MLS aims to continue growth as 20th season commences
Standing on the brink places things in perspective. MLS knows the feeling all too well from those early days when thinking about the future meant making sure the league stayed afloat through the next week or the next month. There is a sobering reality ingrained in that uncertainty.
Those feelings bubbled to the surface again this week as MLS and the MLS Players Union negotiated the terms of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. They peered over the ledge into the abyss of a work stoppage and an irrevocably harmed relationship between players and management. And then they stepped back, weighed the ramifications of their actions and understood the pressing need to make their five-year deal.
The difference now is the rationale behind the urgency. It is not a matter of survival any more. There is no more wondering about the fate of the league. Those days ended long ago. It is now about sustaining progress ahead of the 20th campaign. MLS is at a promising point along its hard-earned upward trajectory. There is simply too much to lose by deviating from course.
Just look at opening weekend to gauge the stakes. Expansion teams New York City FC and Orlando City debut in front of a sold-out crowd expected to exceed 60,000 at the Citrus Bowl. The two teams hope to name former stars David Villa and Kaka in their respective starting lineups. Toronto FC expects to hand Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco their debuts in Vancouver after procuring the two experienced internationals. Defending champions LA Galaxy begin their defense at home to Chicago, while New England visits Seattle on Sunday (9:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go) complete the first edition of Soccer Sunday.
Those positives highlight a league in the midst of transition. Enduring headliners Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry retired during the offseason. In their place come a whole new crop of stars destined to refresh the league and underscore its continuing emergence as an option for international stars searching for a change and U.S. national team players seeking a prominent role.
They will settle into a league with a different constitution. Houston and Sporting Kansas City moved to the Western Conference to accommodate the arrivals of NYCFC and Orlando City and the demise of Chivas USA. The realignment leaves 10 teams to chase six playoff berths -- one more than last year -- in each conference and wait for more potential additions to join them over the next few years.
More players and more teams appear capable of creating an impression as time progresses. There is still considerable work to do in terms of quality of play, player wages and structural oddities to challenge the top leagues in the world, but the advances between that first game and the landscape heading into year 20 are stark.
MLS is in its ascendancy now, even with its foibles. The standard is good. The supporters create engaging environments across the league. The players are more willing to join the league and more willing to stay with their clubs for the long term. The pieces are in place to continue and sustain this curve over the long haul.
It is why the crossroads encountered earlier this week looked so perilous. Turmoil threatened to derail the progress and slide the league off track. In a different world and at a different time, those difficulties might have won the day. Not now. It isn’t worth stepping off the ledge. There is simply too much to lose. It is why everyone took a step back, turned around and veered back toward safety.