Since taking over as commissioner in August 1999, Don Garber has consistently stated his aim to turn Major League Soccer into one of the best leagues in the world.
At the time of his appointment, that may have seemed like an overreaching ambition and, indeed, many did laugh Garber off, insisting that the sport could never be taken seriously in the United States and Canada.
After all, football has a chequered past in North America, littered with inconsistencies and clubs coming in and out of existence, while the disastrous 1984 collapse of the old North American Soccer League (NASL) — which had played host to the likes of Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff and more — still loomed large even as Garber was unveiled in his new role.
Indeed, the early years of Garber’s reign were more focused on bringing MLS in-line with the global game — a process which included the scrapping of MLS’ ‘shootout’ system which saw players try to beat a goalkeeper one-on-one rather than take a penalty, and the three-plus-one substitution rule which allowed teams to make three outfield changes alongside being able to swap out their goalkeeper.
As the seasons went by, Garber’s aims shifted, pushing clubs to build their own “soccer-specific” stadiums in order to give the league more autonomy and project the image of a thriving, stand-alone sport. In 1999, Columbus Crew’s Mapfre Stadium was the only one of its kind in MLS. At the time of writing, Major League Soccer has 21 stadiums built or repurposed for the sport, with a minimum of six more on the way.
Then, of course, there was the arrival of David Beckham, joining LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007. Arguably the most paradigm-shifting transfer an individual league has ever seen, with MLS seeing an 8.2% rise in average attendances (16,770 up from 15,504) during his first season — the highest jump in league history at the time and record which would remain in-tact until 2015.
Beckham’s arrival also saw the introduction of the “Designated Player” rule, allowing clubs to sign established stars on big-money contracts (teams are currently allowed to have three such players on their books).
Garber himself has admitted that without the DP rule, nicknamed the “Beckham rule”, MLS simply wouldn’t be able to grow beyond the point it found itself at in 2007.
“David told the world it’s OK to come to MLS,” Garber told Grant Wahl in 2014. “We went from one Designated Player to 40-plus today. If not for our ability to manage bringing in players outside the salary cap with continued youth development investment, MLS doesn’t grow.”
Just last year, he told the New York Times: “If David Beckham doesn’t come to MLS, I don’t think we’d be where we are today.
“He came in and was a massive storm of media coverage and it never stopped for the six years he was in the league. There were challenges with him going over to Milan. But the addition of a team in Toronto and David was the true start of MLS. 2.0.”
Expansion: New markets, new enthusiasm and new ideas
Nowadays, MLS is much more accustomed to seeing superstars taking to their pitches. Over the years, we’ve witnessed the likes of David Villa, Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and, more recently, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic move stateside with varying degrees of success.
However, there is arguably no better word to define the growth of MLS than “expansion”. Even more than the DP rule, the constant movement of MLS into new markets has propelled the league to new levels.
During its inaugural season, MLS had just 10 teams, only nine of which are still in existence in some form or another today. By the time Beckham arrived in 2007, there were 13 teams, while fast-forwarding to 2020 (MLS’ 25th anniversary) the league has doubled in size to 26, with four franchises expected to join up by 2023.
For the large part, these expansion clubs have brought with them new ideas, new enthusiasm and whole new demographics for MLS to reach.
As Garber mentioned, the addition of Toronto alongside Beckham’s arrival was a “game-changer” and “the start of MLS 2.0”. TFC were the first Canadian side to enter the league, paving the way for Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact to follow and, furthermore, after struggling during their formative years, they have become a behemoth of MLS, contesting three of the last four playoff finals, winning in 2017 as part of an MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and Voyageurs Cup treble.
Unlike many previous MLS Cup winners, TFC’s 2017 success was spearheaded by a European import who was still in his prime, Sebastian Giovinco, and backed up by a cast of North Americans, including Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, returning across the Atlantic having enjoyed or endured very different career paths. However, all of them were expertly picked as players primed to succeed in MLS rather than signed purely to fill a stadium.
Seattle Sounders, who entered the league in 2009, played Toronto in those three playoff finals, winning in 2016 and 2019, while enjoying an eight-year stay at the top of MLS’ average attendance table, never dipping below 30,942 at CenturyLink Field and even enjoying an average of 44,247 in 2015.
MLS 3.0: Selling prized assets the key to global relevance
Who supplanted the Sounders in terms of crowd numbers in 2017? Atlanta United, arguably the defining club of the league’s very recent history and if not the start of “MLS 3.0”, then the one which truly kicked it into gear.
The Five Stripes have had the highest average attendance throughout MLS in all three of their full seasons so far, with a low of 48,200 in 2017 and a high of 53,002 in 2018 as the team won MLS Cup. In fact, Atlanta United hold each of the top 10 spots for MLS’ attendance records, with Mercedes-Benz Stadium regularly hosting in excess of 70,000 supporters.
But it’s not just in the stands where Atlanta United’s profound effect can be felt. On the pitch, the Five Stripes’ recruitment across their first two seasons was in direct contrast to that of LA Galaxy, who won five MLS Cups between 2002 and 2014. Instead of plugging for world-renowned veterans looking for one last payday, Atlanta’s Front Office moved for young South American stars with high resale value and players that perhaps needed a second chance to prove themselves.
Miguel Almiron, now of Newcastle United, is a prime example of the former, while Josef Martinez, who has 90 goals in 103 Atlanta United appearances to his name, illustrates the latter. Arguably the biggest names at the club were goalkeeper Brad Guzan, formerly of Aston Villa, and manager Tata Martino, once in charge of Barcelona.
The result was a fast and dynamic side which was ruthless on the break and capable of out-manoeuvring squads built on ageing superstars. The Five Stripes may be in transition at the moment, but they have US Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles sitting alongside that MLS Cup win and set the tone for the league’s recruitment over the next few years.
Since Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC have joined MLS (2018), winning the 2019 Supporters’ Shield with a regular-season record 72 points. Former Arsenal man Carlos Vela is the centre-piece, but around him, Uruguayans Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez, and Colombians Eduard Atuesta and Eddie Segura have played key roles, enhancing their reputations and drawing links to European giants along the way.
Philadelphia Union are this season’s Supporters’ Shield winners with Jim Curtin centring his team around academy talents, such as Mark McKenzie and RB Salzburg-bound Brenden Aaronson, and complimenting those with Venezuelan midfielder Jose Martinez and Brazilian goalscorer Sergio Santos.
All the while, the Galaxy are without a trophy since 2014, DC United have lifted one piece of silverware since 2008 and Colorado Rapids have only made the playoffs in four of the 10 seasons since their 2010 triumph. The old guard are being left behind, there is a new elite emerging.
This new recruitment model is beautifully illustrated by a comparison between the MLS Best XI of 2014 (the last time the Galaxy won a trophy) with those of 2018 and 2019. The former is mainly made of a mixture of European imports past their prime or experienced American defenders advancing into their 30s. The latter two are still predominantly American at the back, but featuring much younger players such as Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson, while there is a healthy spread of that aforementioned South American talent alongside some of the veteran stars.
Alongside Almiron and Aaronson, the likes of Tyler Adams, Reggie Cannon, Zack Steffen, Chris Richards and Alphonso Davies have all left MLS for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Even Rooney and Ibrahimovic have returned to Europe and enjoyed continued success in the English Championship and Serie A. Just as Garber has insisted was a priority, MLS has become relevant in the global market.
“We need to become more of a selling league,” Garber said prior to Atlanta United’s 2-0 MLS Cup win over Portland Timbers in 2018.
“As a person who has been selling this league for nearly 20 years, I’ve always believed that you needed to have the players that resonated in your market to be those that could be aspirations for young kids who are peeking through the fence when they see them train.”
Garber added: “We all need to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold. We have been buying for so long, and as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment that we have to make in player development. We’ve got to have something that turns this model around or else it’s going to be unsustainable. When I see Alphonso Davies get sold for what could be $22 million, that’s a positive thing for the league.”
MLS to be among the best in 25 years?
Beckham now owns an MLS franchise of his own, Inter Miami, who have qualified for the playoffs in their expansion season and can count World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi, former Real Madrid, Juventus and Napoli forward Gonzalo Higuain and Mexico international Rodolfo Pizarro among their star players.
Inter co-owner Jorge Mas backs Garber’s belief that MLS could become one of the world’s top leagues, believing that level can be attained within “25 years”.
“I think the MLS will be one of the top sports leagues in the United States. I think it will be on par with the best leagues in the world, the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga,” said Mas. “As the economics of the league improve and we can compete with those leagues for the best players in the world, I think 25 years from now you will see the MLS as potentially the best league in the world.”
It’s expansion teams like Atlanta United, LAFC and Beckham’s Inter Miami which will undoubtedly continue to fuel this rise.