Exploring the Sporting World: The MLS
Baseball and the New York Yankees have my heart. They always will. But, maybe it's time for something new.
Major League Soccer (or, the MLS) is the top professional level of soccer (or association football) in the USA and Canada. Founded in 1993 with the first season occurring in 1996 with 10 teams. The MLS took over after a lull period without a professional soccer league in the United States, with the North American Soccer League (NASL) ceasing operations in 1985. Interestingly enough, even without a soccer league in the country, the United States still made- and won- the bid for the 1994 World Cup. During the bidding process in 1988, an agreement was reached between FIFA and US Soccer to start a professional league, thus the MLS was born.
However, the MLS may not have been around for long. Even after expansion to 12 teams in 1998, the league was posting decreased fan interest and huge losses in the early 2000's, though were able to continue to play thanks to increased financing from owners Lamar Hunt, Philip Anschutz, and Robert Kraft. Luckily, the tides were turning to make soccer in the USA more popular and in 2005 the MLS expanded to 14 teams.
In 2007, the MLS adopted the "Designated Player" rule, of which allowed teams to sign up to 3 players who would not count against the salary cap. The salary cap was one of the biggest hurdles that the league had faced in keeping top talent, and this rule- nicknamed the "Beckham Rule" after David Beckham- made the MLS a viable destination for popular and lucrative names to finish out their professional soccer careers. It was following this that the MLS continued expansion with a new team in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 (x2), and 2012. (Bringing the league to 19 total teams.)
Now, the MLS has expanded up to 29 teams between the United States (26) and Canada (3).
Given it's relatively young age in terms of professional sporting leagues, the MLS can boast some pretty substantial expansion numbers and credentials as with 29 teams they're nearly playing with the same grouping as the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL. Arguably, there could be a near future where the Big-4 American sports becomes the Big-5 with the MLS earning induction into the group.
For now, however the MLS has found some good stability even amongst some pretty rapid and regular expansion. Below are a list of the 29 teams if you're wondering what team you should be rooting for (as listed in order from oldest to youngest, with the year they joined the MLS in parenthesis):
Columbus Crew (1996)
D.C. United (1996)
New England Revolution (1996)
New York Red Bulls (1996)
Colorado Rapids (1996)
FC Dallas (1996)
Sporting Kansas City (1996)
LA Galaxy (1996)
San Jose Earthquakes (1996)
Chicago Fire FC (1998)
Real Salt Lakes (2005)
Houston Dynamo FC (2006)
Toronto FC (2007)
Seattle Sounders FC (2009)
Philadelphia Union (2010)
Portland Timbers (2011)
Vancouver Whitecaps FC (2011)
CF Montreal (2012)
New York City FC (2015)
Orlando City FC (2015)
Atlanta United FC (2017)
Minnesota United (2017)
Los Angeles FC (2018)
FC Cincinnati (2019)
Inter Miami CF (2020)
Nashville SC (2020)
Austin FC (2021)
Charlotte FC (2022)
St. Louis City SC (2023)
As you can tell, there are plenty of teams that play in the MLS all across the United States and Canada. This also means that there are plenty of venues and options to watch professional hockey and to choose a favorite team.
The 2023 MLS season will run for 34 games over a season that begin on February 25th and will run until October 21st. This long season is due in part to there being a month long break from July 15th to August 20th for the 2023 Leagues Cup, as well as some other scheduled breaks from MLS action spattered throughout the season.
To summarize it in two words: Lionel Messi.
I've been a Lionel Messi fan since the 6th grade, when my Spanish teacher asked us to all do a report- in Spanish- about a county from Latin or South America. I forget if I was given or I purposefully chose Argentina, but this was in the mid-2010's and the biggest name in professional soccer was Lionel Messi.
Lionel Messi was a short, fast, creative player who excelled at his craft. At the time, I was a short, fast kid, who thought he was pretty good at soccer. I was always the short, fast kid going back to early elementary school and I immediately latched onto Messi's story. He and I were one in the same, obviously.
To summarize it in another two words: World Cup.
I have long loved watching the World Cup. I still remember my last full day of 5th grade me and a bunch of friends- who all always played soccer during recess- stayed inside to watch the United States take on Algeria during the 2010 World Cup. Landon Donovan's goal was amazing.
Then, during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, I was rooting heavily for Messi to win. Even to beat Germany (where my ancestors originate from). But, a late goal in the 2nd period of extra time ruined that and Argentina lost 1-0.
The 2018 World Cup was okay, but Argentina lost in the round of 16 to the eventual winners in France. While it was exciting to watch, my adopted team was out quick.
And then, this past November and December, I watched nearly every game that I could. I woke up some mornings at 5 AM to just put the game on my laptop and listen to it as I drifted between sleep and the morning. I put on games- sometimes two at a time- on the televisions at work, so that I could keep up with the action. Everybody knew that I was rooting hard for Argentina. Messi was now in his 4th World Cup, and as a 35 year old it was likely going to be his last.
And, holy cow. What a way to the finals it was for him and Argentina. They lost their first game against Saudi Arabia (2-1) but came back to take their games against Mexico and Poland each 2-0 to win their grouping. They then played and took care of Argentina in the Round of 16 with a close but comfortable 2-1 win.
And then, they had to play the Netherlands. Arguably one of the best teams in the tournament, Argentina had a 2-0 lead after the 73rd minute (on a PK goal from Messi), though they allowed the Dutch to score in the 83rd and 90th (+ 11!) minutes to tie the game super late. After two scoreless periods of overtime, the game went to a penalty shootout, where Argentina won 3-4 after 5 kicks a-piece.
Luckily, there next game would be a stomping over Croatia (the runners up from 2018) with a 3-0 victory.
...and then the final game happened. And, it may have been the single greatest sporting event I've ever watched. Argentina took a 2-0 lead into the half and up until the last 10 minutes of regulation, the game seemed all but won. And then, Kylian Mbappe (arguably becoming the worlds best soccer player) scored twice...in the span of 2 minutes. The game went through one extra time period scoreless before Messi put away what was sure to be the game winning goal in the 108th minute. And the, Kylian Mbappe (thanks to a hand-ball by Argentina in the box) scored another game-tying goal, late, in the 118th minute. And quickly afterwards, the final was headed to a shoot-out.
Mbappe scored the first goal for France, as Messi tied it up for Argentina.
The Frenchman Coman had his shot blocked next, as Dybala put Argentina up 2-1.
A France miss wide left came next as Paredes put Argentina up 3-1 and just one goal (or shot missed) away from winning.
Obviously, France scored their next goal. 2-2 tie after 4 kicks for France and 3 for Argentina.
And then, Gonzalo Montiel put away the game winner.
Messi was a World Cup champion. He finally had won it all for Argentina.
Messi is the best. Maybe I'm biased, but I know this to be true.
There are also rumors that he's going to be coming to the MLS. Maybe for the 2023 season, maybe in a season afterwards. If he does, I'll be a fan of that team. I'm sure countless others would agree with me. If Messi comes to the MLS, I'll be watching. Heck, if he starts playing in the MLS, I'm going to head to a game just to watch him play.
Like prior generations of soccer fans with David Beckham, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Wayne Rooney, or Kaka, or Didier Drogba, or whoever. The MLS has been that final stomping ground for many greats of the sport.
If Messi comes, I will watch.