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America’s global sports league: Deep dive on MLS demographics

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In many ways MLS stands apart from all other other leagues in the world’s most popular sport. The United States’ top tier of professional soccer features a centralised ownership model, calendar-year season and egalitarian transfer system, all of which run in direct opposition to Europe’s most celebrated leagues.

However over the last three decades that unique system has allowed a homegrown-heavy national Sports comPetition to develop into the most geographically diverse major leagues in North America, boasting a wider variety of nationalities than any of the ‘big five’ in Europe.

With new data released today by MLS we take a closer look at the demography of the league. Here’s everything you need to know about the United States’ broadest sporting church...

Which cities produce the most soccer players?

Over the course of its 29-year history MLS has gradually moved away from the draft model used in other American sports. Talented prospects are typically signed to team academies at a young age, working their way through the ranks with their hometown club in a system designed to create pathways to the senior team.

Now, more than ever, clubs are looking to bring through their own young talent and certain areas of the country have become real hotspots. Of current MLS players Toronto is the league’s most common birthplace, followed by New York City.

Which cities produce the most soccer players?
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Toronto and NYC are fertile ground for MLS talent.MLS

In terms of states, California stands above the rest as the most productive in the US. The Golden State is the birthplace of 52 players currently plying their trade in MLS, comfortably enough to fill two entire rosters. Again, there is considerable New York representation, while New Jersey comes in at third. Of the 50 states, 39 have at least one current MLS representative.

Which nations produce the most MLS players?

Unlike many of the top European leagues, MLS clubs have a limited number of spaces for overseas talent. Teams begin with eight international spots each, although these can be traded between teams as part of transfer negotiations.

These rules have ensured that the United States remains the most prolific producer of MLS talent, with Canada a distant second place. Unsurprisingly, South America nations complete the top five most-represented nations in the league.

Which nations produce the most MLS players?
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Argentina leads the way as MLS' most popular import.MLS

Lionel Messi has been exceptional in almost every way since his arrival in the league last summer, but his nationality is incredibly common. Argentinians are the most numerous of all overseas nationalities represented in MLS with 35 players, including Messi and fellow World Cup winner Thiago Almada.

In total there are 79 different countries represented in MLS, more than in any of the United States’ other major sports leagues. The NBA (45 nationalities) is a distant second, ahead of the NFL (29), MLB (23), and NHL (22).

MLS also boasts a more geographically diverse pool of players than any of Europe’s top soccer leagues. The globally dominant Premier League comes close with 69 different nationalities but even that cannot match the spread found in the US’ top tier.

MLS, the nation’s youngest sports league

Compared to most competitors the MLS, founded in 1996, is a very young sports league. That’s also true of its players, who contribute to the youngest average age of any of the major sports leagues in the United States.

As of May 13 2024 the average age of MLS rosters is 26.13 years old. NBA is the next closest league at 26.48 years old, followed by the NFL (27.23), MLB (29.15), and the NHL (29.34). This, considering the number of veterans strolling around Miami alone, may not fit with some overseas fans’ image of the league.

Why is MLS the nation's youngest league?
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MLS is America's youngest major sports league.MLS

In the first thee months of the 2024 MLS campaign more than 150 players aged 22 or younger had appeared in at least one game in the league. The youngest of them was New York Red Bulls’ prodigy Julian Hall, who featured at the age of 15 years, 11 months and 28 days. In his debut against Inter Miami he came up against 37-year-old Luis Suarez, who made his professional debut three years before Hall was born.

Earlier this year Philadelphia Union prospect Cavan Sullivan signed his first professional contract at the age of 14 years, 7 months and 11 days. If he makes his debut in the coming months he will beat Freddy Adu and Alphonso Davies to become the youngest player in MLS history. No mean feat in the nation’s youngest sports league.

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