This past edition of the CONCACAF Champions League was groundbreaking for Major League Soccer teams.
The Seattle Sounders, and New York Red Bulls were both competitive, while Toronto FC of course forced Chivas to penalties in the tournament final. But despite the apparent success of American and Canadian teams, the competition could just be a sign of what’s to come for MLS.
“There was a time when it was unthinkable to win games in Mexico and now we go down there thinking that we could win against any of the top Liga MX clubs,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “We got so close.”
It was quite the journey for MLS to be as competitively close to the other top North American leagues as it is. A huge part of those gains have come in the form of the Designated Player rule and the various forms of allocation money. Garber attributes some of the success to Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) specifically. “We’ve been pretty strategic about how we’ve invested additional resources over the last couple of years and we’re proud of the work that our ownership committee...have done to analyze what it is that we need to do to be more competitive against our regional rivals, Liga MX. We didn’t just say ‘we need to spend more money,’ we said that we need to spend more money strategically, and bring in players that can make a difference.”
But MLS is ready to take the next step and start winning continental competitions. To do that, the league’s financial investments and structure may well be changing. “Whether or not that program continues to have incremental investment is something we’ll evaluate,” Garber said. “The collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of 2019--that’s right around the corner. We have new media deals that are coming up--expiring in 2022. We want to be in a position where our audiences are growing.”
Garber also spoke about a need for changes in the collegiate soccer system. He pointed to players like Minnesota United winger Ethan Finlay as prime examples of what the NCAA can do, but also saw that some of the best young Americans are choosing to play abroad. “If we don’t have a path for the next Christian Pulisic, then he’s going to go to Europe because they’re not waiting [until players are in their twenties].”
Part of the problem for MLS is that the players who leave for Europe eventually come back stateside, but at a high price. Garber said that some European clubs view MLS as “an ATM” and can sell players back to American and Canadian clubs when they need some “quick cash.”
Major League Soccer has made remarkable progress in its time as the American first division, but now that the financial foundations have been set, it’s time for the league to add some focus to the on-field product as well. “The league has been spending more time with our technical staffs,” Garber explained. “It’s part of creating a broader global narrative that MLS is a league on the rise.”
“It almost seems as if there are no limits.”