Major League Soccer: LAFC favourites to win open season

US MAJOR League Soccer (MLS) gets underway with four clubs being widely tipped as possible champions: Los Angeles FC (LAFC), Columbus Crew, Toronto and Seattle Sounders.

LAFC had a mediocre campaign in 2020, but they went close to winning the CONCACAF Champions League, losing to Mexico’s Tigres UANL in the final. LAFC had an impressive run, though, beating the most successful team in the competition, América, as well as Cruz Azul and Leon, all from Mexico.

That run, along with the club’s much-envied firepower, has made LAFC a highly-fancied side for the 2021 season. Managed by Bob Bradley, LAFC have two of the league’s most outstanding forwards in the Mexican Carlos Vela – considered by many pundits as the best player in MLS – and Diego Rossi of Uruguay.

Vela is well known to European fans as he played 29 Premier League games for Arsenal and made over 200 La Liga appearances with assorted Spanish clubs, notably Real Sociedad. He has been capped 72 times by Mexico.

Vela was injured and absent in the 2020 season, which undoubtedly stymied LAFC’s progress, but Rossi stepped in with 16 goals in 21 appearances. Rossi, who won the MLS Golden Boot, is a player that has already attracted European interest and the 23 year-old will surely find his way to one of the major leagues. 

LAFC have other players who will surely catch the eye in 2021, including South Korean defender Kim Moon-hwan and Corey Baird, who joined from Busan and Real Salt Lake respectively. The Black and Gold kick-off the MLS season with a home game against new members Austin, who count actor Matthew McConaughey among their investors.

Columbus Crew are expected to fiercely defend the MLS title they won last year against Seattle, in fact they may be even stronger this time around. They have Lucas Zelarayán, the MLS Cup Most Valuable Player 2020 as well as Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes. Argentinian-born Zelarayán was a revelation in his first MLS season, also winning the best newcomer award.

Columbus Crew have added to their MLS Cup squad, signing Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kevin Molino and Marlon Hairston. The club will also move into a new stadium later this year, so the positive momentum should continue, although it has to be remembered that MLS Cup winners rarely retain their trophy. The last team to do so was LA Galaxy who were winners in 2011 and 2012.

Toronto have a new coach in Chris Armas but have been somewhat quiet in the player market. They still have Alejandro Pozuelo, who won the MLS Most Valuable Player award in 2020 and is rated one of the best players across the league. They also have Jozy Altidore who was hamstrung by injuries in 2020. 

While Toronto have a strong squad, like all Canadian clubs, they may be handicapped by their exile in the US due to the pandemic. They will be playing most of their home games in Orlando until they are allowed back to Canada.

Toronto have had some stirring battles with Seattle in the past few years and the Sounders are among the fancied sides this year. The club reached their fourth MLS Cup final in five years in 2020, but injuries and departures may have blunted their edge. Much will depend on players like winger Nicolás Lodeiro and Peruvian international striker Raúl Ruidíaz.

A lot of attention will be focused on Inter Miami, who appointed owner David Beckham’s former team-mate Phil Neville as head coach and also signed veterans Gonzalo Higuaín (33), Ryan Shawcross (33) and Blasé Matuidi (34). The Miami team is one of the most expensive ever assembled in MLS and expectations will undoubtedly be very high. Nobody is forecasting that Inter will be a contender, however.

Could 2021 be the year in which the New York clubs, backed by big business and middle eastern money emerge triumphant? The NY Red Bulls were runners-up in 2008, but there’s been nothing since. The City Football Group are surely getting impatient for success?

It has to be acknowledged that MLS has a greater degree of democracy than many European leagues and that it is difficult to predict the ultimate winner. Only three of the current constitution have not played in the play-offs in the past five years: Miami, Austin and Cincinatti. Will that change in 2021?

Photo: ALAMY

GOTP Notepad: Across the confederations – Champions Leagues

IT IS easy to forget that Europe does not have a monopoly on Champions league competitions. Here’s the latest situation in the other confederations.

Libertadores Cup
The last 16 starts on August 8 and finishes towards the end of that month. There are six teams from Argentina, six from Brazil, two from Paraguay and one apiece from Chile and Colombia. Holders Grêmio of Brazil are still involved and will meet Estudiantes of Argentina.
There is another Argentina-Brazil clash in Independiente v Santos, while two Brazilian sides, Flamengo and Cruzeiro, have been drawn together. There is also an all-Argentina clash in Racing v River Plate.

AFC Champions League
Asia has reached the quarter-final stage, which will be played at the end of August and mid-September. South Korea, Iran and Qatar have two clubs apiece with Japan and China also represented. The two South Koreans, Jeonbuk Motors and Suwon Bluewings, have been drawn against each other. Japan and China meet headlong with Kashima Antlers and Tianjin Quenjian battling it out for a semi-final berth. The other ties are Al Duhail (Qatar) v Persepolis (Iran) and Esteghial (Iran) v Al Sadd (Qatar).

CAF Champions League
Africa’s competition is still in the group stage. Holders Wydad Casablanca of Morocco are top of their section, but are being pushed by Guinea’s Horoya. Étoile Sportive du Sahel of Tunisia are looking good in their group, while DR Congo’s TP Mazembe are the only team across the competition with a 100% record.

Oceania and CONCACAF
Team Wellington of New Zealand have won the OFC Champions League. Guadalajara were the winners of the CONCACAF competition. Both will play in the FIFA Club World Cup later this year.

Photo: Suwon fans.  Jesse Marks CC BY-NC 2.0



Mexico, the biggest minnow

WHEN Mexico beat Germany 1-0 in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup, it was greeted with mild hysteria, not just by the Mexican fans, but also by pundits and onlookers. As far as they were concerned, Mexico had pulled off a major shock, unseated the world champions and created a little piece of World Cup history.

Any defeat suffered by Germany is a surprise, such is the status of a nation that has become accustomed to success at the highest level on a consistent basis. If Mexican reaction was joy and unbridled celebration at winning, the media in Germany would have undoubtedly launched an inquiry into how Mexico were able to beat the Nationalelf.

But the victors were Mexico, not Saudi Arabia, Iran or Japan. Mexico, a country that has hosted two World Cups (1970 and 1986) and has just been awarded a co-host role for 2026. It is a country with a population of almost 130 million people (versus Germany’s 82 million) and one that has had football embedded in its culture for many decades.

Photo: Fabian Gonzalez CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although Mexico has its problems, it has a very high rate of poverty for example, it is also the 15th biggest economy in the world. It has been described as an “emerging market heavyweight” and in some ways that comment reflects its status as a footballing power.

Mexico is certainly a force in the CONCACAF confederation and has little excuse not to qualify for the World Cup. With the exception of 1990 when they were banned for fielding over-age players in a youth competition, Mexico have been present at every World Cup since 1986. The best they’ve managed in the competition was the quarter-finals, achieved in 1970 and 1986 when they were on home turf.

In 1970, the world was worried about the high altitude affecting the players, especially European teams, but Italy reached the final, West Germany the semi-finals, so it was less of a problem that most people feared. At the same time, the world marvelled at the huge Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. In 1986, arguably the last great World Cup, nobody was too concerned with altitude. Equally, only the most dedicated Mexican seriously expected the World Cup to be lifted by the team in green and white.

Today, the Azteca’s capacity may be a lot smaller than it was in its heyday, now some 87,000 , but it is still among the top six worldwide in terms of capacity. The stadium is the home of Club América, and crowds average around 30,000 for their home games.

América are not the best supported club in Mexico, that honour belongs to Monterrey, who pack almost 50,000 into their Estadio BBVA Bancomer. UANL Tigres, also from the Monterrey area, also draw more than 40,000 fans.

The domestic league, Liga MX, is the fourth best supported league in the world, averaging more than Italy and France at the gate. This underlines the potential of Mexico and their clubs, who are considerably ahead of their counterparts from other Latin American countries.

In the recent Soccerex Football Finance 100 report, which Game of the People was involved in from an editorial perspective, there were nine Mexican clubs listed, from 40th placed América to Toluca in 86th position. Mexico has dominated the CONCACAF Champions League in its current form and since 2008-09, there have been six different Mexican winners: Atlante, Pachuca, Montrerrey, Cruz Azul, América and Guadalajara (2018). Most years, the final is an all-Mexican affair.

The LigaMX is a relatively prosperous competition and has the ambitious aim of becoming “the Premier League of Latin America”. Certainly there’s no apparent shortage of cash as players earn, on average US$ 300,000 per year, making it the 10th most lucrative league in world football. Admission prices are incredibly low, as little as 50 pesos (£ 2), so there’s plenty of upside. However, some clubs have very wealthy backers, including Carlos Slim, the magnate said to be worth US$ 50 billion. The earning power is so good that many players opt to stay at home rather than seek their fortunes in Europe or elsewhere. That said, many analysts believe Mexico’s broadcasting rights (US$ 120 million for domestic rights) are small beer and the league is grossly undervalued, despite being the most watched football in North America. There are 35 million Mexicans in the US and that figure is expected to double by 2037, unless the current sentiment in Washington prevents that from happening.

Mexican players get a good chance to be successful at home given the ruling that forces clubs to have eight local players and only 10 overseas recruits in their first team squad. Current [Clausura] champions, Santos Laguna, have a squad with a ratio of 50/50.

This means that there is a high reliance on developing talent, and to that end, many clubs have invested in academies. Mexico won the under-17 World Cup in both 2005 and 2011. A year later, El Tri won the Olympic gold medal in London, so there’s been a conveyor belt of a sort.

There have been few outstandingly successful Mexicans in Europe, although Spain saw the best of the acrobatic Hugo Sánchez of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s Rafael Márquez, who was named in Mexico’s 2018 squad. Nine of the 23 that went to Russia were from Mexican clubs, 11 were employed in Europe and three came from the US. Mexico’s players know what its like to play abroad.

All things considered, Mexico’s win against Germany didn’t warrant such a dramatic response from media and fans alike. In some ways, a country with such a huge population should be more than also-rans on the world stage. Have Mexico, in fact, under-performed and could they elevate themselves to have higher level? If Liga MX continues to progress and the clubs commit to developing more talent that can also bring in revenues from player trading, then Mexico could become more than just a regional force. Economists have said, for some years, that Mexico is among the top 10 countries for growth potential. If that potential is realised, Mexican football may just continue its progress and surprise a few people in the near future.