NEW YORK — Major League Soccer has all kinds of momentum heading into its 28th season, which begins Saturday when Nashville SC hosts New York City FC (4:30 p.m. ET on FOX and FOX Deportes).
The top league in the United States and Canada is coming off the most spectacular MLS Cup final in its history, in which LAFC defeated the Philadelphia Union last fall. MLS sent more players to the 2022 World Cup than any circuit outside Europe’s Big Five. In Qatar, Atlanta United’s 21-year-old Argentinian Thiago Almada became the first active MLS player to lift the most coveted trophy in sports.
MLS welcomes its 29th team, St. Louis City this year, and commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday that the 30th club should be named before the end of the year. More than 70,000 fans are expected to attend games in Atlanta, Charlotte and Los Angeles this weekend.
There are also new media rights deals worth more than $2.5 billion over the next decade that promise to raise the level of play by increasing spending on talent, exploding MLS’s profile globally while put a record number of matches on American television. FOX, now the league’s exclusive U.S. linear television partner, will air 15 games in 2023. FOX Deportes will show 34. Both are all-time highs.
There’s a lot to be excited about. Here are some of the top MLS stories to follow this year.
St. Louis (finally) gets an expansion pack
Missouri’s second largest city is known as the birthplace of American football; The game’s origins there date back to the late 19th century. Five members of the American team that stunned England in the 1950 World Cup were natives of St. Saint Louis University has won a record 10 NCAA men’s championships.
For the MLS, St. Louis always seemed like an obvious fit. However, several expansion bids have failed over the years, including a 2017 attempt that was rejected by taxpayers. Things changed two years later, when an all-female ownership bid led by local businesswoman Carolyn Kindle finally secured a deal.
The community responded with 63,000 season ticket deposits, for only 19,000 seats available. The club, named St. Louis City SC after a team name vote, debuts Saturday in Austin ahead of its March opening gala at its gleaming new half-billion dollar stadium downtown.
“All the stars aligned,” Kindle said Wednesday. “The city is very excited for this to happen.”
Team #30 on the way, with more to follow
Garber said Wednesday that San Diego and Las Vegas were the leading candidates to receive the 30th MLS club later this year; a source told FOX Sports on Thursday that former LAFC co-owner Tom Penn is involved in the bid for the former, who has strong local support and may have passed Vegas as the favorite.
But MLS isn’t stopping, which was the plan just a few years ago. “We need more teams,” Garber said. “We said we would stop at 30, but the other big one [North American sports] leagues are bigger than that.
“There are a lot of other markets that are opportunities for us,” he added, specifically mentioning Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento and Tampa.
The expanded League Cup will include all of MLS, MX League
MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX, America’s most-watched club soccer competition, with a bigger audience than England’s borrowed Premier League, have partnered in the past, but never on this scale that they will do it this summer.
Both domestic leagues will shut down for a month this July and August for the League Cup, a new World Cup-style tournament featuring all the top-tier clubs from Canada, Mexico and the United States.
For MLS, it’s a chance to show stateside Liga MX fans how far they’ve come and maybe turn them into regular customers. The Mexican league has been better on the field throughout the nearly three decades of MLS’ existence, but that is starting to change. Last May, the Seattle Sounders finally broke Liga MX’s 21-year dominance of the CONCACAF Champions League, becoming the first MLS team to win the title.
“When I came here, we were talking about how to catch up with the Mexicans,” said Philadelphia athletic director Ernst Tanner, who joined the Union in 2018. “We’re pretty much there now.”
More home stars on the way?
MLS continues to produce players coveted by Europe’s top clubs, a trend that should only accelerate in 2023. Five of the top 10 outgoing transfers in league history have occurred in the last 13 months. This winter alone, the Chicago Fire sold a pair of top-flight teenagers — American goalkeeper Gaga Slonina and Colombian forward Jhon Durán — for a combined $35 million to Chelsea and England’s Aston Villa , respectively.
“What’s happening in player development in this country is truly extraordinary,” said Todd Durbin, the league’s vice president of competition. “The domestic player, both in the US and Canada, is critical to where our future is going to be. We need to make sure we continue to invest in that space and continue to develop elite players.”
It’s not just domestic players, though. Young foreign talents like Durán and Almada are increasingly seeing MLS as a pathway to the highest levels of the club game.
“People think of academies when we talk about player development, but it’s not just about academies,” Tanner said. “You will attract [foreign] players the better you do as a league.
“Awareness of the league is growing,” he added. “[Players] now he sees MLS as a stepping stone on the way to Europe. And that’s a success.”
The playoff adjustment means more postseason participants, games
MLS announced Tuesday that 18 teams will compete for the 2023 MLS Cup, up from 14 last year. There will also be more matches; the first round of the postseason will go from single elimination to best-of-three.
“We’ve been working on trying to find the right format for a long time,” Garber said. “In North America, we know the importance of the playoffs in driving energy into the latter part of the season.
“We understand that’s not how most of the world plays, but at the end of the day we’re trying to create energy and excitement for our fans and our teams and our players with a postseason tournament,” he continued. “Most recently we had a playoff tournament, which really worked. But we wanted more games. We had to find a formula to push more games in a way that made sense.”
[MLS makes major changes to playoff format, expands to nine teams]
A game-changing streaming deal
Perhaps the biggest change this year comes off the field. MLS’ historic 10-year partnership with Apple will disrupt the way fans both at home and abroad consume the league. Individual teams will no longer have to negotiate with regional sports networks to get their product to fans. Abroad, the league will not have to reach agreements with media companies on a country-by-country basis. All of its programming will be produced in-house and available in one place, Apple TV, worldwide.
Other North American sports leagues could follow.
“We’re playing the global game and we’re not the global league we want to be,” Garber told reporters inside MLS’ 6,000-square-foot studio space in East Harlem. “What better way to do that than with a global partner that is ubiquitous around the world.”
Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports, and has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.
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