Just days away from the kick off of the new season, the MLS has reached a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining contract with the players and their union. This move has prevented a PR disaster for the league and its commissioner Don Graber as the players threatened to walk out of the league and go on strike just four days before what could be the most important year in Major League Soccer. With more at stake than ever before, the agreement ends an anxious time for the MLS management team who can now sit back and watch as this season unfolds. But what type of season are we in for? Well the answer may lie in three important factors as detailed below. Could this well be the best MLS season in its near twenty year history?
More Competitive than ever
Since its inception almost 20 years ago, nine separate teams have won the league with LA Galaxy dominating in recent years with their most recent success being last season. But this new season sees the addition of two new teams – New York City FC and Orlando City bringing the number of teams in the league up to 20. Both new sides could pose a threat to LA’s defence with New York in particular looking strong through their squad. Managed by former Real Salt Lake boss Jason Kries and under the watchful eye of iconic US midfielder Claudio Reyna in a Director of Football role, New York have attracted Spanish striker David Villa and England midfielder Frank Lampard to join their cause. The duo could also be joined by Barcelona legend Xavi in the summer although his move is merely speculation at this point. Their additions give New York a strong chance but winning the league in their first season may be a stretch too far. Similarly Orlando, coached by Englishman Arian Heath who has assembled a multicultural squad including Brazilian Kaka, US international Brek Shea and Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts are hoping for an immediate impact however they will face stiff competition from other sides in the league in the form of Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution and DC United. Even Toronto FC, who dispatched with the troublesome Jermain Defoe over the January transfer window have a shot given the strength of squad they have now following the signings of Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco this year and Michael Bradley last year. This new season is anyone’s to win and could prove to be an exciting spectacle with several twists and turns along the way.
New Star Players
Since its debut in 1996, the single biggest draw for fans to attend games has been the star players on show. Whilst each team is limited to only three designated players, allowing them to stretch their salary caps beyond their given limits, teams have relied heavily on star power to draw in new and existing fans season after season. In the first few years, the draw mainly came from US internationalist like Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas with a splattering of South American talent like the wonderfully gifted Carlos Valderamma and the eccentric Jorge Campos. The success of the 1994 World Cup held in the US, plus subsequent performances of the US team at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups helped to generate the passion for the game and gradually attendances started to rise. However it wasn’t until the arrival of David Beckham to LA Galaxy in 2007 and Thierry Henry in 2010 that the league started to be taken more seriously, not just in the US but abroad.
Once viewed by European players as a league to join in the twilight of your career for one final payday, the perception shifted dramatically when Republic of Ireland striker Robbie Keane, aged 30 joined LA Galaxy. His move heralded a new era for the league and its fans with it becoming one of the most exciting leagues in the world to play in. Since then, the MLS has attracted some very big names, most of whom will be on show this season. Steven Gerrard, Kaka, David Villa, Frank Lampard and Sebastian Giovinco are just a few of the new faces that will help kick off the new season (although Lampard and Gerrard will not join officially until the summer) as it gets underway this coming Saturday.
When the league kicked off, it struggled for a long time to get the exposure it so desperately needed from the US media. Obsessed with the more traditional US sports like football, baseball, hockey and basketball, column inches in newspapers and magazines dedicated to soccer were few and far between. Even worse was the desire of TV stations to cover games with little to no interest shown in the new professional soccer league in the US for several of the foundation years. Having been burnt before with the defunct North American Soccer League (NASL), US based media conglomerates like ESPN, Fox Sports and NBC have been cautious in their approach but as the league grew in stature so too did their confidence that the league and soccer as a mainstream sport in the US was here to stay. Today the MLS has bumper contracts with all three to showcase its games and have added Univision in an attempt to reach the growing Spanish audience in the US too. International awareness and interest in the league is at an all time high as well with TV networks across the globe now striking deals for their own countries to show the games and highlights much to the delight of the MLS.