MLS prospects rising as lucrative expansion beckons

This blog in the past has tended not to dip too much into Major League Soccer, but with one of the editors relocating across the Atlantic what better time to give the MLS a closer look…

It’s an exciting time in the MLS. The league continues to attract a growing number of established players from Europe, most notably with the return to MLS of Clint Dempsey in Seattle and the surprise big money move of Jermaine Defoe to Toronto. Added to existing converts Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, it’s becoming harder to simply ignore the league as it becomes more lucrative for decent players.

The latest star to head to the MLS (credit: Guardian)

It’s easy to forget just how young MLS still is. As the Football League comes to the end of its 125th anniversary celebrations, the MLS enters just its 18th season. And as the league continues to grow in reputation, so too it grows in number. In the last five years it’s added five new teams – two of which are based in Canada – bringing the league up to 19 teams. That’s still short of the total in just the top league in many European countries, but relatively speaking it’s still in its infancy.

Expansion

Plans are also afoot to expand further, raising the total up to 24 teams by 2020. Next season we’ll see the league return to Florida with Orlando City joining – the first Florida team since teams in Miami and Tampa Bay folded in 2001. Their Head Coach will be pint-sized ex Everton player and former Burnley and Sheffield United boss Adrian Heath, who has been managing in the United Soccer League, the Conference equivalent to MLS, since 2008.

Inner circle courtesy of the Yankees, outer Man City

Inner circle courtesy of the Yankees, outer courtesy of Man City

Orlando will be joined by New York City FC – the most visible result of the partnership between Man City and the New York Yankees. With ex City and US player Claudio Reyna as Director of Football, NYC FC will play at Yankee Stadium until an alternative ground is sorted. In March they announced their official club badge – which looks like the Man City digital team have simply played around a bit with the Yankees’ logo. Season tickets are already on sale for anyone willing to gamble on a club that doesn’t have a full set of staff yet.

Last week, MLS announced they will be joined in 2017 by a new team in Atlanta – currently the biggest market in a North America without a team. And, assuming the club can find a stadium, a new team in Miami will join them. If David Beckham’s contract with MLS hadn’t already been pretty rewarding, he had an option written in the deal that brought him to LA Galaxy that he could buy an expansion team, worth $25m. And while there are local concerns over building a new stadium in Miami (not to mention the memory of failed franchise Miami Fusion), you feel that this is the project that Beckham will personally invest his time and energy in for the foreseeable future to ensure its success.

Challenges

I saw my first live MLS match in 2011 when then new team Vancouver Whitecaps lost 1-0 to the Portland Timbers in what was one of the worst games of football I’d seen in years. To say it was bloody awful would be a big understatement. The stadium (the then newly renovated BC Place) felt dead, with the lack of quality matched by a lack of passion in the stands. Needless to say, my first impressions of MLS were therefore not exactly filling me with a strong desire to return any time soon. It could have been an off-day for both clubs, but both sets of players while ok with the basics seemed clueless about what to do in the final third. Creating space, where to run, what to do when near the box, how and when to cross – these concepts all seemed alien to to two teams on display.

Three seasons on, and following a move to Vancouver (undisclosed fee), I’ve now taken in a few more Whitecaps games and the improvement in quality and atmosphere was immediately clear. In fairness, it is a completely different team – only two of the XI that started that first game remain. It’s a new coach (former Wolves and Wales midfielder Carl Robinson), a better tactical sense in the team, and a set of fans that seem more comfortable with their new surroundings. The Whitecaps, though celebrating their 40th anniversary as a club, have only been in the MLS since 2011. The difference between that team and the current one is perhaps an indicator to the new expansion teams that establishing themselves as viable teams will take time.

The key challenge for MLS as a whole though remains attracting people to the sport in a highly competitive sports market. Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight recently crunched the numbers on comparative popularity among North American teams across sports based on Google searches. The challenge for MLS is plain to see – you have to scroll down quite a way before the LA Galaxy, top of the league’s teams, comes up. That’s a challenge that can only be taken on over a long stretch of time, if indeed it’s even possible. Success for the MLS in the short term is continuing to gradually build up interest, both among the public, players, and increasingly media attention from abroad. It’s tempting to look at team names like Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City – names which make the Hull City Tigers seem inoffensive in comparison – and mock the overall league. But those looking at the league from the outside need to look past this sort of oddity and past the stereotypes of how North American fans view the sport (brilliantly parodied by NBC last summer) and watch this league increasingly finding its feet.

If the MLS can use the expansion of the league to increase their fan base, and can continue to increase the quality of the league at the same time, there’s a huge potential here waiting to be unearthed.

Written by @josephclift

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