Major League Soccer (MLS) commissioner Don Garber said, in a Sky Sports interview in September, that the league can be one of the best in the world by 2022. You would be forgiven for not knowing this. Indeed, perception of MLS in the UK ranges from mild affection as you discover what actually did happen to Kevin Doyle, Liam Ridgewell and Nigel Reo-Coker to those who write it off as a retirement league akin to the Chinese Super League or the A-League in Australia.
However it is time to take MLS more seriously: the league is innovating and rapidly increasing in quality and attendance. Garber’s comments might be a touch hyperbolic, but there can be no doubt that MLS is growing at an unprecedented rate.
Many fans lambast MLS as a low intensity league as little more than an opportunity for European stars to get one final pay check. Indeed the steady stream of thirty-something-year-olds over the last year including Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo do little to refute this. It is telling, however, that these players have struggled. New York City did not even make the playoffs whilst Gerrard’s Galaxy fell at the first hurdle.
Many of the real stars of the MLS are over the past year have been in their 20’s. Sebastian Giovinco, 28, made waves when he traded Italian champions Juventus for Toronto FC in January and has lived up to the hype. He scored 22 goals and got 16 assists carrying Toronto into the playoffs and attracting interest from Barcelona along the way. There has also been a great deal of excitement from younger players who are being developed in MLS. These include the dazzling FC Dallas’ Fabian Castillo, 23, who has just received his third cap for Colombia and Sporting Kansas City’s Dom Dwyer, 25, who has scored 31 goals in the past two MLS seasons. Furthermore, the four teams with the most points in 2015 (FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps, New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew) are all in the youngest ten teams in the league.
On top of this, attendance and interest in MLS is increasing meteorically. The myth that America does not like ‘soccer’ is slowly being eroded, and with good reason. The Seattle Sounders have more fans attending each game than Liverpool, Tottenham or Chelsea. This is not a trend bound to one team – MLS now has the fifth highest average attendances in the world and will surpass Serie A within the next few years. It is not just game attendance that is booming; television audiences are on the rise. This has led to a TV deal with Univision, ESPN and Fox in 2014 that is worth $90 million per season until 2022. Fans of MLS are characterised by being young and diverse: 38% are women! This will allow MLS attendances and support to continue to grow and become one of the best-supported leagues in the world.
despite The influx of european veterans, the youngsters of the mls have impressed the most
MLS is well run and innovative on the whole. The desire for innovation has led to issues, both in the distant past, such as their introduction of ‘shootouts’ to resolve draws, and more recently like the disaster that was Chivas USA. The franchise was introduced in 2004 to capture the Latino fan base in California. Fans derided it, and with attendances around 7,000, it was dissolved in 2014. Moreover, the salary cap to promote equality is a leash on many teams growth.
That said, the executives running MLS are keen to learn from these errors and be at the forefront of football. Take the simple but effective vanishing spray, for example, which was introduced to MLS in 2011, three years before the Premier League. Additionally, whilst New York City has been criticised as a ‘Manchester City B-Team’, many of the franchises introduced over the past few years have been very successful. Orlando City, the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers have all been introduced to great success in the last six years. This is at least in part due to more stringent checks in the league on ownership that avoids the likes of Massimo Cellino or the Venkys owning clubs. Whilst those running MLS do make errors, they are learning quickly and have clear goals for the future of the league.
There can be no doubt that MLS is going places. The league is growing at a fantastic pace and the groundwork is in place for that to continue, with Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC and Minnesota United arriving in the league in the next 3 years. Whilst MLS may not be one of the best leagues in the world by 2022, you’d be a fool to bet against it happening in the long run.