LOS ANGELES — With Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC entering the league, veteran players such as C.J. Sapong say 2020 could mark a monumental year for MLS.
“This will probably be a time [when] we’ll look back and say this is the moment that the league really made a pivotal move to one of the top leagues,” said Sapong, a forward with the Chicago Fire.
Sapong reflected a widespread excitement throughout the league for the addition of two new teams.
Expansion teams have been building momentum for the league throughout the past two seasons. LAFC shattered records throughout 2019, and Atlanta United has built an environment at Mercedes-Benz Stadium that is a favorite for players from Sapong to D.C. United striker Ola Kamara.
For South Florida native Alejandro Bedoya — who grew up watching the Fusion — the return of soccer in Miami has touched particularly close to home.
“All eyes are on them, not just here domestically, but globally, internationally,” Bedoya said of expansion side Inter Miami. “There’s just an excitement around there that I haven’t seen in awhile.”
As first-time players in MLS, Nashville SC players Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar both saw an expansion team as an opportunity to establish themselves in a growing league.
Leal describes MLS as a league where players can build their careers. He said this is especially true in an expansion team, where the lack of established hierarchy allows players to break out more easily.
“When you go into a team that has already been established, it’s difficult to break into the starting 11,” Leal said. “But coming into a new team, you have the opportunity of proving yourself and proving how you can become one of those starting players. In the first year in MLS, it’s important for me to become a reference player for the team.”
To Mukhtar, Nashville offered the right move at the right time. Starting his career in Germany, he had seen growing interest in MLS following Bastian Schweinsteigger’s move to the league. Last year, he could catch MLS games on German television, reflecting the continued international growth of the league.
After gaining interest in the league, the chance to work with a team from its debut season drew Mukhtar to MLS.
“It’s a big experience for a soccer player, because in Germany or in Europe, you don’t get the chance to come to a new team,” he said. “You can create and build the team. That’s an amazing thing.”
Mukhtar said players understand expansion teams have a tight window to win over new fans.
“We need to play attractive and offensive football,” Mukhtar said. “That’s very important to get the people to the stadium. We will do our best. For us it’s important that we just play attractive football. We have to do our best and win and then the people will come along.”