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  • Phil Blacker

Why MLS?

It’s been a long wait for David Beckham to finally get his MLS franchise off the ground so there’ll be a certain degree of fascination I’m sure surrounding their opening fixture on Sunday, particularly as it comes away at LAFC – record breaking Supporters Shield winners last year. It promises to be quite a baptism for Inter Miami and I’m really looking forward to commentating on it. The game will be live on Sky Sports in the UK and available globally and we’re hopeful it will attract a fair few more casual fans than usual because of that aforementioned fascination. The real hope though is a percentage of those viewers will become regular watchers of MLS this season and beyond.

It’s a league that tends to divide opinion – those who embrace it usually do so wholeheartedly, those who don’t often dismiss it. I clearly fall into the former having been fortunate enough to work on the league regularly over the last 5 years or so and on the eve of a new season full of so many different narratives and possibilities I thought I’d try and challenge some of the stereotypes and misconceptions and put forward the case why, if you’re not watching regularly, you might want to give it a try this year.

The biggest issue perhaps comes down to mentality. MLS is different in so many ways to what we’re used to watching in European football. No promotion and relegation, play-offs to decide the overall champion, a salary cap – it’s just not the way we do football is it? And no it’s not, not in Europe anyway. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just different, it’s the norm in American sports. I’m certainly not arguing it’s a better system than we have here and it clearly takes some getting your head around initially but delve deeper and it’s not all that different.

No, clubs can’t be relegated from MLS and that perhaps removes a certain amount of jeopardy from the season but realistically nobody is going to be willing to pay the multi million dollar expansion fees if that status could be swiftly lost again through relegation. But there are parallels – effectively failing to qualify for the play-offs equates to something similar. Reaching the post season is the bottom line in MLS, the minimum requirement really for a season to be considered a success. For any team who doesn’t achieve that the effects can be similar to relegation, just without quite the same financial implications – coaching changes and a radical overhaul of the squad are certainly not uncommon for those who miss out.

The debate about the play-off system and its merits is clearly not restricted to MLS – that’s one that rages across all sports. This league has at least attempted to reward regular season performance as much as possible, including a change to the post-season last year to further reflect that, ensuring home advantage all the way through for the Supporters Shield winners. Just because neither Conference champion was able to take advantage of that in 2019 doesn’t necessarily mean that logic is flawed and the one-off knockout play-off ties certainly produced their share of drama and memorable moments.

As for the wage cap that’s one element I actually have really come to appreciate. How often have we heard it argued the top leagues are too predictable, the big clubs will always dominate and if anyone else breaks into the established order for a season or so it becomes a major story? In MLS it is much more of a level playing field. Such is the structure of the league it’s harder for the top teams to stay at the top. That’s not to say the clubs with the more ambitious owners, the better facilities and the ability to pay the biggest transfer fees can’t sustain success – but they have to be very clever about it, it’s not just a case of being able to throw money at any problem. They need a structure in place, a well thought out transfer policy, a better scouting network than their rivals.

Think of it along the lines of real-life Fantasy Football. You only have a certain amount of money to spend so yes, you can splash out on the big name players who you think will be the most productive performers, but you can’t fit too many of those into your squad. Then you need your differentials, the players who can contribute without taking up too much of the wage budget, which equally encourages and rewards a reliance on youth development. Homegrown players aren’t just a means to relate with the fan base but to accommodate bigger fees and wages going elsewhere. It’s a balancing act, one which makes the Sporting Director or General Manager such a key figure at every club. They’re trading not just players but Targeted Allocation Money, General Allocation Money, international roster spots, allocation order places, Draft picks and on it goes. It’s certainly complicated, and I understand the argument that for the casual fan it’s arguably too complicated – but it’s equally absorbing – and very difficult to get right. It’s also a recurring challenge every year, always needing to be thinking 2 or 3 steps ahead and it’s why every season can be so difficult to predict. Toronto won the treble in 2017 then didn’t even make the play-offs in 2018. Last year they were back in MLS Cup. That doesn’t tend to happen in Europe but again, it doesn’t make it wrong – for me the unpredictability is a big part of the appeal.

Another argument I hear regularly is how MLS is merely a retirement home for players past their best. It’s a stigma they’ve struggled to shift from the days when there was certainly more than an element of truth in that but I’d argue huge strides have been taken to address that. The big name veterans are now very much in the minority and those that have arrived in recent seasons have done so with a profile that only benefits the league. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney in particular have done plenty to help propel MLS further into public consciousness but backed that up with performances on the pitch before both returning to Europe to continue their careers. Will they be missed in MLS in 2020? – absolutely – will LA Galaxy and DC United be noticeably weaker from their absence? – not necessarily.

Commissioner Don Garber has made it clear in recent years the next step for MLS is to become a selling league. One which develops players and provides a pathway to the elite leagues. Obviously the ultimate aim is become the latter and remove the need for the star names to go anywhere but equally there’s a realism over the time that will take. This is the 25th season of Major League Soccer, there’s been huge progress since 10 original teams set out a quarter of a century ago, but in relative terms it’s still in its infancy. Now the norm for the designated player signings is to go younger, often to South America, or more frequently this year to Mexico. Figures for last season showed the 84 new players signed to the league at the start of 2019 had an average age of 24.98, the 62 DP’s averaging 27.1 years of age when a record 73 different nationalities were represented. I’d expect that pattern to only continue this year where around a quarter of the clubs have already broken their transfer records during the off-season.

It’s not an easy final payday for anyone anymore. Future superstars are seeing the progress of the likes of Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams in the Bundesliga and Champions League, how Miguel Almiron was able to earn his move to the Premier League. More need to follow and in time I’m convinced they will – and in turn we’ll see increasing quality arrive in MLS in the hope of emulating them. Just last season saw the South American player of the year Pity Martinez pitch up in Atlanta as Almiron’s replacement whilst the Galaxy have added a 24 year old Argentinian World Cup player in Cristian Pavon whose peak is surely still to come – there will be more and I’ll take a look at some of the newer arrivals when putting together my season’s preview.

Yes the league has a long way to go, it faces challenges in terms of the amount of travel involved, often through various different time zones, and playing on through international breaks. That can affect the quality on the pitch but it all adds to the unique challenges faced in putting together and managing a squad. But MLS is determined to get there, its clubs often having fanatical support, more of them now boast state of the art stadiums and training facilities, a fan base added to regularly recently by the new expansion franchises – a number of whom have really raised the bar for the rest. LAFC will certainly serve as a useful reference point for Inter Miami on Sunday. The league is growing, the league is ambitious, it's becoming more relevant in it's own congested US market ahead of a potentially pivotal new TV rights deal in a couple of season's time. These are players you’ll have heard or players you will soon have heard of, playing in cities you may well identify with and, if you’re in the UK, often just kicking off come kicking out time at the pub! It’s not just David Beckham’s new team that provides the fascination with MLS – why not jump aboard the journey and see where it goes – it could be fun!

LAFC v Inter Miami is live in the UK on Sky Sports Football this Sunday (1st March) at 22.30

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