"How long are the matches? Eighty minutes?"
This was a question I was met with when discussing Major League Soccer recently with someone who'd seen nothing nothing of the division. Fully developed athletes playing for 80 minutes, like under-18s? No, this is proper football.
This is a competitive league, with noisy fans, bitter rivalries and grand stadiums. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, this isn't a retirement home. Michael Bradley is only 26-years-old, prospective new boy Robinho has just turned 30.
The MLS provided the United States national team with ten players for the World Cup, a number DaMarcus Beasley has since added to - this a campaign in which the side went further than Spain, Italy, England or Portugal. Anyone moving Stateside in the hope of some well-earned respite from the rigors of European football will be quickly found out.
Not content with being scoffed at, though, the division and its franchises are constantly striving for improvement. Three years ago, Sporting Kansas City scrapped out a 0-0 stalemate with Newcastle United in an international friendly - the Magpies would go on to finish fifth in the Premier League, beating Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool along the way.
Two men who started that night go by the names of Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. Both have recently signed Designated Player contracts with the Wizards, the latter stunning Sunderland by rejecting their offer.
While Bradley and Clint Dempsey may have returned to the league, amid much fanfare, this was the first high-profile example an MLS star snubbing a big transfer to Europe and making their future intentions clear. That's not to say there isn't still room for improvement. DeAndre Yedlin will almost certainly move across the Atlantic within the next year, after impressing several potential suitors with his penetrative wing-play in Brazil. However, the progress is there for all to see.
Ashley Cole may have discarded North American football as akin to "relaxing on a beach", but his ex-colleagues don't dominate in the way he may expect. The only man to have played in England and collected the prestigious MVP award is Landon Donovan, whose loan spells with Everton spanned 22 matches.
Far from this being the only evidence, though, MLS sides have spent the last week jostling with visitors from the Premier League. Yedlin figured in Seattle Sounders FC's 3-3 draw with Tottenham Hotspur last week. The Lilywhites' outfit contained millions of pounds worth of talent, including Etienne Capoue, Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela, and were thoroughly tested by the MLS table-toppers, falling behind twice.
Spurs were almost held again by a weak Toronto FC team, requiring a late Andros Townsend stunner, while elsewhere, Tony Pulis' well-drilled Crystal Palace couldn't out-score the Columbus Crew, as Daniel Paladini's equaliser with ten minutes to go brought the scoreline to 2-2.
This summer is hardly the first time that MLS franchises have stood toe-to-toe with clubs of significant stature, either. In 2011, the New York Red Bulls defeated Paris Saint-Germain and tied with Arsenal, and the LA Galaxy were only beaten by Manchester City after a penalty shoot-out. A year later, the four-time US champions traded blows with a Gareth Bale-inspired Tottenham.
Though sceptics may point to Manchester United's 7-0 crushing of the Galaxy on Wednesday night, it was a result that could have been predicted. A strong selection of players were no doubt buoyed by Louis van Gaal's presence in the dugout, and the Red Devils have a notoriously good record in the States, previously having cruised to the same scoreline against the Sounders.
League development crucial
An oft-made comment as Team USA attacked the World Cup was, "This will be good for the sport - once the Americans get behind it, it'll really take off over there." While there's no doubt that an extended run in a major international tournament can have down no harm to US-soccer relations, an elite league with world-renowned players would attract fans more than anything else, and it's getting there.
Just a year prior to their fixture with Newcastle, Sporting KC were playing in front of four-figure crowds. Next season, they'll visit the Yankee Stadium to take on New York City FC and David Villa - a World Cup winner and two-time European champion with Spain. The next step is surely a CONCACAF Champions League victory, and qualification for the World Club Championships, as with better players come greater opportunities for silverware.
At the current rate, there's every chance that uneducated queries about the MLS will very soon be a thing of the past.
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