NEW YORK — Major League Soccer has all sorts of momentum heading into its 28th season, which kicks off 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 of Europe’s Big Five. In Qatar, 21-year-old Atlanta United playmaker Thiago Almada of Argentina became the first active MLS player to hoist the most coveted trophy in sports.
MLS welcomes its 29th team, St. Louis City, this year, with commissioner Don Garber saying Wednesday that club No. 30 should be named before year’s end. More than 70,000 fans are expected to attend matches in Atlanta, Charlotte and Los Angeles this weekend.
There are also new media rights deals worth more $2.5 billion over the next decade that promise to boost the level of play through increased spending on talent, explode MLS’s profile globally while also putting a record number of matches on American broadcast television. FOX, now the league’s exclusive linear TV partner in the U.S., will air 15 games in 2023. FOX Deportes will show 34. Both are all-time highs.
There’s lots to be excited about. Here are some of the major MLS storylines to follow this year.
St. Louis (finally) gets an expansion team
Missouri’s second-biggest city is known as the birthplace of American soccer; the game’s origins there can be traced to the late 1800s. Five members of the U.S. team that famously stunned England at the 1950 World Cup were St. Louis natives. Saint Louis University has won a record 10 NCAA men’s championships.
For MLS, St. Louis always seemed like an obvious fit. Yet multiple expansion bids failed through the years, including a 2017 try that was rejected by taxpayers. Things changed two years later, when an all-female ownership bid led by local businesswoman Carolyn Kindle finally got a deal over the line.
The community responded with 63,000 season ticket deposits — for just 19,000 available seats. The club, christened St. Louis City SC after a name-the-team vote, debuts Saturday at Austin before its gala home opener March in its sparkling new half-billion dollar stadium downtown.
“All the stars aligned,” Kindle said Wednesday. “The city is just so excited to have this happen.”
Team No. 30 on the way, with more to follow
Garber said Wednesday that San Diego and Las Vegas were the leading candidates to be awarded 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 former’s bid, which has widespread local support and may have passed Vegas as the favorite.
But MLS isn’t standing pat there, which was the plan just a few years ago. “We do need more teams,” Garber said. “We’d said we’re going to stop at 30 but the other major [North American sports] leagues are larger than that.
“There are many other markets that are opportunities for us,” he added, mentioning Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento and Tampa specifically.
Expanded Leagues Cup will include all of MLS, Liga MX
MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX — the most-watched club soccer competition in America, with higher viewership than the vaunted English Premier League gets — have partnered in the past, but never on the scale they will this summer.
Both domestic leagues will shutter for a month this July and August for the Leagues Cup, a new World Cup-style tournament featuring every top tier club in the Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
For MLS, it’s an opportunity to show stateside fans of Liga MX how far they’ve come and perhaps turn them into regular customers. The Mexican league has been better on the field though MLS’s almost three-decade existence, but that’s beginning to change. Last May, the Seattle Sounders finally broke Liga MX’s 21-year stranglehold on the CONCACAF Champions League, becoming the first MLS side to win the title.
“When I came here, we were talking about how to catch up with the Mexicans,” said Philadelphia sporting director Ernst Tanner, who joined the Union in 2018. “Now we are pretty much there.”
More home-grown stars on the way?
MLS continues to produce players coveted by top European clubs, a trend that should only accelerate in 2023. Five of the top 10 outbound transfers in league history have come in the last 13 months. This winter alone, the Chicago Fire sold a pair of blue-chip teenagers — American goalkeeper Gaga Slonina and Colombian forward Jhon Durán — for a combined $35 million to England’s Chelsea and Aston Villa, respectively.
“What’s happening in player development in this country is truly extraordinary,” said Todd Durbin, the league’s EVP of competition. “The domestic player, both in the U.S. and in Canada, is foundational to where our future is going to be. We have to make sure that we are continuing to invest in that space and continuing to develop elite players.”
It’s not just domestic players, though. Young foreign talents like Durán and Almada increasingly see MLS as a pathway to the highest levels of the club game.
“People think about academies when we talk about player development, but it doesn’t only concern the academies,” Tanner said. “You will attract [foreign] players the better you are doing as a league.
“The awareness of the league is growing,” he added. “[Players] now see MLS as a stepping stone on the way to Europe. And that’s an achievement.”
Playoff tweak 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 be more matches, too; the first round of the postseason will move from single elimination to best-of-three.
“We’ve been working to try to find the right format for a really long time,” Garber said. “In North America, we know the importance of playoffs to drive the energy at the latter part of the season.
“We understand that’s not the way 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 for our players with a postseason tournament,” he continued. “Most recently we had a knockout tournament, which really worked. But we wanted more games. We had to find a formula to drive 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’s landmark 10-year partnership with Apple will alter the way fans both at home and overseas consume the league. No longer will individual teams have to negotiate with regional sports networks to get their product to supporters. Abroad, the league won’t 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 — all over the world.
Other North American sports leagues could eventually follow.
“We’re playing in the global game, and we’re not the global league that we want to be,” Garber told reporters inside MLS’s pristine, 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 soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports, and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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