It speaks volumes about how MLS was designed that the league’s two best teams facing off in MLS Cup on Saturday is a rarity.
This final between Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union is the first clash between the No. 1 seeds in the East and West since 2003, when Landon Donovan led the San Jose Earthquakes past the Chicago Fire. But the more you look at what has changed since the Quakes’ second (and most recent) title, the harder it is to compare the league to its own past.
The developmental minimum salary was $19,900 in 2003 and would be cut in some subsequent years, whereas in 2022, the lowest-paid players took home $65,500. In 2003, the league was down to 10 teams after its first pair of Florida clubs folded two years prior. Charlotte FC became MLS’ 28th active member in 2022, with St. Louis City SC joining the fold after the calendar turns. In 2003, Fox joined ABC and ESPN as MLS’ national broadcast partners, with the latter networks not paying a dime for the rights. This June, MLS announced a landmark decade-long pact with Apple, with an attached price tag of $2.5 billion.
To say MLS has massively improved its standing both domestically and in the global landscape over the last 19 years would be an understatement.
So why does it feel like so many clubs, personalities and fan bases associated with the league still operate with an often unhealthy dosage of insecurity?
Throughout its history, MLS has been clamoring for respect. Fans and people within the league ecosystem alike are quick to jump on any mention of the U.S.’s big four sports leagues that overlooks men’s top-flight soccer. In March, commissioner Don Garber took on the “retirement league” stigma that has followed the league for over a decade. Teams within the league have also bought into MLS’ underdog complex, calling out those who cover the league (on the league’s own website, mind you) for preseason predictions, perceived slights and a lack of attention paid to their performance.
The predominant off-field narrative from these MLS Cup Playoffs, the “nobody believes in us, silence the haters” routine, has gone from a lesson learned early in Motivational Coaching 101 to the preferred narrative for nearly every team in the playoff picture.
When Austin FC — a second-year club that counts Hollywood A-lister Matthew McConaughey among its ownership group and features MVP runner-up Sebastian Driussi — made a run to the conference final, the discourse didn’t center on their rapid rise, the strong form of a goalkeeper/humanitarian who’s easy to root for or Josh Wolff’s evolving positional play philosophy. No, the theme of the week leading up to the biggest game in club history was that the office laminating machine was still operational. The team’s players and fans alike banded together over the perceived slights and made it their rallying cry.
Ultimately, Austin lost 3-0, with their only shot on goal coming in the 80th minute. But it was still a phenomenal season for them by any conceivable measure.
What is respect, tangibly, though? Is it fair to characterize any criticism as disrespect until everyone agrees you’re the best league in the world? Are a few lazy jokes more important than the billions of dollars being invested by an ever-growing roster of billionaire owners and Apple?
A lot of this feels residual from those early days of MLS. The league was founded not primarily due to public demand for a first-division men’s league in America — it was a condition of the 1994 World Cup being hosted by the country.
When the initial seasons didn’t showcase a league that was immediately a global powerhouse and on par with the country’s more established sports leagues, many in the public switched off. When the league retooled ahead of 2007 by allowing teams to sign designated players (those who require higher wages or transfer fees than the maximum salary), led by David Beckham, detractors pointed to the fact that most of these imports were well past their prime — making MLS a “retirement league.”
Well, we’re 15 years on from that milestone; Beckham is no longer commanding high wages, but offering them (albeit previously to more players than the rules allow) at the league’s second attempt at a Miami-based club.
While the Union built their reputation on the back of a player development pipeline created by Chris Albright and maintained to great success by Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner, it’s possible they won’t field a single homegrown player in their MLS Cup debut as the club has tapped into another of MLS’ growing strengths: using analysis to identify potential bargains both within the league and beyond. Hany Mukhtar, the runaway MVP this season, was signed for just $3 million by Nashville. Even when the fees escalate, they’re often viewed as being closer to “market value” than the overpays of bygone years.
“From a sporting perspective, the year began with the continuation of our commitment to be an active participant in the global transfer market,” Garber said in his state of the league press conference on Thursday. “In fact, during the early transfer window in January, we were among the top five leagues in the world for investment and transfer fees – both in what we spent and what we earned in fees coming in and out of the league. We’re continuing to see our clubs managed through this concept of signing world-class international players. This year was an exciting one with Lorenzo Insigne, Héctor Herrera, Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini, who you’ll see hopefully on the field (in the MLS Cup final), and Federico Bernardeschi in Toronto, just to name a few.”
While that quintet represents an incredible influx of talent to the league from a single summer window, two other midseason signings drive home MLS’ growing reputation. In the past, a playoff hopeful starved for goals like the Columbus Crew would be checking other teams’ rosters for a backup striker who could score a few down the stretch. In 2022, they poached 23-year-old Colombian forward Cucho Hernández from Watford as they were relegated from the Premier League. The top reply to The Athletic’s Adam Leventhal’s report wasn’t a dig at the player or his new home, either: “Makes sense for him; better city, better stadium, club that actually wins trophies.”
Hernández’s move was soon overshadowed by an even flashier acquisition. After the LA Galaxy brought Beckham over from Real Madrid, they grew a fondness for stars who were just past their primes, but this year, they made headlines by signing a much younger player from a major European club.
Leaving FC Barcelona wasn’t an easy prospect for Riqui Puig, but the 23-year-old didn’t show it on the pitch. In just a dozen regular season games, he added three goals and two assists while becoming an irresistible watch with his tempo-setting and line-breaking passes.
“I saw an opportunity here both personally and professionally, I feel that (in MLS) I can make a big jump forward,” Puig told our own Felipe Cárdenas ahead of the playoffs. I can mature as a person, living far away from my family and from my comfort zone. It’s always hard to do, but in life one has to make decisions and seek out (new) experiences. That’s what I believe I’m doing now and I couldn’t be happier to have made that decision.”
Mukhtar and Driussi said similar things to The Athletic as the season came to a close. MLS is no longer a place to get away from the pressures of European football and cash some dependable checks. It is a genuine, career-enriching option that, while still carrying financial benefits, also serves players well in their career evolutions.
Perhaps no player acquisition can illustrate the league’s growing esteem nearly as well as this year’s evolutions in MLS’ relationship with neighboring Liga MX. The Mexican circuit has long been the dominant force in North America, with its clubs winning every CONCACAF Champions League from 2006 to 2021. That streak was finally broken by the Seattle Sounders, whose triumph in April helped soften the eventual sting of the franchise’s first missed postseason since kicking off in 2009.
When the two leagues announced a new midseason competition to begin next summer, the Leagues Cup, which will feature a group stage composed of clubs from both MLS and Liga MX before a knockout round to determine the triumph, there were no jokes about it being another easy trophy to bring south of the border. Then, in October, came an emphatic endorsement from Tigres manager and former El Tri boss Miguel Herrera:
“Just when we think that we have to try to compete with MLS, which is a huge mistake, MLS is light years ahead of us. They want to overtake the Spanish, Italian and English leagues, they don’t even think about the Mexican league. Although I think we’ll still manage to win some games and compete on the field.”
Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and progress this year for MLS. In a year which saw Real Salt Lake turn the page under new ownership in the aftermath of the Dell Loy Hansen scandal, another of its Western Conference members was under consistent off-field scrutiny. Following The Athletic’s reporting that Portland Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinson didn’t disclose Paul Riley’s indiscretions during his time as coach of the Thorns, it came to light that the Timbers also didn’t report winger Andy Polo’s domestic violence citation during the 2021 season. Throughout the year, fans demonstrated in Providence Park and beyond. When Sally Yates issued her report after an investigation into several deplorable club situations in the NWSL, Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub were relieved of their dual-club roles.
During his press conference on Thursday, The Athletic asked Garber if the league was considering further action or consequences for Paulson after the findings in the Yates report.
“I think the best way to answer it is that we at this time don’t see any reason at all for Merritt to sell the Timbers,” Garber said. “Obviously, Merritt has very publicly acknowledged the mistakes that he and the organization has made. He’s taken responsibility for those decisions that he’s made, and I think that the steps that he’s made in terms of stepping aside and bringing in a new CEO and a termination of two long-term employees, which we supported, were steps in the right direction.There was nothing that came out in the report that would have us think any differently from what I just stated there right now.”
Last week, D.C. United followed up a season in which they finished last in the league with an ignominious double-header of a press release. First, the club didn’t follow the league’s diversity hiring policy when it appointed Wayne Rooney as its n head coach. Second, it called an allegation that striker Taxi Fontas used a racial slur “credible” but couldn’t independently confirm the infraction.
United was hardly the only longtime franchise to struggle on the field, either. Of the league’s 10 teams that played that 2003 season, only three (FC Dallas, LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls) made the postseason. In a league that is increasingly headlined and paced by the clubs which joined in the expansion boom of the last 15 years, those founding members are struggling to keep pace.
The Apple contract does have its unintended consequences, too. Beloved longtime local broadcast teams signed off at season’s end as the league shifts to a fully national broadcast structure akin to the NFL. While some of those broadcast teams will be retained for radio calls, it’s certain that goal calls will come with a different flavor in 2023 and beyond.
Such is the nature of change: never linear, never entirely positive, but often necessary for adaptation.
With how much this league changes year over year, we may need to update our lexicon. We’ve been so used to describing MLS in stages: the initial era of the league was MLS 1.0, the dawn of the designated player era was MLS 2.0, and the breakthrough of young talent (both domestic and otherwise) working toward a move abroad is the hallmark of MLS 3.0. These changes may be more rapid and less obvious moving forward as the league continues to grow in stature. Luckily, as a longtime Apple user, I can tell you they’re happy to throw numbers well beyond 0 after the decimal.
Just wait for MLS 4.3 — I’m sure it comes with A/C in every Texan stadium seat.
However the league evolves moving forward, 2022 will be a year which will likely be best remembered for its milestones of growth: the CCL triumph, a likely iconic MLS Cup, a 10-figure broadcast deal. MLS came out of its first two pandemic years able to progress again, both in its reputation to investors and as a part of the global soccer landscape. More teams have must-watch players than at any point in recent memory, and it’s less and less bizarre to see top talents before or in the heart of their prime decide to come to an MLS club.
And who knows: next year might bring the most revered player since Pelé and Maradona to North American shores.
MLS clubs will undoubtedly still clamor for approval next season. It’s safe to assume that the first few months of the Apple deal will also bring a new batch of scrutiny as the league irons out its new broadcast wing. The inaugural Leagues Cup could be an unforgettable new format that leads to regular competition between MLS and Liga MX… or it could be an interesting gamble with fleeting relevance.
Whatever transpires, it’s undeniable that MLS has transformed mightily since the last heavyweight MLS Cup matchup in 2003. Nearly all of that change has been for the better; the areas that haven’t run smoothly — especially the league’s roster rules system, which is increasingly at odds with its aims to be a chief player in the global transfer market — must undoubtedly be modified in time.
Less than two decades after warding off the looming specter of folding the league, MLS continues to make strides domestically and abroad. It’s attracting major investors, from global tech titans to international celebrities. And it’s a viable home for players of just about any profile. That sure seems like a great deal of respect.
(Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
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