Welcome to 2016: when MLS comes of age

Entering into its 21st season, MLS should make off-field growth its top priority as its teams go from strength to strength on it, says Graham Parker...

So MLS is turning 21. All grown up.

That’s the idea anyway — and when FourFourTwo spoke to Commissioner Don Garber during the off-season he suggested as much, when he recapped the player signings, the strategic expansions, the stadiums and the international TV rights deals that had marked the league’s 20th season.

According to Garber, 2015 “felt like the year” where the league had come into its own.

Certainly after a somewhat sickly childhood, and a gawky adolescence, MLS has matured to the point where conversation on the general state of the league has moved on from fretting about its very survival to more searching questions about what exactly it’s going to be when it grows up.

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Watch us go

Not that the challenges are any less pressing now than in say, 2002, when the league endured a painful contraction and a battle for its very survival.

The league may be here to stay in 2016, but it faces a stiff battle for audience share against the imported version of its own sport. There has never been more soccer available on U.S. television screens, and converting fans of, say, Premier League and La Liga coverage, to also watch – and ideally attend – the domestic league’s games is no easy feat.

The raft of international TV deals made by MLS in Europe and Asia in 2015 may have signaled, to Garber and his fellow executives, a confidence that the league’s product was ready for that degree of scrutiny from abroad.

But perhaps there’s also a sense of urgency back home about marking the league’s presence on the international stage, since the international leagues are already here and aggressively going after U.S. viewers.

MLS has long targeted 2022 as a year when they want the league to be firmly established as one of the top 10 in the world, but like it or not, right now it’s being benchmarked against the very best alternatives by domestic and international fans.

MERCHANDISE Get the official MLS matchball from WorldSoccerShop

Add in the unfettered investment flowing into the Chinese league, or the growing ambitions of the Indian League, and it’s clear that the time for the isolated state of exception that marked the league’s first few years has long passed. Ready or not, MLS is part of the global soccer conversation now, and while that might prompt a painful realignment of expectations in the short term, it’s an important development for the league’s long-term health and credibility.

Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

The contenders

So how is the league holding up, heading into the 2016 season? And who are the clubs best positioned to offer a model of best practice for all the challenges it faces?

Well, depending on what metric you’re looking at, you might get some very different answers. LA Galaxy remain the kings of navigating the league’s arcane rulebook and budget structure as it is — and they look to have engineered yet another successful off-season reinvention.

But FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls, with their emphasis on homegrown youth, might be emerging as the longer-term models for what the league might become as it integrates more with the global soccer market. Seattle Sounders do a little of both and got the symbolic player they wanted when Jordan Morris recently decided to stay in Cascadia.

There’s no single answer of who’s best positioned, and MLS may well like it that way. After all, in a franchise system of owner partners, with a cherished principle of competitive parity and a generous playoff field to aim for, the ideal is to have every team heading into the new season realistically believing that this might be their year.

But how sides get there, and how sustainable the prevailing models are, can tell us a lot about the overriding philosophy in MLS as a whole. When looking at the clubs that made the biggest moves during the off-season, the bigger picture ‘why’ is at least as important as the ‘who’.

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Slowing the expansion

The wide-angle view of the league looks positive. The general spectacle of game day bears perfectly reasonable comparison to leagues around the world: the fan experience and rising attendance numbers; the ongoing wave of soccer-specific stadiums; what the players are wearing (think back to the clown costumes commonplace two decades ago); even the fan protests look right…

Those superficial impressions are important. It wasn’t just the standard of play that would have been judged critically had the league’s early days been subjected to the type of international TV exposure it’s moving towards now.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

The mid-‘90s version of MLS was very much rooted in the principle that the sport needed to be bent towards American tastes to catch on. These days the financial structures underpinning the league remain informed by American sports industry models, but the culture and feel of the game as an event has globalized.

Global comparisons are not always to the league’s advantage of course, and there’s perhaps a blessing that, for this year at least, the ceaseless expansion that has marked the league in recent years (with Orlando City and New York City FC joining in 2015) has temporarily paused.

As the league has expanded rapidly, it’s been clear that the serviceable domestic talent pool has been diluted. The academies are improving, and bringing through young homegrown players at an increasing rate, but not yet at a speed that’s made up the shortfall.

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Longer-term superstars

On the plus side, MLS’s articulated wish of being a “league of choice” for both international and top domestic players is showing signs of being fulfilled.

As last year’s Gerrard, Lampard, Pirlo and Drogba signings show, some of that is still rooted in short-term marketing as much as long-term technical logic, however much those veteran talents still have to offer. But the now-familiar trope of aging superstars having one last hurrah in the USA or Canada has begun to shift slightly.

The analysis of David Beckham’s time in the league tends to look at his public profile when he signed with MLS, rather than his age (he was 32), but it’s the latter facet of his arrival that’s most telling.

Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

David Villa was also 32 when he signed with New York City FC last year, and he was alone among the team’s designated player trio of himself, Pirlo and Lampard in still looking as if he had something at stake, having committed to the league for these particular years of his career. NYCFC can build a team for the medium term around him. They can build a marketing campaign for 2016 for Pirlo and Lampard, but beyond that…

It’s a crucial difference to have players be somehow ‘implicated’ in the fortunes of their teams over a sustained period of time, and an even more crucial difference when players at the height of their powers choose to commit to the league. Sebastian Giovinco may not have the same brand recognition Beckham did, but it’s possible that history will show Toronto’s signing of the 28-year-old Italian was just as much of a bellwether moment as the former England captain’s arrival.

Giovinco was superb last year in helping Toronto to its first ever playoffs, and deservedly won the MVP award on the back of a record-breaking tally of goals and assists.

But it’s as an emblem of talent operating just beneath the top tier of European players that he’s significant. When that segment of players start considering MLS as a legitimate platform to continue their careers, something important is beginning to happen — and tellingly, Giovinco found himself back in the Italian setup in 2015 when conventional wisdom might have equated an MLS move with permanent exile.

In a Galaxy close by...

Looking around the league’s signings this off-season, there are fewer veteran marquee names arriving than in the bumper year of 2015.

It’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of brand recognition in the veteran talent arriving, in particular at LA Galaxy, where Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong are part of mass overhaul in a team whose offensive potency was offset by a leaky backline and poor defensive midfield options last year.

The Galaxy freed up a ton of cap space and allocation money to make these moves, with Juninho and Omar Gonzalez the most high-profile departures. The defense looks more solid, for this year at least, but perhaps the most intriguing thing to watch will be how much veteran goalkeeper Dan Kennedy has to offer in replacing another veteran, Donovan Ricketts, who underwhelmed in 2015.

Kennedy was only a backup at FC Dallas last year, as Oscar Pareja’s youth revolution gathered momentum. Last year was perhaps too soon for the team to go all the way, but a year’s more guile and experience added to their speed and talent should make them even stronger contenders this year. Add in the arrival of Carlos Gruezo from Stuttgart and Maximiliano Urruti from champions Portland, and Dallas once again look like the team to beat in the West.

RECOMMENDED New signings we can't wait to see

New York Red Bulls, too, have transformed in very short order from the top-heavy Thierry Henry/Tim Cahill days, to potentially becoming a club based around youth development. At the draft they held a photo op for six academy players they’d signed as homegrown players, and a few days later one of their academy products Matt Miazga was on his way to Chelsea. The club promised to plough the profits back into the youth system.

Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports

Balance in the Big Apple

The Red Bulls ended up making a virtue of New York City FC’s splashy arrival on the local scene last year, and it didn’t hurt that they swept the three-game series between the two clubs. For their part, NYCFC will hope that new head coach Patrick Vieira will have more influence over his star trio of Pirlo, Lampard and Villa than the outgoing Jason Kreis did, while also managing to achieve the trick of turning the remaining cap space left over from those three into a coherent team. Ideally one that can defend.

The other expansion team, Orlando, have also rung the changes during the off-season. Adrian Heath remains as head coach, but the various changes in technical and senior administrative roles around him suggests that majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva is making his presence and impatience felt.

Orlando had tough luck with injuries last year, but Heath needs a strong start.

Speaking of strong starts, a couple of teams who missed the Eastern Conference playoffs last season are in full overhaul mode. Philadelphia Union’s hiring of the widely respected Earnie Stewart as Sporting Director, along with the long-overdue completion of their dedicated training facility, suggests that this might be the year that they fully commit to a moneyball strategy after the rather more erratic transfer dealings of the Nick Sakiewicz era.

And in Chicago, former MLS VP Nelson Rodriguez has already been showing his insider knowledge with some smart wheeling and dealing at the draft, while his appointment of Veljko Paunovic as head coach is a move meant to inspire a change in a club culture that had drifted horribly in recent years. Paunovic led Serbia to the U20 World Cup last year and will place a strong emphasis on identifying and moulding young players who fit his vision of a “good soccer lifestyle”.

Paunovic also played in MLS, but these days that’s less and less remarkable for head coaches in the league. As it continues to evolve, though, it will be fascinating to see how well the value of specialist knowledge in this most idiosyncratic of competitions continues to hold up.

What such coaches do tend to value is players in their own mould — the solid mid-ranking professionals that no team sprinkled with stars can do without. In that vein, the constant personnel turnover that used to mark MLS has begun to slow of late, and it’s possible to recognize good teams working in three- to four-year cycles.

In that mould, watch out for how last year’s MLS Cup finalists Columbus Crew SC and Portland Timbers consolidate around the core of solid players that will continue with them into 2016 (though Crew SC do have the slight wrinkle of having to persuade prolific goalscorer Kei Kamara to re-up on his contract).

Casey Sapio/USA TODAY Sports

O Canada

The trio of Canadian teams will be fascinating in this regard too. Vancouver, like Dallas, look to be a young team getting exponentially better. They’ve not changed much in the off-season, though their lack of reliable source for goals has been addressed with the addition of Masato Kudo from the J-League. They should be strong contenders in the West again.

Montreal will be relishing having Didier Drogba for a full season, though other than bringing Lucas Ontivero in on loan from Galatasaray, they’ve not done a lot of business on the rest of the roster.

It’s Toronto that look, on paper, to have consolidated best in the off-season. Their expensive trio of Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are back for another year, but the serviceable talent depth around them has been enriched by the arrivals of Steven Beitashour, Drew Moor, and Will Johnson — some veteran MLS talent and grit in that trio.

Having reached their first ever playoffs last year, Toronto fell flat at the first hurdle, but these look like the right moves to take them further.

Not that veterans alone are a solution. D.C. United are working towards building their own stadium and seem to be in penny-pinching mode until then – the team looked old in the playoffs and doesn’t look to be getting younger with the off-season transactions. And San Jose haven’t done much personnel-wise to suggest they’ll be looking forward to much more than hosting the All-Star game this year.

Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

Jet lagged

One complicating factor that came to the fore during Steven Gerrard’s travails last year was the effect travel can have on players and teams. At a team level, Owen Coyle’s Houston won only twice on the road last year, and were further hit by international absences. Despite his extensive experience, Coyle’s personal learning curve was a steep one in his first year in the league.

Houston were perhaps not helped by having to cope with being moved back into the tough Western Conference last season, along with Sporting KC. Sporting made the playoffs due in no small part to the contributions of Krisztian Nemeth, but if they’re going to get back there then they may have to spend some of the money they got from selling him to Al-Gharafa SC during the off-season. Sometimes offers that are too good to turn down come at the wrong time.

Peter Aiken/USA TODAY Sports

And sometimes it’s just the right time to go home — Yura Movsisyan left Real Salt Lake at the height of the Jason Kreis era, and now the Spartak Moscow player is back, on loan at least, to try to get the club some of the goals they missed out on last year.

Movsisyan may be one of the quiet coups of the off-season, but if you’re looking for a deal to rival it, RSL’s Rocky Mountain rivals might have made it. Albania international Shkelzen Gashi has been something of a goal machine for Basel in the Swiss league, and while he’s not got the name recognition of a Giovinco – let alone the bigger-name arrivals – he’s still at the peak of his powers and might be the spark the struggling Colorado Rapids need.

Forward thinking

But to return to a theme, it’s not really been an off-season where the main stories are about big signings – the two main sagas have been about whether or not a young American player would sign in the first place and what that might mean.

Matt Miazga decided to go to Europe, but of course the really big decision was Jordan Morris electing to continue his development with Seattle rather than Werder Bremen.

And if at the other end of the career spectrum there was also intrigue about Kei Kamara, or whether Jermaine Jones would choose to accept a reduced offer to come back with New England (moot in the end, with the Revs landing Ivorian Xavier Kouassi in Jones’s position), it was the destinations of these two young U.S. internationals that provoked most discussion among fans.

Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports

That’s probably how it should be — in terms of age these players are almost the exact contemporaries of the league itself. They grew up with it, and their development was shaped in a landscape where MLS, and latterly its academy system, informed them as players.

They’re all grown up now, and so is the league. Time for a young adulthood out in the world.

Promo sitewide