EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
Every MLS season invariably has a central theme that winds up defining it. With 25 days remaining until the 25th season, here are three that appear to be in the ascendancy as we count down to kickoff on Feb. 29…
MLS shopping in Mexico
For the better part of two decades, MLS fans and front offices looked south with envy and respect at Liga MX as that competition’s clubs dominated Concacaf Champions League and its predecessor, Champions Cup, while drawing big crowds, TV audiences and interest on this side of the border.
For some this was a problem to be solved, an adversary to overcome. After all, how could MLS reach its goal of becoming a leading global league if it wasn’t even the king of the hill on its own continent? But the picture has grown far more nuanced over the past few years.
Traffic between MLS and Liga MX has picked up noticeably of late, not only in terms of player movement – which hit new heights this winter as names like Alan Pulido, Lucas Zelarayan and Edison Flores moved north on big Designated Player deals – but also partnerships between the two organizations, embodied by the new Leagues Cup and Campeones Cup competitions and even chatter about an outright merger someday. (The recent deep dive by ESPN’s Tom Marshall is required reading here.)
In on-field terms, MLS still needs one of its teams to win the Concacaf Champions League for the first time to truly have a claim to being on anything like level terms with Liga MX, where across-the-board spending remains higher, especially among the elite clubs. But the recent spate of inbound transfers is a shot in the arm for the younger league, and another sign of the gap closing.
The league goes international
For many years the widely-held MLS conventional wisdom was that coaches and executives from abroad were a gamble at best: The league’s unique rules and quirks were seen as simply too tricky for outsiders to come to grips with, at least not until they’d spent significant time here first.
That’s looking like ancient history in 2020.
More than a quarter of the league’s member clubs are now led by imports – on the bench or in the front office – who arrived on North American shores with limited experience of MLS and the domestic scenes, bringing fresh ideas and impressive resumes that are helping push the league forward.
Was it the success of Tata Martino at Atlanta United that changed perceptions? Or perhaps the growing ambition that’s led owners to invest more in such hires? Or a simple matter of evolution towards the global norm?
Whatever your theory, several foreign figures bear watching in particular: Uruguayan coach Diego Alonso is steering Inter Miami through tricky seas on their maiden voyage, while the Swiss-German troika of Georg Heitz, Sebastian Pelzer and Raphael Wicky have a big task and limited time as they handle the technical side of Chicago Fire FC’s ambitious re-launch.
LaLa: Soccer Capital in 2020?
MLS’s center of gravity has shifted hither and yon over the years, arguably spending the most time in Cascadia, Canada and New York City of late. But it sure looks like Southern California is the epicenter in 2020.
The reigning Supporters’ Shield champions and betting favorites for this year’s MLS Cup – and for this observer, the purveyors of the sexiest footy in the league – are LAFC. Meanwhile their crosstown rivals the LA Galaxy have upped the ante about as much as they possibly could after several years of underachievement by their lofty standards, replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in one of the splashiest acquisitions in league history.
Every edition of their El Trafico rivalry has been must-see TV since its inception in the spring of 2018, and this year it’s even more appealing both locally and internationally as Mexican stars Chicharito and Carlos Vela occupy the spotlight. It figures to be the hottest sporting ticket in Tinseltown and will surely have observers like me wagging our tongues.