After a longer offseason than normal, due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, MLS is finally (almost) back. The league schedule kicks off this weekend, after MLS clubs began competing in the Concacaf Champions League last week.
To kick off the first matchweek, MLS commissioner Don Garber spoke with media on a virtual press conference Monday. Momentum was the theme, across a number of topics.
“The story in MLS is momentum. More teams, more stadiums, more fans, more players," Garber told media on a virtual availability. "We had momentum going into last year, that got put on pause a bit by the pandemic, but that momentum has kicked back. … That has me most pumped up about season 26.”
Here are three big talking points Garber addressed.
MLS as a selling league and Daryl Dike's value
The early dominant storyline this offseason was centered around the league's evolution to a selling league.
Brenden Aaronson joined RB Salzburg, Mark McKenzie went to KRC Genk, Bryan Reynolds' months-long saga ended with a move to AS Roma and a handful of other high profile outgoing transfers occurred in MLS. It's the natural progression for the growing league.
“We’ve been thinking for many years: You have to have balance between buying and selling," Garber said. "We were mostly a buying league, I think that mostly spoke to where MLS was in the lifespan of player development. But now every team has an academy and facilities, which creates a structure and programming. Relationships with federations to train our coaches better, bringing Fred Lipka from the French federation to help run development ad having incredible development programs. It’s helped create the dynamic we’ve had now. It’s one of the most important developments of men’s professional soccer. I think we’re still in the first phase of it. You’re going to see more in the years to come.”
Dike is on loan at Barnsley in England's Championship, where he's been a smashing success. Dike has eight goals in 14 games as Barnsley has lost in only one of his appearances. The 20-year-old made his US national team debut in January just before his move to England and has been reported to have plenty of suitors in Europe. A debate has sparked over what his his valuation should be and Garber weighed in himself.
"I will say right now: That’s a $20 million player," Garber said of Dike. "That’s a guy I hope we can set new records, beyond what we were able to achieve with Alphonso Davies, to show how great players are coming through our system.”
Importance of CCL and MLS's relationship with Liga MX
Before the MLS regular season kicks off this weekend, five MLS teams have already begun their competitive fixture list with matches in the Concacaf Champions League. It's a competition that has yet to be won by an MLS team in its current format.
“International competition is always important. Honestly, we have to do better in the Champions League," Garber said. "We came close with Montréal, we came close with Toronto and we came close with LAFC. We’ve got to win that tournament. Look what Tigres did — they were able to play in the Club World Cup final on a world stage. That’s something MLS deserves.”
By winning the CCL, Tigres qualified for the Club World Cup, where they advanced to the final and played European champions Bayern Munich to a tight encounter, losing 1-0. Garber has aspirations to see MLS in that competition, which will expand to 24 teams in either 2022 or 2023. For now, only the champion of each confederation gets a spot in the tournament, meaning an MLS team would have to lift CCL for the first time.
This year's edition got off to an encouraging start. MLS teams went undefeated across leg one — all of which were on the road — with three wins and two draws, setting the table nicely for advancement to the quarterfinals.
“The schedule always creates problems for us but look at what just happened in this last round," Garber said. "We did better away than every before in the history of the league. I’d like to see us get into the final again, I’d like to see us win and I’d like to see us performing against the world’s best in the soon-to-be expanded club world championship.”
MLS teams becoming more competitive in a Liga MX-dominated tournament is symbolic, as the two leagues continue to strengthen their relationship. Liga MX and MLS have combined to kick off the Campeones Cup — a championship between the previous season's MLS and Liga MX champions — as well as Leagues Cup, a knockout tournament featuring an equal number of MLS and Liga MX teams.
“I don’t think the momentum in the partnership is impacted by the pandemic, because we’ve been working on it for so long," Garber said. "We continue to try to find the right way to deliver a value for fans and partners that could, in many ways, also work with Concacaf so this region can stand toe to toe with the rest of the world. There’s no reason why this region, North America and Concacaf, shouldn’t be as strong as CONMEBOL, CAF and UEFA. The only way to do that is to create meaningful competition amongst its top clubs, no different from what you see in Europe or South America. But we have to walk before we run. That’s what Leagues Cup is, that’s what Campeones Cup is all about."
That partnership will only get stronger, Garber says.
“Ultimately, I think we can move closer and closer to the relationship everybody is looking for, that’s meaningful competition," said Garber. "I’m excited about our conversations with them about an expanded Leagues Cup, I’m excited about what Campeones Cup could look like when more people are paying attention. The future is bright, we’re committed to continue to work at that.”
Austin FC and over-delivering
The league's newest team, Austin FC will debut in MLS this weekend. As if expansion seasons weren't difficult enough to navigate, Austin had to deal with a global pandemic impacting their lead-in.
Still, they've put together a roster lauded by many to be competitive while checking off to-do boxes off the field. Interest from the city has been high, with the club passing milestones in season ticket deposits, with more than 44,000 placed by mid-August of 2020. They've also begun partnerships with a number of business, including Yeti as their shirt sponsor.
“It was really difficult and the pandemic made it harder," Garber said. "The over-delivery — It’s seems so perfect for the city. It looks like Austin, it feels like Austin, it reflects the culture of the community. I was trying to think about how to describe their stadium. Everything in Austin is about your backyard. You have great barbecue in your backyard, you have music in your backyard, you have your friends and family there. That stadium reflects that backyard culture, they over-delivered.”
Austin's Q2 Stadium is one of three brand-new soccer-specific venues coming to MLS this year, alongside Columbus Crew SC's New Crew Stadium and FC Cincinnati's West End Stadium. More, more, more, as Garber said.