With Lionel Messi coming to MLS this past summer, soccer in the U.S. was forever changed. It led to an immediate impact in the popularity of the sport. Miami FC prices rose to an all time high and the number of MLS Apple subscribers have more than doubled. Moreover, the top US soccer betting sites recognizing that soccer remains the world’s most popular sport, have been promoting Miami FC’s matched on their platform to th point where Miami FC became the second most bet soccer team in the league.
At the same time, with Cristiano Ronaldo playing for Al Nassr in the Saudi Pro League, a debate has stirred about which superstar is playing in the better league right now. Ronaldo himself has stated that the Saudi League is better than MLS despite never playing in MLS. Let’s explore this topic a little to see if we can determine whether the Saudi Pro League is better than MLS.
The biggest reason why there is a debate between the Saudi Pro League and MLS is the fact that Ronaldo and several other stars made the leap from top European clubs to clubs in Saudi Arabia. Bonafide superstars like Neymar, Karim Benzema, Sadio Mané, N'Golo Kanté, Jordan Henderson, Riyad Mahrez, Ruben Neves, Roberto Firmino, and several others have all taken big paydays and joined teams in the Saudi Pro League. Needless to say, that has filled the Saudi Pro League with an abundance of star power.
On the other hand, Messi is only the biggest and latest superstar to move from Europe to MLS. The top-flight league in the U.S. has long attracted top European stars in the twilight of their career. Long before Messi, the likes of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry, David Villa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Frank Lampard all joined MLS teams. In other words, MLS was bringing in star players long before the Saudi Pro League was. Among current players, Messi is joined by the likes of Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Xherdan Shaqiri, Lorenzo Insigne, and others among former European stars finding a home in MLS.
The obvious caveat for both the Saudi Pro League and MLS is that their transplants from top European clubs are all past their primes. Even superstars like Messi and Ronaldo aren’t the elite players they once were, even if they still attract fans. To create a strong and competitive league, it takes a deep player pool, not just a dozen superstars.
This is where MLS has a clear advantage over the Saudi Pro League. Outside of stars like Messi, MLS has quality players from all over the world. MLS has a long history of having players called up to national teams despite not always recognizing international breaks. In November 2023, 45 players from the Saudi Pro League left to play for their national teams while MLS had more than twice as many leave their clubs for national team duty.
Outside of the recent collection of European stars, not all of whom still play internationally, the Saudi Pro League doesn’t send a large collection of players to national teams with some Saudi clubs only having one or two international players on their squad. Only one Saudi club had more than four players on international duty in November whereas nine MLS teams sent five or more players to their national team.
Despite Messi’s presence in MLS, the Saudi Pro League surely has a bigger collection of stars than MLS. However, the overall depth of MLS makes it a better, more competitive league. MLS has more teams, more international players, and also sends its best young players to top European clubs whereas the Saudi Pro League doesn’t. While the Saudi Pro League has done well to acquire big names and excellent talent, from top to bottom, MLS has more quality and should be considered a superior league.
Photo credit: Alamy