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Liga MX imports can provide MLS litmus test

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Let’s conduct a fun little brain exercise on a slow Premier League winter break week.

One of my favorite American soccer focuses, one that can border on obsession, is finding proper ways to measure Major League Soccer’s incredible growth while getting a bit of context.

To be clear, it’s incredibly difficult; The league’s evolution over barely more than two decades has taken place at an almost impossible pace, to my eyes a reflection of the incredible wealth in this country and the desire to matter in a sport which is generations ahead of us in a hefty percentage of nations.

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One of the biggest challenges for MLS has been that it’s not even the best league on its continent, though the metrics all say that is coming. Look no further than the Soccerex Top 100 finance report released Thursday, where MLS is second only to Premier League in terms of teams on the list, and the new CBA which will help MLS sides to compete with Liga MX for comparably-paid depth players.

Again, a huge part of that is riches and the closed system that won’t be changing any time soon now that FIFA has said its statutes apply to pretty much everyone but the U.S.A. (Yes, really).

Measuring how Liga MX’s stars and would-be European exports fare in MLS will be a far better comparison for the status of the league right now than whether imports like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney can show up and crush it. The same is true for Mexican stars like Carlos Vela and Chicharito).

So as Rodolfo Pizarro arrives in Miami, Lucas Zelarayan mixes in with Columbus, Edison Flores moves to DC, and Alan Pulido pulls on the blue of Sporting KC, watch closely: Do they slide in and dominate? That’s great for entertainment, but probably not the status of the league.

Pulido was the third-best player in the Apertura, according to Sofascore, so we can expect a lot of magic from him once he adjusts to KC. Zelarayan was 19th and Flores 28th, so close to the same idea. Pizarro was 278th, but shoulder shrug emoji.

In the other direction, and of note, Yoshimar Yotun’s production barely dipped in his first Mexican season, and Sebastian Saucedo is showing how much his MLS tenure has evolved his game from a 2016 run at Veracruz.

All should play well, but the hope in terms of league measurement is that we don’t see gaudy numbers out of any of them. No one’s rooting against them — again, we want entertainment! — but we’re hoping that days of players whose best work came in England’s League One can’t come here and set scoring records (No disrespect to BWP, but even 2014 is ages ago on the MLS scale).

I caught a Twitter thread somewhere this evening about the lack of players moving on from MLS to make big impacts in significant European leagues. There’s Tyler Adams at RB Leipzig, Alphonso Davies at Bayern, and Miguel Almiron at Newcastle (though the traditional numbers don’t show it) as quality examples.

Matt Miazga, Zack Steffen, and Jack Harrison are interesting ones to continue monitoring, and there’s a long history that includes Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, and others.

Including Rooney and Zlatan would be the stuff of trolls, given their exceptional careers before MLS and the fact that their fine form post-MLS hasn’t been met by the gaudy and dominant offensive numbers seen in their American-based years.

So Liga MX transitions either way lend us a nice litmus test. It’s not the end-all, be-all, nor do you even have to agree with the entire thesis. But as MLS continues to chase Liga MX in competitions like the CONCACAF Champions League it does sure feel like a chance to stack some surface-level impressions into something closer to fact.