MLS bullish on future as 25th season kicks off

David Beckham (Getty Images)
David Beckham (Getty Images)

Los Angeles - The 25th season of Major League Soccer (MLS) kicks off on Saturday with two new teams joining the rapidly expanding league as it targets an increasingly prominent place on the US sporting landscape.

A legacy of the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States, today's Major League Soccer bears little resemblance to the fledgling competition which featured 10 teams when it launched in 1996.

With expansion franchises Nasvhille SC and Inter Miami entering the fray this year, MLS now boasts 26 clubs split into two 13-team regional conferences - the largest domestic football championship in the world.

With four more sides due to join in 2021 and 2022, MLS will soon comprise 30 clubs, a reproach to sceptics who doubted the world's most popular sport could ever gain a firm foothold in the United States.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said while the league would still struggle to compete with the technical quality on show in Europe's top domestic competitions, MLS nevertheless compared favourably in other areas.

"Our focus is how we are comparing to the other soccer leagues around the world," Garber told the MLS website this week. 

"We have grown in credibility and respect. We still have an enormous way to go before the typical MLS team on a day-to-day basis could beat Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or Manchester United.

"But if you look at the totality of where we are in ownership groups, structure, our partnerships, our facilities, our development programs, our organization, our content and media and marketing, I think we are without a doubt viewed as one of the top soccer leagues in the world."

Going global?

MLS's ownership group now officially includes former England, Manchester United and Real Madrid star David Beckham, whose Inter Miami team make their debut against Los Angeles FC in California on Sunday.

Miami's entry to the league comes after a tortuous six-year journey marked by setbacks and frustrations, with wrangles over possible stadium locations delaying the team's launch.

"We all had our doubts and many people doubted us," Beckham said this week.

Inter Miami's managing owner Jorge Mas believes in another 25 years the MLS will rival the biggest leagues in the world.

"It'll be on par or exceed the best leagues in the world, be it Premier League or Serie A or La Liga," Mas said. 

"I think the success of the MLS will be global, it won't only be in our country because soccer is a global sport."

In the short term, football has baseball and ice hockey in its crosshairs.

Los Angeles FC's managing owner Larry Berg believes the beautiful game and its diverse US fanbase leaves it positioned to become the third most popular sport after American football and basketball.

"I think we definitely have the demographics in our favour in terms of youth and diversity," Berg told MLSSoccer.com.

Pathway to Europe

On the pitch meanwhile, the Major League Soccer has evolved from the decade following the Beckham era, where teams routinely sought to recruit ageing European players to sprinkle stardust across the league.

While Beckham's arrival at the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 helped boost the MLS's global profile, today's MLS is less reliant on star foreign players. 

Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney both graced the competition last season, and Beckham this week jokingly encouraged speculation about the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo finishing their careers in MLS, the recent trend of overseas acquisitions has skewed younger.

Increasingly, teams are looking towards younger players from regions such as South America who see MLS as a stepping stone towards Europe.

Atlanta United's Venezuela international Josef Martinez - who saw teammate Miguel Almiron join Premier League side Newcastle in 2019 - says MLS remains firmly on an upward trajectory.

"When I arrived here four years ago, I didn't have any idea about MLS," Martinez told Sports Illustrated's si.com website. 

"Now I have a lot of friends in Europe who ask me about this league...this is a growth league. 

"Perhaps it's not the English or Spanish league, but there's more to it than that."

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