All that money can buy: MLS Cup rematch underscores league’s evolution toward wealth, ambition

Jennifer Buchanan-USA Today Sports

Seattle-Toronto Part 2 is another telling sign of Major League Soccer's evolution. Spend or be left behind.

Spend big, win big.

It’s the way of global soccer, a well-beaten path through the big-boy leagues, certainly true of the dominant associations in Europe. A world of eyeballs watches every week as clubs like Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, etc., mostly brush past the valiant-but-small in what amounts to a two-tiered system.

We usually call it the “haves and have-nots.”

In the U.S., we also watch Major League Soccer’s inexorable march toward the same (debatably unfortunate) place: Big spenders win the big prizes, and everyone else scraps it out for leftovers.

MLS has reached the tipping point. So much evidence mounts that fans, media and clubs themselves must concede the point. The league has joined the fraternity of spend or get left behind.

Now we reach the point where spending is more requirement than suggestion, just as it is with many American sports and in global soccer.

Up to now, we could plausibly deny generous spending as a requirement for ultimate, ongoing success, but no more. Toronto FC and Seattle are the participants in a second consecutive MLS Cup final.

Toronto is Major League Soccer’s highest-spending team on player salaries, per 2017 union numbers. Seattle checks in at No. 7, with the LA Galaxy, NYCFC and, now, Atlanta, checking in as teams willing to spend.

So here we are, it seems, at the tipping point. For everyone who wants MLS to be more like leagues in Europe, in structure, quality and cultural regard, you also get this part.

It took longer than most of us thought

Since the day the LA Galaxy announced David Beckham’s signing – and then-GM Alexi Lalas warned of a new “superclub” status – we all suspected or expected this to happen. Still, reports of the day’s arrival frequently proved premature.

In 2009, having finally gotten their act together, Beckham and crew arrived at MLS Cup, where we all lined up for our first false start. That’s because Real Salt Lake, humming the hymn of ‘the team is the star,’ bettered the Galaxy to earn the title and tamp down the developing narrative.

But the league kept adding Designated Players, and then it began adding salary tools and loopholes that either encouraged or required teams to go spend for quality players. A league that once prided itself on not paying transfer fees now encouraged its teams to go shopping.

Kelvin Kuo-Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Kelvin Kuo-Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Still, along the way, there were smaller-market clubs, or clubs just determined to be frugal, that helped maintain balance. Houston, behind Dominic Kinnear and lots of blue-collar elbow grease, appeared in two MLS Cup finals against the Galaxy. New England appeared in one – and no one ever accused New England of fiscal extravagance.

Those teams weren’t beating the Galaxy in those finals, but getting close was enough that we could suspend disbelief. On it went, even as Thierry Henry, Kaka and Andrea Pirlo came and went, and as mid-level stars occupied more seats on MLS team planes.  

Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, neither on the fat end of the spending table, battled it out in brutal temperatures for MLS Cup 2013; Portland and Columbus did so two years later.

New York and Dallas, both at the bottom of recent salary expenditure lists, won Supporters’ Shields in 2015 and 2016. For the latter, Colorado was chasing Dallas right up until the final kick. And even after Tim Howard’s arrival inflated the team’s overall spend on salaries, no one will ever accuse the Rapids of champagne budgeting.

So there was always reason to believe MLS remained a league where wily roster management or patient design of player development could help a few clubs keep pace.

Now, more and more, you’d have to squint too hard to see that continue.

Toronto has more talent. Period.

On the one hand, the soccer world seems to be functioning properly when a team that was clearly, hands-down, no-arguments allowed, the best over a regular season arrives into a league championship. That’s TFC, now holder of the single-season MLS points record (69) and having threatened other all-time league milestones, like most goals and best goal difference.

Add its arrival into a second consecutive MLS Cup, as a repeat host no less, and it becomes instructional. It’s telling us that this tipping point has been reached.

If you watched the TFC-Columbus Eastern Conference final series, you saw one team that was better prepared, more tactically on top of things and honestly, one that simply looked more up for the job. That team was Crew SC, perhaps inspired and unified by a messy, tenuous situation with potential relocation.

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Toronto wobbled some but ultimately prevailed, because it had more talent. Period. Credit where it’s due, of course, because Toronto has wisely assembled a deep roster, with 15 or 16 starter-quality players, ample depth to augment its trio of money men - Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley.

But it takes real scratch to do all that; TFC spends and spends. Meanwhile, Columbus maxed out its roster allotment of three DPs for the first time in franchise history only four months prior.

It’s not just more talent, per se. Toronto’s wealth of skill, strength and speed also teems with useful experience. Giovinco in Italy; Bradley across Europe; Altidore with Europe on his resume, too. For all three, the steeling effects of international soccer act as a force multiplier.

Meanwhile, Columbus’ best players through the series were Zach Steffen and Wil Trapp, two young U.S. internationals. The increasingly impressive Steffen seems to be on the way up, but through most of 2017, neither player would have been in the top 25 if we ranked U.S. internationals in order of importance.

That’s a real difference. And more and more, it’s making the difference.

Just consider the moments that mattered most: Columbus had chances right up to the end – it just didn’t have a stone-cold killer near goal like Altidore, whose “Michael Jordan flu game” moment will be told and retold.

In some ways, it’s just Major League Soccer growing up, getting big and strong like other major U.S. sports leagues. They are sharing problems – if you see this as such – that other leagues have long suffered. The potential scars of franchise relocation is a good example. Or cities being held hostage in stadium negotiations by ugly threats of relocation; baseball had its notorious, signature moment 60 years ago, as Brooklyn’s beloved Dodgers became LA’s Dodgers.

And now we reach the point where spending is more requirement than suggestion, just as it is with many American sports and in global soccer.

You’ll still get a Colorado, Columbus or a Dallas on the odd year. And one of them might even win an MLS Cup here and there. See: “Leicester City, 2016.”

But more and more, those will be anomalies in North America’s top tier. MLS will continue to add Targeted Allocation Money, Guaranteed Allocation Money, Designated Player spots, or all of the above.

Spending will never guarantee of success, of course. Far from it. But the day has arrived where some real opening of the wallet will be a requirement for chances at real, sustained success.

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