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

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.




Photos: PA

Club of the Month: Toronto FC

Toronto fans celebrate their 2017 MLS triumph Photo: Hopes Kikonyogo via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

THE 2018 Major League Soccer season gets underway on March 3 and the reigning champions Toronto are widely tipped to challenge for the title once more.

They will face stiff competition from ambitious Atlanta United, who have been very aggressive in the transfer market signing promising South American talent, as well as Seattle Sounders and New York City FC.

Toronto clinched the MLS Cup by beating Seattle in the final, gaining revenge for defeat at that stage a year earlier. The club, which was formed in 2005, is operated by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), a sports and real estate company from Toronto. MLSE also holds franchises in ice hockey (Canada’s number one sport) and basketball.

Although Toronto’s recent success was in marked contrast to its early years, in which they were perpetual strugglers, the club is now ranked among the top 50 in the world, according to the Soccerex Football Finance 100 report.

Toronto, as well as being the financial capital of Canada, is also the country’s friendliest city – if you believe the guidebooks. It also has a low crime rate and is Canada’s media capital. With a population of almost six million, it is the nation’s most populous city.

Little surprise that Toronto are one of the best supported clubs in MLS. In 2017, they averaged more than 27,000 people per game, the best average in their history. But then with a record-breaking season behind them, nobody should be too surprised by that.

And what a campaign it was. As well as winning their first MLS Cup, they were also Canadian champions and won the Supporters’ Shield, the prize for having the best overall record in the regular season (ex-play-offs). They won 20 of their 34 games and had a points per game ratio of 2.02 – a figure that has been beaten just twice in MLS history.

Toronto have two of the top earners in the MLS in their ranks, Italian Sebastian Giovinco and skipper Michael Bradley, both of whom trouser well north of USD 6m per year. Giovinco was named in the MLS team of the year along with Justin Morrow and Spain’s Victor Vazquez. He was a key man in the latter stages of the MLS in 2017 and scored 20 goals in 32 games across the campaign. After Toronto clinched the MLS Cup, the former Juventus striker told the media, “This is what I came here for.”

One of the goal scorers in the MLS Cup final was Jozy Altidore, the much-travelled US international (110 caps). He scored 18 goals in the 2017 season. Altidore usually partners Giovinco up front with Vazquez just behind them. Vazquez was previously with Mexico’s Cruz Azul but has played for Barcelona and Club Brugge.

Mexican clubs pose the biggest hurdles for Toronto in this season’s CONCACAF Champions League, which has already kicked off and this year will follow a pure knock-out format. Toronto have already won through to the last eight having beaten Colorado Rapids 2-0 on aggregate. They will face Tigres UANL next. Coach Greg Vanney, who took over in 2014, is enthused by Toronto’s involvement in the competition: “After last year and [also] winning the Canadian championship, and based on where we’ve been in the past 18 months to two years, we belong in this event,” he told the media.

And after the first round had been successfully negotiated, Vanney looked ahead to the possibly daunting tie with Tigres: “This is why we’ve been looking forward to this event – just to try to play the best teams possible. We know Tigres are one of the best, arguably the best, depending  on what you want to talk about.”

But the CONCACAF Champions League has belonged to Mexico since 2006, the last non-Mexican side to win it was Saprissa of Costa Rica in 2005. In the competition’s history, only two US teams have won it, LA Galaxy (2000) and DC United (1998).

Toronto have strengthened their squad since lifting their titles in 2017. Dutch World Cup star Gregory van der Wiel joined the club in February from Cagliari after managing only a handful of games in Italy. After some problems on and off the pitch, van der Wiel is looking to regain his passion for the game in Canada.

There are high hopes that young Brazilian defender Auro will prove to be something of a coup signing for Toronto. The MLS champions beat-off the interest of clubs in Spain and Portugal to acquire the 22 year-old Sao Paulo player.

Meanwhile, attacking midfielder Ager Aketxe was signed from Athletic Bilbao in February. According to coach Vanney, 24 year-old Aketxe adds a “whole new skill-set”. His compatriot, Vazquez, believes the new man can become the best newcomer to the MLS in 2018.

Aketxe was signed using the so-called Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), funds provided by the league to add or retain players that will make an immediate impact on the field. Each team receives USD 1.2m for the season, plus – for 2018 and 2019 – an additional USD 2.8m in optional, discretionary TAM. It’s a different ball game from European leagues.

With recent transfer activity and growing interest in MLS, the league is on a very positive trajectory. Attendances reached 22,000-plus in 2017 and in the Soccerex Football Finance 100, no fewer than 13 teams were among the 100, with LA Galaxy ranked 14, New York Red Bulls 23, Seattle 24, NY City 25 and New England 28. MLS benefits from good business models and excellent revenue generating facilities.

The arrival of younger talent, with a notably increase in South Americans, implies MLS is trying to seduce football followers by adding raw talent to otherwise well organised units. Certainly the arrival of Auro and Aketxe at Toronto suggests that MLS teams are no longer the last port of call on a veteran’s career. Indeed, New York City signed one of the most coveted youngsters from South America in Jesus Medina, a 20 year-old Paraguayan.

Toronto start their MLS programme at home to Colombus Crew on March 3 and a fortnight later, they will face Montreal Impact, 335 miles away but the nearest the Reds will get to a local derby.