MLS must hit the ground running when the new season starts

MLS must hit the ground running when the new season starts

After a preseason dominated by the USSF Presidential elections it is finally time to return to onfield action.

The latest instalment of MLS kicks off on 3rd of March with the match-up between Toronto FC and Columbus Crew. The game’s context makes it the perfect curtain raiser, for a season that promises to be both interesting and not without its challenges.

Columbus Crew, a club that are a founding member of MLS, are owned by Precourt Sports Ventures. They have announced that a move to Austin, Texas is under consideration if the club are unable to secure a site within the downtown area of Columbus for a new soccer-specific stadium. This led to fans venting their anger during games, with their ire directed towards the CEO of Precourt Sports Ventures, Anthony Precourt – a California based investor.

The Columbus Crew fans were out in force, letting it be known that they don’t want to see the club make a move to Austin during 2017 Eastern Conference SemiFinals ©

In local terms, there is a lot of history associated with Columbus Crew. It may not be as exquisite or as venerable as the chronicles of the great 19th century European clubs but regardless, Columbus Crew carry a lustre and their own sense of place. That is something valuable and that can be cherished within US Soccer. Their Mapfre Stadium which has the capacity to hold 19,968 is the first soccer specific stadium built for a MLS club. It’s also a stadium where the USMNT has yet to record a loss against Mexico in a world cup qualifying round. And so, it also enjoys the nickname of ‘America’s Azteca’.

MLS is generally against clubs moving their locations but there are some encouraging precedents for a switch.

The forecast numbers Precourt has provided apparently catch the eye within MLS HQ. In a league that is amongst the mostly commercially efficient money machines anywhere cash is king and so an open-minded reception seems likely.

Similarly, the success of Portland and Seattle (both are urban, young and liberal) and Atlanta (a college town) also suggests that a move for Columbus Crew might be well-starred. Portland, Seattle and Atlanta are all cities with demographic similarities to Austin. And Austin does not have a competing NFL, NBA or MLB team. Precourt also claims to be encouraged by the extent to which the value of the Rams and Chargers NFL franchises has increased since the sides moved from their historic homes.

Against a backdrop of the #SaveTheCrew campaign, MLS fans of rival clubs would be right to ponder what twists and turns may be waiting in store for them. Nothing is set in stone in MLS. Especially if the ownership group of a club are resolved to move. When expediency talks, owners walk.

Christian Pulisic during the World Cup 2018 qualifier ©USSF

This is also the first season where a USMNT side will not be involved at the World Cup Finals since the founding of MLS. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact this would be on the growth of US soccer’s premier competition.

MLS has been on an upward curve since the 2002 World Cup when the US national side reached the quarter finals. To this day, the MLS cup final held on October 20th 2002 between LA Galaxy and New England Revolution holds the record for the highest attendance for an MLS Cup final and it is a date that confirms that the momentum MLS has enjoyed after each World Cup year. And that relationship between fan engagement with MLS and World Cup success cannot be ignored.

It will be a while before we can say with confidence whether US Soccer is already past its peak or if it is merely taking stock before the next surge forwards.

The MLS Cup final for the past two seasons has been held at BMO Field between Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders and there was a drop of nearly 15% in attendance between 2016 and 2017. No doubt, all interested parties will be watching to see how the land lies. Will there, for example, be an increase in attendance after this summer’s World Cup Finals in Russia? And if not, what sort of figure would represent stability in a game where USMNT success and fan enthusiasm are closely intertwined.

MLS will take a nine day break during World Cup Finals, with around 26 players expected to take part in the tournament in Russia. This is a new high number for MLS-based foreign nationals participating in a Finals tournament. And it is definitely indicative of the progress MLS is making.

As a league, MLS has always leaned heavy upon the heroics of national team players in World Cup years as a marketing tool ©MLS

However, a sprinkling of familiar faces in Russia can scarcely compensate for the absence of the USA in Russia.

As such, US soccer faces the twin challenges of acquiring new spectators, while maintaining the existing fanbase this season. As a league, MLS has always leaned heavy upon the heroics of national team players in World Cup years as a marketing tool. With nothing to celebrate in Russia and with the growing popularity of both the Champions League and England’s Premier League in America’s sports conversation, MLS will have to work hard to maintain its profile and position with the public at home. It has a tough shift ahead to keep the TV ratings stable and get new fans off the couch and into their nearest stadium.

Youth development is the one component which has not kept pace with the spectacular commercial growth of MLS. The controversial but lucrative pay for pay model largely cops the flak from would-be reformers, such as the decorated former USMNT coach John Kowalski: US soccer is lagging behind the marketing machine of MLS see it as a recipe that produces complacent, identikit players cocooned within an elitist comfort zone.

In 2016, 75 players were recruited by MLS clubs in the draft. Yet, only 10 of them have seen any minutes in the MLS while 54 of them have been shipped to the USL.

It is notable that the last home-grown players to find their way across the pond after emerging from US club academies are Matt Miazga at Vitesse Arnhem (on loan from Chelsea) and Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin, and neither enjoys any sort of profile in Europe.

It remains to be seen if MLS clubs can act as one to fill the credibility gap that currently exists in a US youth development scene that is notable as a fabulous income generator but is mediocre at best by the standards of Europe’s Champions League clubs when it comes to the stated aims of player development.

As it stands, MLS must enshrine its commitment to not only grow US soccer at home and abroad, but also to nurture and produce talent that can help the USMNT prosper. And it must do so with deeds that match fine words.

In saying all that, internationally, the profile of MLS with overseas fans and players has never been higher. And the scheduling of games late on weekend evenings is idea for European viewers and betting company sponsors.

But cash and favourable circumstance are not enough without something worth watching as a spectacle. Thankfully, there are encouraging signs that talent across the league has been improving for a few years now.

David Villa, Kaka, Lampard, Gerrard and Pirlo joined MLS as designated players during 2015 ©MLS

Four years ago, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and Kaka blazed a trail into MLS as designated players. They were significant additions in terms of prestige but also notably way past their peak. Though Villa still leads from the front and can deliver on the pitch week in week out, the rest added little of note. Even commercially, these expensive marquee men may well have under-delivered. All of them, with the exception of Villa, made it onto the ‘overrated players of MLS’ list as voted for by their own peers.

Today, the average age of the nine designated players joining MLS is 22.55. This is the youngest class of designated overseas players to join MLS since its inception and it is a significant barometer of the positive view of MLS in the rest of the football world.

About 55% of all players signed by MLS clubs this season have made at least one appearance for their national team. There is also an influx of South American players this term. And unlike in previous seasons, their average age is low at 21.52 years. This is a new trend and certainly something that adds a lot of excitement and credibility to MLS. This is also an encouraging sign of progress for the fans. They can see for themselves that young talents from South American countries are now actively considering MLS as the next stop in their development journey. This endorsement is transforming MLS into a prime-age league populated by players who have their best years ahead of them and hold realistic ambitions of securing a lucrative transfer to the promised land of Europe. It is evidence of a viable recruitment pipeline and a precursor to the USA enjoying the status as a genuine elite league.

With the USMNT having failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup and the newly elected President of the USSF, Carlos Cordeiro, saying that acquiring rights to host the World Cup in 2026 is a top priority, there remains much to do. Here’s hoping that MLS hits the ground running as soon as the action gets underway next month.