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MLS 2019 season preview: Big, bold and bullish

As you may have heard, Major League Soccer is back for a new season, stepping into the spotlight with the serendipitous coincidence of reaching 24 member teams in its 24th year of existence.

Bigger and more flush with cash and relevance than ever, MLS still has a ways to go in its pursuit of a place among the elite on both the domestic sports and international soccer landscapes. Several daunting challenges lie ahead.

But league leaders and protagonists are bullish and bold as they face the future. The quality of play is rising steadily and measurably. MLS proudly boasts one of the highest average scoring rates of any league in the world, while the average player age is dropping. There are no shortage of interesting stories to follow both on and off the field. Here’s a few to watch in 2019.

Atlanta > parity?

For the second year in a row, the reigning MLS champions strut into the new season not only as MLS Cup holders, but paradigm changers – brimming with ambition, money and swagger, aiming for targets beyond just domestic play in their pursuit of unprecedented greatness.

Atlanta United blew away established perceptions of what’s possible in MLS, winning with style and packing an NFL-sized stadium week in, week out. Just like Toronto FC before it, Atlanta brought big dreams to life. Now, it hopes to sustain that pace, not only atop the league but via international success in Concacaf Champions League. With South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez the latest showpiece signing, the Five Stripes aren’t stopping.

Herediano’s Pablo Salazar (R) vies for the ball with Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez during their Concacaf Champions League match at the Rosabal Cordero stadium in Costa Rica Feb. 21. (Ezequiel BECERRA / AFP)

But if Atlanta’s immediate difficulties in CCL haven’t already underlined just how tricky that process is, TFC provides a cautionary tale.

The Reds won everything in 2017’s treble campaign, then saw Champions League heartbreak metastasize into a woeful slide to the Eastern Conference basement last year — and have yet to recover.

MLS always heartily embraced the concept of parity.

Founders baked central control, rationed spending and balanced distribution of resources into it from the start.

In that socialist environment, towering ambition can be intoxicating – and devastating. Just ask Toronto.

Open for (transfer) business

It’s not often MLS breaks its own record for biggest-ever outbound transfer fee. But that’s exactly what went down this winter. First Alphonso Davies (up to $22 million after bonuses, incentives), then Miguel Almiron (up to $27 million) reaped fat checks from big-time suitors in Europe.

That’s one sign of a sea shift toward what commissioner Don Garber called “becoming a player in the global market, buying and selling, being part of that energy that drives the development of young players, the sale of young players.”

MLS leaders wish to peddle wares of their own instead of being merely shoppers for superstar names to sell tickets and jerseys and draw television eyeballs – though that is definitely still happening.

A league that once feared and loathed the words “selling league” as a badge of second-class citizenship has finally realized real money in world soccer comes from grooming and selling players. Every MLS product who reaps a seven- or eight-figure transfer fee en route to prominence overseas can become a walking, kicking billboard for the league.

Less than three months after lifting the MLS Cup, Almiron is already starting, and bossing, English Premier League games at Newcastle. And 20-year-old Tyler Adams has stepped straight from the midfield of the Red Bulls in New Jersey to Germany’s Red Bull Leipzig, one of the Bundesliga’s best teams.

While the statistical reality is that not all exports will be successful, turning MLS into a two-way street instead of a cul-de-sac will have far-reaching implications, a process unfolding in real time.

Who’s next up?

Expansion rumbles on

As much money as MLS owner/investors stand to make from selling players, it pales in comparison to perhaps the league’s single biggest income source at present: expansion fees (to say nothing of ancillary revenues that come with the dramatic growth Garber’s expansion era has fueled).

The league keeps growing.

FC Cincinnati’s arrival means 24 teams will compete in 2019. Two more will come online in 2020, Inter Miami and Nashville SC, Austin FC is scheduled for 2021 and there’s another slot still to be awarded in a crowded field of candidates to reach the previously-stated target of 28.

 

Not that anyone thinks they’ll stop there.

As MLS gets bigger than ever, it costs more than ever to get in. The going rate for a spot in the league is $150 million — just for admission. New clubs are also expected to spend on a stadium, training and academy facilities, a competitive roster and all the various and sundry costs that come with major-league status in the U.S. and Canada.

Atlanta’s success on and off the field raised the bar dramatically.

Having built a curiously defensive-oriented squad thus far, Cincinnati is not expected to make nearly the same splash, at least not out of the gate. But the new team is selling tickets like gangbusters, plans for a new stadium look gorgeous and the meteoric ascent from second-tier USL newcomer to MLS in less than three years makes Cincy a fascinating story for 2019 and beyond.

DPs, Homegrowns and the space between

Just over 12 years ago, the LA Galaxy signed David Beckham, opening the “Designated Player era.”

At the heart of the DP concept was a sort of deal with the devil: The league opened to head-turning star power so often lacking in the early years and paid for it in limited, optional doses by limiting DPs to three per team. Meanwhile, rank-and-file players continued to labor under strict salary-budget rules designed to suppress salaries and keep costs low.

David Beckham crosses the ball during the 1st half.
Red Bulls against the LA Galaxy at Giants Stadium. (Antonelli, Ron, New York Daily News)

Today, that model shows signs of strain, or at least a need for evolution.

Once seen as luxury items, DP slots are filled on almost every team. And a new phase of spending unfolded with the advent of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), General Allocation Money (GAM) and MLS’ various other allocation monies.

According to the league office, more than $600 million has been invested in DPs and TAM players since 2015. And some – Atlanta and, most infamously, the very same Galaxy – look ready to spend even more.

At the same time, the rising tide of domestic talent with value overseas exposed the league’s low-end wages as insufficient to keep bright, young prospects. Players such as Weston McKennie and Richie Ledezma leave MLS academies to join European powers with nary a penny in compensation to the clubs that helped make them.

So a new model has taken shape: the so-called “Play Your Kids” movement, intended to harness the power of homegrown talent in order to compete without splashing cash on established, high-end signings.

The best-run clubs seem to use some combination of buying and growing talent, but the narrative has helped turn academy products like Adams, Jordan Morris and Galaxy teenager Efrain Alvarez into a different sort of star to promote.

Many will be watching to see which types of players shine brightest in 2019.

Crossroads on the horizon

Concerns about the imbalance between MLS’ aristocracy and proletariat will surely figure into the collective bargaining agreement talks that begin later this year. The players’ current CBA expires at season’s end, and given the history of those negotiations, as well as the increased amount of money now sloshing around the league, most observers are bracing for another cycle of offseason drama next winter.

Will the current system survive or evolve? How far will the MLS Players Association go to carve out higher pay and/or true free agency for its members? Could a strike or lockout knock MLS off its stride?

That’s one of a few storm clouds in the distance.

Jun 3, 2018; Kansas City, KS; Sporting KC forward Daniel Salloi (20) interviewed by Fox Sports reporter Katie Witham after the game against Minnesota United at Children’s Mercy Park. (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

MLS’s current television deals with ESPN, Fox and Univision expire after the 2022 season. The combined $90 million a year they bring in is markedly more than the league has ever received, but dramatic increases may be necessary if the vision for the future is to become a reality. And in a broader media environment buffeted by instability, that might prove a steep task, especially if ratings don’t improve more quickly.

Other storms lurking: Where will MLS go after expansion to 28 teams? What will that potentially enormous beast look and act like? How long will owners assent to losing money in the short term in order to build for the long range? How will the North America 2026 World Cup affect the league, and vice versa?

As Jonas Salk’s famous saying goes, “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more,” and so it goes with MLS. That’s what makes year 24 such an intriguing one. 

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