Football is a funny old game. It is the most popular sport in the world, billions across the world watch the game annually, and nothing can unite people quite like the power of the beautiful game. So why is it taking this long for America to embrace the sport?
Breaking America in any lease of life is considered a big deal. For actors, making it to Hollywood is the ultimate end goal; for musicians, performing at Coachella would be considered making the big time; but for football players, most of them would see America as a place to go to when you’re approaching the end of your career.
When David Beckham joined LA Galaxy in 2007, America suddenly found itself at the forefront of the footballing world. Suddenly players across the world were flooding to the States to cash in on the latter years of their career, and with the introduction of the Designated Player rule, the rule that allowed Beckham to move to Los Angeles for mega bucks, other teams across the league were finding their own DPs.
A change to the system
MLS was attracting players with worldwide reputations, but the players themselves were in the twilight years of their career, which meant the overall quality of the league was never improving, I’m sure you’ve heard the tag of ‘retirement league’ when talking about MLS. But then, something changed.
As the years went on, the overall age of stars coming to the league was beginning to decrease. Sure you had you golden oldies still join MLS such as David Villa and Frank Lampard for New York City FC, Steven Gerrard for the Galaxy, and Bastian Schweinsteiger for the Chicago Fire. But as well as attracting big names, younger players were coming in on DP contracts.
2017 saw the newly established Atlanta United fill all their DP slots with players under the age of 24 in the form of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba; Real Salt Lake signed 22-years-old Slovakian international Albert Rusnak as a DP; and Orlando City are reportedly set to sign younger stars to fill their three vacant DP places, with James Rodriguez being linked with a move to the Florida club.
Atlanta United’s strategy, in particular, has proven to not only be beneficial for a growing league but also beneficial for the players. Atlanta’s approach has allowed the fans to watch great football from young players who are desperate to play and show off their talent, while also using the growing popularity of the league to gain attraction from big teams in Europe, with Almiron and Martinez already attracting interest from European clubs.
Atlanta not only created waves in player recruitment but also in what fan culture could be in MLS. Before the introduction of the Georgia-based club to the league, the most notable supporter group in the country was the Timbers Army in Portland, and I implore you to watch YouTube videos of some of their tifo displays. But in 2017, the baton changed hands to Atlanta United.
Atlanta fans broke the MLS attendance record in their home opener against the New York Red Bulls with an attendance of over 55,000 at the Bobby Dodd Stadium, and the Five Stripes would break the record again after they moved into the newly constructed Mercedes-Benz Stadium, attracting over 71,000 fans in the opener against rivals Orlando.
Just let that sink in for a second. 71,000 fans at any football game is an incredible achievement. But 71,000 fans at an MLS league game? That is something nobody would have predicted 10 years ago, or even five. Atlanta United changed the landscape of soccer in America in 2017, and it only changed for the best.
The start of silly season
With the 2017 season now over as Toronto FC claimed the MLS Cup in the Six as arguably the greatest team to ever compete in the league, fans are now turning their attention towards the build-up to next season, and the 2018 MLS season is looking likely to be the biggest year in the league’s history.
And you couldn’t blame fans for thinking this as the moves in the offseason so far have been bombastic, to say the least. Independiente winger and FIFA 18 wonderkid Ezequiel Barco is set to sign for Atlanta United for a reported fee of $14 million, a league record; the Montreal Impact appointed former Aston Villa manager Remi Garde in the latest of big coaching appointments in MLS; and the latest expansion club, Los Angeles FC, looks set to bring soccer culture back to a part of the country that is craving a new franchise that can rival the international powerhouse that is LA Galaxy.
Football reinvented in the City of Angles
LAFC is a reason alone to start keeping an eye on MLS in 2018. Managed by former USA and Swansea coach Bob Bradley, the experienced manager has recruited a strong core of players for the club to compete in their inaugural season, signing the likes of Real Sociedad chip master Carlos Vela, highly rated Uruguayan prospect Diego Rossi, and two of MLS’ best defenders in Laurent Ciman and Walker Zimmerman. If you needed another reason to be excited about LAFC, Will Ferrell is one of the co-owners of the club, so get hyped for that.
While LAFC isn’t attracting as much hype as Atlanta United last year, it is still a massive showing of how much the game has progressed in the country. As well as having an established manager, a strong squad of players, and many well known public figures as co-owners of the club that have already said they’re committing to progressing football even further, LAFC will also play in a soccer-specific stadium in downtown LA. And with LA being one of the most populous cities in America, the location of the stadium alone will attract a large number of new fans looking for an alternative club to support in their city.
This is MLS' year
2017 was a brilliant year for sports fans, but it was also a year of heartache for many more. Real Madrid fans basked in the glory of becoming the first European side to win back-to-back Champions League titles; Arsenal supporters watched in horror as their side finished below hated rivals Tottenham for the first time in two decades and missed out on a Champions League spot for the first time in the Arsene Wenger era despite winning a 13th FA Cup title; and MLS fans watched the excitement the 2017 season created whilst also almost giving up on the sport when the USA national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
That singular event has already had massive implications on the structure of soccer in the US, as the US Soccer Federation is set to undertake massive political reform in major areas of the sport in the country, with one of the major factors being the quality and the current state of MLS.
2018 will be a defining year not just for the league on an international stage, but more importantly on a domestic level. But one thing is for certain. The 2018 MLS season will be the biggest, and probably best, year in the league’s history.