It’s really no secret that Major League Soccer is becoming more international. In a bid to boost the quality of the competition, the top division of the United States and Canada has taken to signing more foreign players than ever before. While investment in academy programs is a major focus of MLS, developing young players takes time. MLS is in a race of ever-increasing speed for the attention of consumers who not only have other sports options, but can partake of any number of leagues from around the world on a near-daily basis.
But just how international is MLS at this point, on the cusp of its 21st season? According to the work of Rukkus.com using information provided by Stats, Inc., 51.93% of players on current rosters were born outside of the United States (since Canadian players are “domestic” for three of the league’s teams, it should be noted that the number includes Canada’s contingent— 46% of MLS players were born outside of North America). Diving into the same data to plot the birthplaces of professional athletes from North America’s four other major sports league, the NFL, NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, Rukkus has put together a fascinating interactive map that illustrates not just how many MLS players hail from abroad, but how the league compares to its fellow sports properties.
In total, MLS has 62 countries represented by its players, a number that dwarfs the second place league, (surprisingly) the NFL (25).
Heat maps show what many in American soccer circles already know: New York/Northern New Jersey and Southern California are the country’s two most vibrant soccer regions. Of players born in the United States, a significant concentration of them come from those two areas.
But for as hot as Cali and the NYC area are for MLS, their heat is practically non-existent when compared to the U.S. maps of the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Only the NHL has a heat map that is close to as diffused as that of MLS, and even then the number of hockey players born near Toronto and Montreal make for a stark contrast.
Other areas of concentration for MLS— in relative terms— include Toronto and Jamaica.
Rukkus reports that Louisiana has more professional athletes per capita than any other state, but only two MLS players were born there: Patrick Mullins of D.C. United and Andrew Tarbell of the San Jose Earthquakes.
Rukkus also determined the geographic midpoint for each of the leagues plotted, the spot on the map that is the geographic center of the total population of player birthplaces. The more international the league, the further away from the U.S. geographic midpoint of Wright County, Missouri their midpoint is. The NFL, the most heavily American of all of the leagues studied by Rukkus, has a geographic midpoint just 115 miles away from Wright County.
The geographic midpoint of Major League Soccer, on the other hand, is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The number of players who come from Europe and Africa tilt the data and pull the midpoint east towards those continents. With the trend towards signing more foreign talent showing no signs of stopping, we can expect that point to continue to move further away from the mainland.