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?

@GameofthePeople
Photo: ALAMY

Mexico and Major League Soccer – over the wall and into bed

HOW confusing is the relationship between the US and Mexico? On one hand you have the US president calling for a wall to be built that would keep out the “criminals” and on the other hand, the three amigos, US, Canada and Mexico are co-hosting the 2026 World Cup.

Given the US will host 60 of the 80 games, it would seem the Canadians and Mexicans are partners of convenience.

Mexico is hugely reliant on the US, hence people like Trump seem to say what they like to antagonise their neighbours. Around 76% of all Mexican exports find their way to the US and 37 million people of Mexican descent reside across the country.

Bizarre

Most recently, President Trump announced that relationships between the two countries are “outstanding” after discussions with his Mexican counterpart, Lopez Obrador. It’s a bizarre world – it wasn’t that long ago when Trump said he wanted to fill the river that divides the two countries with snakes and alligators to deter would-be illegal immigrants.

Now we hear there’s some muscle behind the project to merge Liga MX and Major League Soccer, creating a North American super league that can compete with Europe’s top competitions. American sport has a history of mergers and consolidation and Mexico’s decision to create a closed top league for five years has a hint of Americanisation about it. Liga MX is the most popular football league in the US, largely due to the huge Hispanic population.

Mexico is a football-crazy nation but their clubs often lack the polish of US clubs who are not only soundly organised, but structurally well financed and invariably have good infrastructure to support their teams. In terms of playing resources, Mexican clubs are ahead of US clubs, so if there should be a merger, you would assume that there will be some benefits for both sides.

However, the gulf between MLS and Liga MX teams could mean any super league would be somewhat unbalanced. While the US has made great progress domestically, just look at the CONCACAF Champions League which has been dominated by Mexican teams for a decade and a half. The last team other than a Mexican side to win the competition was Saprissa of Costa Rica in 2005. DC United and LA Galaxy, in 1998 and 2000 respectively, represent the only US successes so far.

It’s clear, though, that the people behind the concept have dollar symbols in their eyes, particularly broadcasting and commercial revenues. Businessman Alejandro Irarragorri, the head of the Orlegi Sports Group which has a stake in both Atlas FC and Santos Laguna, is a fierce advocate of the merger, claiming there was a certain logic in combining forces given a high percentage of Mexican football’s income comes from the US.

Irarragorri, who was linked with Newcastle United in 2019, wants to see more international investment in Mexican football. At present, around 47% of companies on the Mexican Stock Exchange invest in football in some shape or form, with firms like FEMSA, Cemex, Televisa, Calienta and Omnilife all holding stakes in clubs. There is a strong feeling that creating a dual market league could access overseas investment and make the Liga MX more marketable.

It could just stop a talent drain in the Mexican game. Mexico’s top clubs have long been accustomed to losing their best players to Europe – half of the country’s World Cup 2018 squad was registered with clubs from Germany, England, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Belgium – but the US and Canada are now hunting down promising young players from Liga MX. At the same time, Mexico is the biggest importer of foreign talent in Latin America.

Crowd appeal

Would the merger make a difference to attendances? If the partnership’s latest venture, the Leagues Cup, was a litmus test, it may have been deemed a failure. The eight-team competition drew average crowds of less than 18,000 and just 20,000 to the all-Mexican final in Las Vegas.

Attendances at MLS and Liga MX games are more or less equitable, the average in the MLS in 2019 was 21,300 which suggests the league may have plateaued for the time being. However, MLS has a couple of seriously big hitters, with Atlanta United drawing almost 53,000 per game and Seattle Sounders averaging over 40,000. Conversely, 15 of the 24 MLS franchises have sub-20,000 crowds.

Mexican crowds have been falling for the past few years and the 2018-19 average was 22,896 with Tigres UANL the highest at 40,995. Cruz Azul and Monterrey both exceeded 35,000 and América over 30,000. América, who play at Mexico City’s iconic Azteca stadium, are followed by more than 30% of the population in Mexico, but they are also the most unpopular club – a scenario typical of many European countries.

Declining gates, along with lower TV revenues  – the clubs have the power to negotiate their own rights deals – and less sponsorship mean that Mexican football’s financial power is waning a little. The pandemic has exposed some of the economic shortcomings of a league that had ambitions to be the Premier League of Latin America.

The wealthiest club in Mexico is Guadalajara with a value of around US$ 300 million with Monterrey just behind them. These two clubs, along with América, were the only Mexican entities featured in Soccerex’s FF100 (Game of the People was engaged to provide the editorial content for the third consecutive year). Conversely, there were 15 US teams in that same report, underlining the solid foundations that typify so much of American top level sport.

But there are hurdles for a combined league to overcome. Travelling is a massive concern – Toluca to Los Angeles, for example, are more than 1,500 miles apart, and that’s just one of many long-hauls.

Removing the dream

Major League Soccer is run on a closed league basis, but Mexico has initiated that no promotion and relegation structure for the next five years. The US has restrictions on salaries and transfers in order to maintain competitiveness. The players who have moved from Mexico to the US have been bought through the Designated Player Rule (also known as the Beckham Rule) or Targetted Allocation Money, which allow clubs to sign up to three players outside their salary cap. The average MLS wage in 2019 was less than US$ 350,000 which was around 25% lower than the average in Liga MX where there are no salary caps.

While many folk like Irarragorri claim Mexico is a very competitive league with no class divide, clubs such as UNAL, Monterrey, Cruz Azul, América and Guadalajara are pulling away from the rest of the league. Moreover, the league has started to become a free-for-all mfor players out of contract.

Will the marriage of MLS and Liga MX materialise? Closed leagues actually go against the spirit of football in that the “dare to dream” aspect of the sport is compromised by a competition with no real losers. Promotion is all that some clubs can play for, they may never be league champions, but they can achieve their own “little victory” by securing a place in a higher division. The comfort of knowing you will always be safe also breeds stagnation and complacency. There is also the danger of such a league being a fad rather than something people want to exist indefinitely. From a commercial perspective, it may work for a while, but whether it improves the US teams remains to be seen. If it goes ahead, of course…

 

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA Images

 

Despite the losses and plateaued crowds, MLS is big business

TORONTO and Seattle Sounders go head-to-head in the 2019 Major League Soccer (MLS) final, the third time in four seasons the two clubs have played each other in the season’s finale.

MLS is growing in popularity and media prominence. Although attendances at games seem to have plateaued and are still relatively modest in some cities, there is no lack of investment in the game. Furthermore, clubs are queuing to get into MLS as the league continues its expansion programme. The latest club to be granted a place is Sacramento Republic, who will enter in 2022, but in 2020 the US will see the second coming of David Beckham as Inter Miami, the club he part-owns, begins life in Major League Soccer.

MLS has moved on significantly since Beckham treaded the boards with LA Galaxy, but the league has some financial hurdles to overcome as the clubs continue to make losses. Financial deficits and football are no strangers, but is the MLS overspending?

Only six clubs were profitable in 2018 and losses totalled around US$ 100 million. Wages have grown at a very fast rate, the average base salary has increased by 150% over the past five year and 2019 was the eighth successive season in which wage bills went up. The league has a maximum budget charge of US$ 504,375 but designated players (for want of a better expression, expensive hired guns) are not included in that figure. This is where the wage bills get really inflated – LA Galaxy are paying their leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic US$ 7 million-plus, while MLS finalists Toronto have big earners in Michael Bradley (US$ 6.43 million), Jozy Altidore (US$ 6.33 million) and Alejandro Pozuelo (US$ 3.8 million). The league’s top scorer, Carlos Vela of LA FC had a guaranteed salary of US$ 6.3 million while former England star Wayne Rooney was on US$ 3.5 million at DC United.

Toronto are the league’s biggest payers, with a wage bill of US$ 24.3 million, LA Galaxy are next with US$ 19.6 million, Chicago Fire (US$ 17.1 million), LA FC (US$ 13.8 million) and Seattle Sounders (US$ 13.7 million). The total guaranteed compensation across the league for 2019 was US$ 294 million, a slight increase on 2018’s US$ 288 million.

At the same time, match attendances – in the first season of a new competition format – have not moved on compared to 2018. The average in the regular season was 21,265 which represented a drop of 2.79%.

Of the 24 MLS teams in 2019, 19 posted lower averages than 2018. Only four – Portland Timbers, DC United, Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew – had better gates than the previous season. Despite these figures, there have been some impressive attendances – Atlanta United averaged 52,000 and attracted six gates of over 65,000. While the regular season’s crowds were down on 2018, the play-offs averaged 31,000, partly attributable to the fact that well-supported teams like Seattle, Toronto and Atlanta were all involved until the latter stages of the competition.

According to Forbes, Atlanta United are the most valuable MLS club, with a value of US$ 500 million, a 51.5% increase on 2018. Forbes estimated that Atlanta’s revenues totalled US$ 78 million, up by 40% on 2018 with the club making a profit of US$ 7 million. LA Galaxy generated revenues of US$ 64 million, with a profit of US$ 5 million. LA FC (US$ 50 million) is the only other club to hit US$ 50 million in revenues. Only four clubs, Atlanta, New York City, DC United and New England Revolution, enjoyed an increase in 2019. As with most leagues across Europe, there is a huge disparity between the top and bottom, with Montreal Impact, Columbus Crew and Colorado Rapids generating just US$ 18 million.

Yet despite the losses, MLS clubs currently have an average value of US$ 313 million, a 30%-plus improvement on 2018, a bigger growth rate than teams in the BBA, NFL, MLB and NHL. Impressive growth rates include LA FC (55.74%), New York (38.49%), Real Salt Lake (38.24%), Philadelphia Union (37.14%) and Chicago Fire (36.73%). Forbes’ valuations do not include income from the league’s marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing.

Investors see plenty of upside in Major League Soccer, with a new TV deal on the horizon in 2023 and the 2026 World Cup being hosted in the US, Canada and Mexico, commercial opportunities abound in North American soccer. At present, ESPN, Fox and Univision hold MLS rights in an eight-year agreement that started in 2015. MLS receives US$ 90 million per year. There are some clubs that do not receive a rights fee. LA Galaxy have the largest standalone arrangements with a 10-year US$ 55 million deal with Time Warner. The league is looking to secure the sort of deal that will fund growth during the next phase of MLS’s evolution.

The 2019 MLS Cup final features two clubs who know each other well after playing each other twice in the final, 2016 and 2017. As the two previous finals were played in Toronto, Seattle Sounders are hosting the game. Almost 70,000 people will watch the final at the CenturyLink Field. Toronto finished fourth in the Eastern Conference before beating DC United (5-1), New York City (2-1) and Atlanta (2-1) in the play-offs, while Seattle Sounders were second in the Western Conference and disposed of Dallas (4-3), Real Salt Lake (2-0) and Los Angeles (3-1).

Whoever wins, the profile of Major League Soccer has probably never been higher and that’s not just among fans, but also investors and business partners. As a result, expansion fees are rising with the next round expected to sell for in excess of US$ 300 million – when MLS finalist Seattle joined in 2009, they paid just US$ 30 million. Cities have been fighting among themselves to gain entry to what some see as a sport with enormous money-making potential.

The impact of a firmly established league is also good news for clubs elsewhere. The top footballing institutions in Europe have been working hard on building global franchises and the US is one of the genuine growth markets. The benefits are not one-way. Plenty of people in Europe’s top football countries will be watching what happens in Seattle on November 10.

 

@GameofthePeople

 

Photos: PA