MLS Jersey Sales Leaders Reflect Poorly on Fans


One of the central criticisms of MLS (and American) soccer fans is that their heads are turned more by aging stars than the real playmakers of the league. Well, if MLS jersey sales are any reflection of fan appreciation, that criticism is spot on this year.

Today, ESPN released a piece detailing the top 20 jersey sellers in MLS. The list was headlined by US International Clint Dempsey which wasn’t a surprise to anyone. What was a little surprising to many is that other US Internationals didn’t fare nearly as well on the list.

Michael Bradley, arguably the top US player in the world today, was third on last season’s list and is nowhere to be found in the top 20 this year. The next highest USMNT player on the list is Brek Shea at number nine. This is the same Brek Shea that has struggled to find a meaningful role in Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad and was an abject failure during his time in the Premier League.

More damning than the lack of support for the best US players was the complete lack of respect given to the league’s leading scorer Sebastian Giovinco. The Toronto FC star finished twelth in jersey sales. This blows my mind. He’s by far the best player in the league and plays in a relatively large market. Did the majority of people who purchased MLS jerseys actually bother to watch any games?

I can understand having him finish behind some of the more established names like Pirlo, Gerrard and Lampard, but finishing behind Bradley Wright-Phillips and Robbie Keane is ridiculous. He’s an Italian international who’s the most prolific striker in the league. Parents should be forcing their kids in Giovinco jerseys on general principle.

Another fact that would really concern me as an MLS fan is that only three of last year’s top 15 jersey sellers found their way into the top 20 this year (Dempsey, Graham Zusi and Robbie Keane). This indicates a real lack of staying power for the league’s domestic and young products. Again, there’s no shame in getting bumped down the list by the big incoming designated players, but your popularity shouldn’t disappear altogether.

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As much as MLS talks about growing organically and bringing along its youth players, the strategy isn’t bearing much fruit at the moment. The majority of interest, and cash, is going to the designated players who made their names elsewhere. It’s nice that Kaka is in MLS and playing well, but it does go against what MLS has articulated as their philosophy.

What MLS should do with this data is learn that interest in the league is produced by big names. Even Dempsey’s popularity is largely based on his time in the Premier League for Fulham and Tottenham. Fans are willing to shell out money for Pirlo jerseys despite the fact that he has less impact on the field than Graham Zusi.

As I wrote earlier this week, the league must change its policies to allow owners to bring in more names that can sell jerseys, tickets and TV packages. The quaint goal of growing the league in-house is a lovely sentiment, but it’s clearly not working.

Maybe next year more domestic, home-grown talent will emerge and start to move jerseys in a meaningful way. The more likely scenario will see more designated players come to the league in their twilight and still draw more fans than younger, domestic players who are doing the real work on the pitch.