With no U.S. World Cup team, MLS focus is on young talent
With no U.S. World Cup team to tout, Major League Soccer is putting an emphasis on new young talent.
The U.S. national team failed to qualify for soccer's biggest tournament, which means the domestic league's American stars are staying home from Russia.
That translates to fewer marketing opportunities for MLS connected to the World Cup: in 2014, for example, the league's motto was "For Club And Country." And the so-called "World Cup Bump" in attendance and TV viewership might not materialize this year.
"It's disappointing that the U.S. men are not going to be in Russia. These moments are always ones that rally the country behind the red, white and blue, behind our sport, and in many cases, behind our players," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "But we have to accept the fact that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. Italy, Holland and Chile all are experiencing the same disappointment."
Even without U.S. participation, MLS expects to have as many as 26 league players (a record) representing different nations in the World Cup. Among them are Seattle's Roman Torres, who plays for Panama, LAFC's Carlos Vela (Mexico) and Portland's Andy Polo (Peru).
The league stresses that growth now depends on raising the quality of play to that of the established European leagues and Liga MX in Mexico, which typically draws more television viewers than MLS in the United States. Many of most exciting new players in MLS this season are from Latin America.
"Our research has shown that MLS fans are evaluating the league in a wide variety of ways, one of which is referentially, i.e., how do we fare against Liga MX in Champions League competition, or exhibition games or, even in a broader way, how does the U.S. national team fare against the Mexican national team?" Garber said. "So I think now that we are bringing in some of the top young players in the world from South America, who have been competing for top clubs and for their national teams, and in tournaments like the Copa Libertadores. I think it's going to give us momentum."
There are lots of things that are new for the league this season, among them:
JOINING IN: When Chivas USA folded in 2014, MLS promised that a new Los Angeles team would eventually take its place. LAFC launches this season under veteran coach Bob Bradley. The team made a splash with its first signing, Mexican national team forward Carlos Vela. And there seems to be excitement around the club: season tickets have already sold out at the team's $350 million Banc of California Stadium, which will host its first match on April 29 with a visit from the Seattle Sounders.
COACHES' CORNER: The league has six new head coaches this year. LAFC's Bradley has coached in the league before, leading Chicago to an MLS Cup title in the team's first season. Following the sudden departure of Caleb Porter, the Portland Timbers brought in Giovanni Savarese, formerly head coach of the lower-tier New York Cosmos. Anthony Hudson will lead the Colorado Rapids this season after a stint as New Zealand's coach. Former U.S. national team goalkeeper Brad Friedel has taken over as coach of the New England Revolution. Former Lyon coach Remi Garde is new for Montreal, and Swedish coach Mikael Stahre now leads the San Jose Earthquakes.
STADIUM UPGRADES: In addition to LAFC's new downtown stadium, D.C. United is moving this season to Audi Field. United is making the move after 22 years at historic RFK Stadium. But the team's new soccer-specific venue won't be ready until July 14 so the team will play the bulk of its games on the road with matches at the Maryland Soccerplex and the Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. The Portland Timbers open the season with five games on the road because of an expansion at the team's downtown stadium, Providence Park. And Minnesota United plans to open Allianz Field next spring.
FRESH FACES: MLS is no longer a league known for old European players in the twilight of their careers. This year's crop of MLS newcomers is the youngest ever, averaging 24.86 years old. One of the youngsters generating buzz is 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco of Argentina, acquired by Atlanta United for an MLS-record $15 million transfer fee from Argentina's Independiente. Fans will have to wait to see him, though, because Barco was injured in preseason training and won't be available for the first month of the season.
A QUICK LOOK AT TAM: OK, not wildly exciting, but a lot has been made about the money being spent by teams heading into the season, and it has to do with Targeted Allocation Money. This year (and next) the league allowed teams to spend up to $2.8 million of "discretionary" TAM themselves — giving team owners greater flexibility to sign high-profile players. Teams also continue to receive $1.2 million apiece in TAM each season. The infusion of money has made for some unusual deals, including D.C. United's trade of $225,000 in general allocation money (GAM) to Toronto in exchange for $337,500 in TAM in early February.