About to enter its 20th season, the Major League Soccer (MLS) is currently enjoying a period of expansion. When the prospering North American professional league gets underway with the match between champions Los Angeles Galaxy and Chicago Fire on 6 March, it will include two new teams – New York City FC and Orlando City. In contrast, one team to fold at the end of the last season was the California-based Chivas USA that, like five-time champions LA Galaxy, played their matches in Carson. But the installation of a second Los Angeles team is already in the pipeline. Other clubs from Miami, where David Beckham is in the process of setting up a franchise, Minneapolis, Sacramento and San Antonio are expected to join the MLS in the foreseeable future.
Winner of three league titles in four years, Los Angeles Galaxy goes into the new season as the top favourite. A repeat win for the team coached by the former US national coach Bruce Arena would only earn punters three dollars for every buck they stake. Second favourite with odds of 9/2 is Seattle Sounders FC, the league’s best-supported team. Last year’s runner-up New England Revolution whose team includes Jermaine Jones – he recently underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia – are at 8/1 and DC United, which is based in the capital city Washington, 9/1. FC Toronto, New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew plus New York City FC follow in the betting odds (15/1). Orlando City is down at 25/1. That experts see the newcomers as being in with a better chance than some established clubs, lies in the potential behind them. New York City, which will play their games in the Yankee Stadium, belongs to Sheik Mansour whose City Football Group umbrella company also includes Manchester City in the Premier League and Melbourne City in Australia. A Brazilian is the owner of the Florida team from Orlando.
The MLS has scheduled the duel between the newcomers for the first weekend of the season on 8 March. Advance ticket sales have been excellent. With ten days to go before the game, more than 30,000 tickets have been sold so that there could well be a 60,000 crowd in the Citrus Bowl. Both clubs have world stars on their books. Orlando has signed the Brazilian Kaka who for a long time was mentioned in the same breadth as Messi and Ronaldo. New York City has bought the Spanish World Cup winner and European champion David Villa. The former Valencia and Barcelona striker is the national team’s all-time record goal-scorer. In as recently as May 2014, he won the Spanish league championship with Atletico Madrid and played for the club in the Champions League final.
One interesting aspect of the new season will be to see what happens in New York where Red Bull have new rivals in the Big Apple – and this after their top striker Thierry Henry, the French EURO 2000 winner, has retired after four years in the MLS. Australian striker Tim Cahill has additionally gone to China to play for Shanghai Greenland. At LA Galaxy, Landon Donovan, the icon of US football, hung up his boots after the win in the final against New England in December. A successor in the same class is not in sight. After 17 years as a Liverpool player, the English international Steven Gerrard is expected to arrive in the middle of the season at Galaxy as the club’s new top star. It is quite possible the former England captain will end his career just as impressively as David Beckham who wore the Galaxy jersey from 2007 to 2012. It is also hoped that Frank Lampard will join New York City after all. After leaving Chelsea in summer, he was due to play for the city branch on the east coast of the United States but ended up at the cooperation partner Manchester.
Last season’s average MLS attendance totalled just over 19,000, a figure that even some attractive leagues in Europe would be very happy with. Major League Soccer has firmly established itself in the sports scene in USA and Canada. After American football, basketball and baseball, soccer has basically moved up alongside, or even ahead, of ice hockey as the country’s fourth biggest team sport. The league is in no way just a paradise for aging stars looking to flee the stress in Europe’s top divisions. “If I moved to the MLS then I couldn’t see it as a part of my real career,” said Franck Ribery, the top class French striker at Bayern Munich. It caused people to shake their heads when he said it and even more when looking back in 2015.
Though there is an official MLS wage cap in place, clubs are allowed to bypass it for designated players. And it is in no way only used for older stars that have left Europe or South America but also for younger top professionals that big clubs from all over the world would love to sign. One example is the 21-year old winger Juan Ramirez who was transferred from Argentinos Juniors to Colorado Rapids, the 2010 champions. Philadelphia Union has signed the 22-year old Venezuelan striker Fernando Aristeguieta from Nantes. And Mikkel (“Mix”) Diskerud, a much sought-after 24-year old Norwegian from Rosenborg Trondheim, will in future hold together the New York City FC defence. The 28-year old Italian Sebastian Giovinco left Juventus for FC Toronto. Additionally, more and more talented youngsters are aiming to get a contract at a MLS club after their college education whereby the US national coach Jürgen Klinsmann is hoping to raise the standards even further.
The commercial aspects of the league are improving all the time ESPN and FOX Sports, the two biggest sports channels in the USA will televise MLS games as will the dominant Spanish-speaking channel Sender Univision. The sports marketing giant IMG, with whom the MLS has agreed a contract, announced in February that MLS games will also be shown in Great Britain. All the trends are pointing to further expansion as ever more large cities are represented in the league. And the new season promises even more excitement and footballing class.
|Colorado Rapids||(First year in the MLS: 1996)|
|Sporting Kansas City||(1996)|
|New YorkCity FC||(2015)|
|New YorkRed Bulls||(1996)|