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Major League Soccer is growing up fast

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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Beckham to Keane to Donovan. Goal. Championship

MLS CUP FINAL 2011

Check out all the images from Major League Soccer's 2011 Cup Final.

All three of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s big stars combined on the game-winning goal in Sunday’s MLS Cup Final and helped cap a historic stretch for the Galaxy. They also did their part to usher in a new era in Major League Soccer.

The Galaxy’s 1-0 victory marked the first time a team with a Designated Player ever won an MLS title, with Beckham, Keane and Donovan all combining for the kind of moment of brilliance worthy of winning a title, but also the kind of quality smart money and big money can deliver.

With MLS growing every year, and owners showing an increasing willingness to spend money and take advantage of the league’s new rules allowing multiple big-ticket signings, the 2011 season marked the first step in the league’s evolution from thrifty newborn league to maturing and improving league.

As much as Sunday night felt like a mis-match between one big-spending team and a small-spending team, the Galaxy's triumph was more a clear-cut example of what the new MLS can be, and what teams allowed to spend money, and spend it wisely, can produce.

You can already hear some complaints of the Galaxy buying a championship, but every other team in MLS was free to spend what Los Angeles spent, and several teams did open up their checkbooks to try to build a champion (though Houston fans can argue that AEG, part owners of the Dynamo, have never spent on Houston like it has on the Galaxy). The New York Red Bulls tried spending big money to build a champion and failed miserably. The Seattle Sounders have opened up the purse strings and produced a strong team that might have been championship worthy in other seasons.

Money isn’t the enemy for a growing sports league trying to compete on the international landscape, and while the Galaxy clearly had advantages jumping out of the gate in the arms race, it won’t be long before other owners start getting serious about flexing their financial muscle.

No, MLS isn’t ready to spend with the big boys, and pose a serious challenge to the rest of the world just yet, but what the league can do as teams spend more and bring in more players like Beckham and Keane is elevate the quality of the game in a league that needs that infusion of talent to help the quality of the league keep growing.

If anything, Sunday’s victory for the Galaxy should serve to motivate owners who needed evidence that investing serious money into top talent was worth the risk. In the end, it’s still a gamble, but one that can pay off handsomely, as the image of Phil Anschutz lifting the MLS Cup trophy named after him illustrated so clearly.

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Does that mean some teams with reputations for thriftiness are going to start feeling pressure to spend more? Absolutely. Does it means that coaches and GMs are going to start being more accountable for success once owners have more on the lineup? We can only hope so. Are either of those things bad for MLS? Definitely not.

Does it mean a team can’t still build a competitive team without throwing seven-figure contracts around? The Dynamo showed in their run to the MLS Cup, and Real Salt Lake has shown for some time, that you can build a contender without a big budget, but as both those teams learned in playoff losses to the Galaxy, a strong foundation of talent can be pushed over the top with the right, big-ticket signings.

There is still that lingering fear of seeing MLS slide into a spending race that could doom the league to the fate suffered by the original North American Soccer League, which collapsed on itself when spending got out of control. Those fears should be eased by the scenes of brand new stadiums with capacity crowds in a growing number of MLS markets, including Los Angeles, where the fan base was rejuvenated by Beckham’s arrival five years ago, but has since grown and been bolstered by the success of the past three seasons.

The Galaxy’s victory was a memorable moment for so many reasons. From Bruce Arena becoming the first coach to win three championships, to Donovan winning his first title in six years, and redeeming himself after the disappointment of losing in the 2009 final.

Those kind of footnotes helped make Sunday’s MLS Cup Final a meaningful one, but the longest-lasting impact of the Galaxy’s victory will ultimately be its significance as a turning point for a changing league, and the message sent throughout MLS that the league is growing up fast and teams are going to have to adapt to keep up.
 

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