MLS Changing Course: How the MLS is Finding a New Identity

How the MLS is changing from courting aging veterans to the brightest talent in North and South America…

It seems almost expected at this point that every week a new star snubs top flight European soccer for Chinese money and stardom. While the Chinese Superleague has flirted with international talent for some time now, attracting the likes of Demba Ba, Paulinho, Graziano Pelle, Gervinho and Lavezzi, they have certainly made a different kind of splash the past month. They have been successful throwing record-breaking contracts out at players like Tevez, Oscar, Witsel and have been rumored to be willing to break the bank for other players such as Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Real Madrid’s Pepe and even referee Mark Clatenburg. The Chinese Superleague has deployed the strategy of attracting top international footballers with money and stardom, a strategy that the MLS has been criticized for using when attracting veteran players towards the end of their careers. While some have called the MLS a “retirement league” for stars such as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, the league now looks a lot different than the Chinese Superleague. That is due to the emphasis on developing a league rather than the business of selling jerseys and filling seats.

Beckham_LA_Galaxy_cropped MLS
David Beckham helped make MLS what it is today

Though bringing in world famous stars towards the end of their careers has helped the popularity of soccer in the US and improved ratings and attendance, it is not sustainable to develop a league that will ultimately produce competitive teams and players on the world stage. There needs to be a shift towards attracting players still in their prime as well developing young domestic and international talent. How can this be done? If China is busy spending millions on international superstars still in their prime in Europe, where should the MLS turn to? The answer is their own backyard- Central and South America. If the MLS wants to be taken seriously as a league, they must demand respect in their own region. No MLS team has made it to the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup since its birth in 2000. The last team to win the CONCACAF Champions League was LA Galaxy in 2000.

How will the MLS gain the respect they want?

Be THE place to play in CONCACAF and CONEMBOL

Dos Santos MLS
Signings like Gio dos Santos are elevating MLS

Instead of comparing the MLS to European leagues like the Premiership, La Liga or the Bundesliga, let’s compare it to Liga MX, the Costa Rican Primera Division, or the Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A. How does the MLS fare in its own region? Not very well. But the new MLS identity can help change that. Instead of reaching out to older players from Europe, cherry-pick the top talent in Mexico, Central America, and South America. The acquisition of the Gio dos Santos provides great value and credibility for the new direction that the MLS is taking. However, attracting top talent Mexican players will prove difficult due to the preexisting culture and talent and money that Liga MX has. However, whereas Liga MX players are already exposed to money and a platform for a jump to Europe, other leagues such as the first division in Costa Rica should be a breeding ground for MLS players… and it has.

The Costa Rican National Team has ascended up the world ranks and rightfully so, as they have continuously produced top talent that have all started in their domestic league. Costa Rican players have also caught wind of MLS teams as their domestic teams Saprissa and Alajuelense have made noise in the CONCACAF Champions League. After losing to Saprissa in that same competition, Portland Timbers coach flew to Costa Rica to scout a couple of domestic games.

Calvo MLS
Fransisco Calvo – part of the new era

As a result, a number of Costa Ricans have made their way north to the MLS. Joining Kendall Watson, Johan Venegas, Ronald Matarrita and Christian Bolaños will be Jose Salvatierra (FC Dallas), Jose Guillermo Ortiz (DC United), David Guzman (Portland Timbers), and Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United). Plus other Central American talents like Alberth Elis have come to the league. Houston Dynamo signed the young Honduran talent playing for Monterrey after he showed his enormous potential at the Olympic games.

Cherry picking the talent of these Central American players, from Panama to Honduras and Costa Rica can provide a robust competitive culture in which the MLS can finally bring in quality players in its region instead of spending millions on European players who are hurt for half the year.

More signs point to the MLS moving towards this direction of filling its league with top talent from Central and South America. Atlanta Untied swooped up Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba from the Argentinian league thanks to their new head coach, Tata Martino, and also acquired US youth international Brandon Vasquez from Mexico. Plus they are looking to fill their third DP spot with a star from Mexico or Argentina (Darwin Quintero). DC United just completed the transfer of Luciano Acosta from Boca Juniors after a standout first season on loan from the Argentine side. Seattle Sounders went hard after Boca Juniors Dario Benedetto before he turned them down . NYCFC are rumoured to be interested in Panamanian attacking midfielder Miguel Camargo. Costa Rican midfielder Rodney Wallace, who won an MLS Cup with the Timbers, has been linked back to Portland.

Bottom line is, there is plenty of talent in the backyard of the MLS that it had yet to tap. But it does seem like there is a new direction that MLS sides are taking, focusing on acquiring the best players in the region and become the Superleague of CONCACAF rather than spend record breaking money trying to convince European league players in their prime to come to their league… a la China.

By bringing in these players and continuing the development of youth players will increase the competition and level of the MLS, ultimately attracting more internationals in the region, become the primary league for US Men’s National Team players and in the long-term future, attract players from Europe that are still in their prime.