Major League Soccer’s growth has been a long process over the past 27 years. Throughout the league’s growth, one of the most interesting themes has been how heavy investment affects teams’ performance. However, unlike many other leagues, money has failed to have the desired impact in the MLS. There are many factors at play for this strange trend.
The Early Stages of MLS
After the 1994 World Cup in the United States, team owners decided to create a new soccer league in the United States. Since the league’s inception in 1996, Major League Soccer has been the home for American soccer, but during its first decade in existence, the league was constantly at risk of collapsing. Teams put a freeze on spending during this time indefinitely to prevent losing more money. After the 2002 world cup, the MLS saw a major revival and the beginning of the first expansion phase for the MLS.
During this period the MLS underwent many changes, but the most important was the Designated Player Rule in 2007. Similar to other American sports leagues, MLS put a salary cap in place, however when David Beckham wanted to move to the LA Galaxy, the league established a new rule. To simplify the rule, it allows teams to have 3 players whose salaries are not counted towards the salary cap.
This rule changed spending in the league and should have given teams with more money a competitive edge. However, only the biggest market teams such as the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls took advantage of bringing in players like David Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Thierry Henry.
In 2015, the MLS began its second phase of growth that has continued until today. This phase was marked by new expansion teams and new big-name players coming to the league such as Steven Gerrard joining the LA Galaxy, Didier Drogba to Montreal, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo to New York City FC, Sebastian Giovinco to Toronto FC, and Kaka to Orlando City.
As teams continued to join the league a trend began to emerge among them. Teams came in as either big spenders or budget teams. Teams such as New York City FC, Atlanta United, LAFC, and Inter Miami came in with big aspirations and committed to spending large amounts to achieve their goals. While teams such as Minnesota, Cincinnati, and Nashville did not.
Looking back at the last 7 years, many of these big spending teams have not had the long-term success they wanted. Looking at the history of the biggest spenders shows how unsuccessful a large amount of spending has been in the MLS:
Orlando City came into the league in 2015 making big-name signings such as Kaka in 2015 and Nani in 2019. However, Orlando failed to qualify for the MLS Cup until 2020 with their best finish before that being 14th in the league and they have yet to get past the first round and continue to look nowhere near a title challenge.
The peak of LA Galaxy’s spending era was in 2016 with the trio of Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, and Giovanni Dos Santos as their designated players, but a supporting cast including Ashely Cole, Nigel De Jong, and Landon Donovan, ending the season in 6th place and only managing to get past the first round of the MLS club marked the downfall of the club. LA Galaxy was an old powerhouse in the MLS and had won the most MLS cups of any team, but they have failed to win the MLS Cup or the Supporters Shield since.
Atlanta United won the MLS Cup in only their second year in the league which was a massive success for the club, however, the young club, who should have been looking to start their dynasty, began their steep decline. The sale of Miguel Almiron to Newcastle United and breaking the league transfer record to bring in 18-year-old Eziquel Barco saw them fail to qualify for the cup they had won only 2 years earlier. Atlanta again failed to qualify in 2022 for the playoffs, and without a strong young core, they do not look ready to challenge again any time soon.
Inter Miami is the most disappointing team of the big spenders. Coming into the league in 2020, Covid stopped them from playing a full season. The return of the league in 2021 was as lackluster as their inauguration. Failing to qualify for the MLS Cup was a big disappointment to the fans and looked worse for them as they were juxtaposed to Nashville who spent very little money compared to Miami coming in at the same time and making playoffs in their first year.
To make things worse, at the end of the 2021 season they would be hit with multiple sanctions for breaking designated player rules. In an interesting turn of events though, after getting rid of their big-name players such as Matias Pelligrini, Julian Caranza, Blaise Matuidi, and Rodolfo Pizarro, Miami made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history with only one designated player.
LAFC is the most interesting case. LAFC has seen plenty of success in the regular season winning the Supporters’ Shield twice in their 4-year history. However, they have failed to win the most coveted trophy, the MLS Cup. While tournament soccer is partially to blame, they have failed to show up when it matters despite the significant gap in player quality between them and the rest of the league.
New York City FC is the biggest success in spending large amounts of money. Joining the league in 2015, they managed to win their first MLS cup in 2021 and have only failed to qualify for the MLS Cup once in 2015. The most interesting aspect of their MLS Cup success is that it came after the departure of their big names. Being that the club once had Frank Lampard, Pirlo, and David Villa, their success came when their transfer strategy moved away from big-name European signings and towards lesser-known squad building singings such as Taty Castellanos, Maxi Morales, and James Sands.
While we have looked at the poor trend of big spending teams, it still failed to show why this strategy has failed. The first reason is that owners of new expansion teams continuously underestimate the quality of play in the American league. Many big spending owners originally believe that buying European big names will provide instant success.
These owners then go and sign these players to multi-year contracts only to figure out that this strategy isn’t enough to keep up with the quality of play and are stuck with average players on exorbitant wages. This strategy sets the team back years, however, after this period, the teams go on to become better more established teams. This pattern can be seen in New York City FC, Orlando, and Inter Miami.
Is MLS Still a “Retirement League?”
Since 2015 the MLS, deservingly so, has had a reputation of being a retirement league. Despite many of the biggest teams in MLS trying this strategy, it has never materialized into actual success. Instead, the teams that have won the MLS Cup have followed a strategy focused on squad building, low turnover, and chemistry. Atlanta attempted a different strategy trying to focus on these aspects to ensure longer success.
This new strategy, taken originally by Atlanta United, is to successfully build an expensive squad focused more on a sporting direction rather than big names. In Atlanta, where it was first used, the spending went towards Miguel Almiron playing in Paraguay and Josef Martinez, a Venezuelan striker playing for Torino but struggling to start ahead of established striker Andrea Belotti.
This strategy has only been implemented since 2018 and teams including LAFC have taken it. LAFC, while originally taking a like Atlanta, seemed to move more towards 2015-esque spending. They have brought in Cristian Tello, Giorgio Chiellini, and Gareth Bale to bolster arguably the best squad in the league before these transfers. LAFC might have fallen into the same issue Atlanta faced two years ago. LAFC and Atlanta show that the biggest failure of this strategy comes from failing to correctly replace players who leave.
LAFC attempted to replace dynamic winger/striker Diego Rossi with Gareth Bale and Cristian Tello. LAFC may live to regret this decision though as their failure to replace Rossi with a different dynamic pacey winger who likes to dribble has caused a notable drop in form since these signings have joined putting them in poor form going into their 5th MLS Cup campaign.
Before LAFC made this error, Atlanta provided a warning that they failed to listen to. Miguel Almiron’s departure from Atlanta to Newcastle United left a hole in their attack because they lacked a creative chance creating midfielder.
Ezequiel Barco failed to live up to the hype and was also let go. Atlanta finally replaced Almiron’s presence with Thiago Almada, but with Josef Martinez slowing down and Miles Robinson out with a season-ending injury, Atlanta lacks the quality. Next season will be a real test for the success of this expansion strategy and their rebound to the top of the league.
Atlanta United joining the league has also seen major changes across the league. Moving away from older European big names has caused a transition in the league from its retirement league history into a developmental league. As more teams begin to shift their focus from big-name signings to a strategy revolving around team cohesion, MLS youth academies have become a major source of success within MLS.
Teams like FC Dallas and Philadelphia Union, who rely on their youth team, have successfully implemented the first team tactics into their development academies making the jump from the MLS Pro and the USL into the MLS easier. This strategy has shown long-term success in the league with both of these squads rarely out of playoff contention.
The history of these MLS big spenders shows that big names don’t tend to work out, so why do teams continue to do this? The only answer that seems reasonable is that soccer’s growth in the United States has been a difficult process. The easiest way to excite a fan base and bring new fans to the team is to bring in well-known older talent to give the impression of a title push.
However, the MLS is a fast-paced, physically demanding, and end-to-end league that these older players struggle to adapt to. Because the physical aspect is so important, the technical skill becomes less important, making players such as Andrea Pirlo obsolete in a league like the MLS. While buying younger less well-known talent is harder to excite the fan base, it can provide the same marketing success as buying older talent but takes more time and effort to be successful.
Alan Velasco, Brenner, and Thiago Almada all represent talent that was not well known in the US before their arrival. However, their important impact on their team has excited the fanbase of FC Dallas, FC Cincinnati, and Atlanta United respectively.
Their impact and many others over the past couple of years have spurred a new trend of focusing on this younger talent to develop them and sell to larger European teams. In the end, this strategy will improve the quality of the MLS. Simultaneously as the MLS stops buying older European names, this trend has shifted to leagues in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Large spending on older talent hurt the league since its start in 2015. Many teams have tried this strategy searching for MLS Cup glory, but none have succeeded. As team owners and sporting directors slowly learn that this strategy does more harm to a team than good, we are beginning to see a third era of expansion teams.
Charlotte FC, Austin FC, and St. Louis have moved towards a hybrid model of getting one or two older players to act as leaders, but building their squad more successfully around younger lesser-known talent. This strategy aligns with that of many teams in other development leagues such as the Netherlands and Belgium and shows that MLS is on track to become one of the best leagues outside of UEFA competitition.
By: Cameron Cohen / @upnextUSA
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images