Major League Soccer has long been belittled by fans across the pond in the UK and Europe. Perhaps this is because, having grown up in an era where the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League grew exponentially, MLS appeared to lag behind a long way during the 1990s and 2000s.
Fans in England will forever reference the way “penalties” were taken in the 1990s, with the opposing player dribbling from the half way line before trying to beat the keeper. This certainly looks more training drill rather than game decider, but MLS has come a long, long way since the World Cup in 1994.
Clubs are more commonly classed as “Franchises” rather than “Teams”, but the style and structure of the league sees a record number of teams about to start the 2021 season, with more to join in subsequent seasons. 27 teams make up the league, with 24 in the US and three in Canada. Austin FC are this year’s debut team and already look to have a decent roster.
So, why should you be following MLS from the middle of next month?
Exciting talent across all clubs
From record breaking players like Atlanta United’s Josef Martinéz (who is coming back from a serious injury picked up at the start of the 2020 season) to home-grown starlets like LAFC’s Christian Torres (who made his debut last season at only 16 years old), there is an array of talent across the league.
MLS encourages clubs to have as many “home grown” players as possible, and many teams are starting to see their youth players graduate into the first team (often via their Reserve or Second team in the lower divisions, such as Sounders “2” or Atlanta United “2”). This is great for the development of the game and is needed as much as the big money signings (often referred to as the DP or Designated Players).
Teams often have a great mix of promising youth and experienced talent, and who doesn’t like that?
Entertaining games are the norm
Despite the 2020 season being fragmented, with MLS is Back Tournament over the summer and a split of the Eastern and Western Conferences for the back end of the season, statistics tell us that in terms of clean sheets, no team reached double figures.
That may mean that you can expect kamikaze defending at times as well as a flurry of goals at both ends. Again, the 2020 season was irregular due to the pandemic, but many teams were averaging around two goals a game in a shortened season.
You want to see goals? Start watching MLS!
Anyone can win it
Unlike many leagues in Europe where you get the same old “Top Four” separation when it comes to winning the league, the playoff system stops all that. It is a league that can often see teams way down the bottom of their respective conference go on a run at the end of the season and go on to knock favourites out in the playoffs.
Columbus Crew were last year’s winners, convincingly defeating the Seattle Sounders 3-0 in the MLS Cup final. They didn’t finish top of their Conference, though - Sporting Kansas City did. They were knocked out by surprise package Minnesota United, who went on to lose to the Sounders in the the Conference finals.
The draft system and frequent trading and moving of players may be strange for fans from other countries to get used to, but it creates a level playing field. Salary caps (only the three DP’s can be paid the big bucks) also helps with this.
So, pick a team to support (if you don’t already have an allegiance) and get ready for the start of the league on April 16.
You won’t regret it.