The mantra of Major League Soccer over the past few years has been that they wanted to be among the world's best leagues by 2020. How one goes about measuring such a thing is something people have long debated, but there's at least one metric that suggests MLS is moving in the right direction: Players representing the league in the World Cup.
Four years after only having six current players at the South Africa World Cup, MLS could be represented by as many as 31 in Brazil, or the eighth most of any league in the world. Admittedly, that number includes five alternates and 15 United States men's national team players -- some of whom will invariably not make the final 23-man roster -- but there's still a very good chance that MLS will set its own high-water mark for World Cup representation.
The only year MLS had comparable representation was back in 1998, the first World Cup after MLS launched in 1996. That year MLS was represented by 21 players, but that was heavily skewed toward Americans. All but five of the MLS players in that World Cup were playing for the USMNT and only two of them played outside CONCACAF.
While MLS won't quite equal the 16 players they sent to France representing the Stars and Stripes, the league now has a far more balanced catalog of international-quality players. Even excluding players who have only been named as alternates, there should be 11 players from foreign countries representing MLS in Brazil. Among those 11 are guys like Brazil's starting goalkeeper Julio Cesar, Australia's all-time leading scorer Tim Cahill and four players representing each of Costa Rica and Honduras.
The single biggest change from four years ago is that USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann is, ironically, taking a much harder look at MLS than his predecessor Bob Bradley did. Bradley, who had coached in MLS prior to taking the national team job, only picked four domestic-based players to Brazil. That was less than half as many as Bruce Arena took in 2006 or 2002 (11 both years) and a fourth as many as Steve Sampson brought in 1998 (16). Even if you discount the American players who returned to MLS over the past year, Klinsmann has still selected 10 players whose primary professional experience has been in the domestic league.
But the other major reason for the uptick -- and in some ways this is more promising -- is that other CONCACAF nations are increasingly looking to MLS as a viable to place to find national teamers. While countries like Costa Rica and Honduras have historically been heavily weighted toward picking players from their own domestic league, their top players who aren't quite ready for Europe are now heading to MLS.
No, MLS is not anywhere near breaking into the truly elite leagues of the world in this sense, but at least it's competing with the likes of Mexico and Portugal.