas country with the third-highest number of players was Jamaica with 8, after a long period where their total number remained fixed at 6 players.

One generalisation frequently made by the media is that a large proportion of international MLS players tend to be approaching the end of their playing careers when they move to North America.

We have taken a look to see if there is any credibility to this statement by looking at the number of international players from each country under the age of 30.

Back in 2006, all English players were under 30 and even in 2012, 70% of them would have fitted into this age bracket. However last season, only 10 of the 20 English players were under 30.

England are the exception to the rule though. If you look at all the other major countries, over two-thirds of their MLS players were under 30 in each of the 2006, 2012 and 2016 seasons, which suggests that the vast majority of players from these countries are consistently playing in the MLS at the peak of their career.

We have also included Canada in our Under 30 chart, as it is worth noting that following the introduction of the new Canadian franchises during the past decade, there has been a marked increase in the number of younger Canadian players playing MLS soccer.

Part 2: American and Canadian Players Playing Overseas

Having established that the combined percentage of American and Canadian players in the MLS has steadily declined during the last decade, we decided to focus the second part of our research on changes to the number of these players playing overseas in Europe.

Initially we grouped leagues into four categories: the ‘Big-5’ European Leagues; the second tier in those ‘Big-5’ countries, four Scandinavian top-flight divisions (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland) and finally, twelve other European top-flight divisions grouped together, which include Holland, Belgium and Portugal.

With regards to the ‘Big Five’ top-flight Leagues, we have discovered that there has been a steady decline in the number of American and Canadian players since the 2009/10 season. Back then, there were 22 players who made at least one appearance across these leagues, but last year this figure had dropped to just 13.

However, as these figures have dropped, there was a noticeable increase in the number of players playing in the second tier of the same countries between 2011/12 and 2013/14. The numbers had steadily dipped before 2009/10, but recovered in 2013/14 to the point where there was over 20 players playing across these divisions, however these numbers have since dipped again.

At the turn of the last decade, there was a major rise in the number of players who were playing in the Scandinavian top flights, but there was a major drop between 2011/12 and 2013/14, before recovering slightly last year.

As well as looking at the total number of players, we also elected to review the total collective on-field minutes played by these players during the same period, to see if the drop in total player numbers had resulted in a noticeable drop in the volume of match-minutes.

We found that this was emphatically the case, with major drops evident in the ‘Big-5’, Scandinavian and the other top-flight European leagues between 2011/12 and 2013/14. Of those groups, only Scandinavia recovered and saw an increase in total minutes played last season.

When we look at the ‘Big-5’ in isolation, it is clear that the English Premier League and German 1.Bundesliga dominate when it comes to having American and Canadian players.

The number of players playing in the Bundesliga has remained relatively stable in recent years, however the Premier League has seen a major drop in the number of players. Compared to a high of 14 players in 2007/8, only 5 combined American and Canadian players saw game-time in the league last season.

There were no players who featured in either La Liga or Serie A last season either, with just one player in Ligue 1.

Again, as well as looking at the total number of players, we have also looked at the total aggregate minutes played by the American and Canadian players in each division.

We have found that whilst the total number of players in Germany has remained stable, there has been a significant drop-off in the total minutes played since the peak of 2011/12. The same drop-off has also occurred in the Premier League during the same period, which mirrors the decline in the number of players.

When we review the second tier of the ‘Big-5’ leagues, you can see that there has been major fluctuations in the number of combined American and Canadian players in the English Championship.

When the number of players in the Premier League was at an all-time high in 2007/8, there was a huge drop in the number of players in the Championship. This can be explained in part by the fact that four players played for teams who were promoted, however when those teams were then relegated, we did not see the number of players in the Championship immediately increase. The numbers then did increase substantially in 2013/14.

In 2.Bundesliga, there has been a steady drop in players since 2012 and last season only two players in the division would have been considered first-team regulars: Bobby Wood (then at Union Berlin) and Shawn Barry at FSV Frankfurt, who were relegated at the end of the season.

As with the top flights, there has been little representation of American and Canadian players in the French, Italian and Spanish second divisions during the last decade.

Finally as a footnote, whilst there has been a small sprinkling of American and Canadian players in the Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese, Scottish, Turkish and Greek top flights over the past decade, last season only 6 players featured across all of these leagues combined, half of whom played in Scotland.


Whilst the MLS has gone from strength-to-strength, expanding in size with increased interest, attendances and an array of global stars, it would appear that there is now a smaller proportion of American and Canadian players appearing regularly. This has also coincided with a major drop in the number of American and Canadian players playing in the major European leagues too.

It is interesting to note that only four European-based players were initially called-up by the United States for their recent World Cup qualifiers, with two-thirds of the total squad being attached to MLS franchises. Compare that to their 2014 World Cup squad, when 12 European-based players were named.

The changes in the demographic make-up of the MLS mirror similar changes we have highlighted in previous Blogs on Serie A in Italy and La Liga in Spain – and it will now be interesting to see, moving forward, if existing salary-cap restrictions are adapted, as suggested recently by Andrea Pirlo, to enable franchises to recruit more elite players from Europe, which has now surpassed South America as the region providing the most foreigners to the League.

Either way it is clear that during the past decade, the MLS has changed considerably and it will be interesting to see if current trends continue.