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MLS is garnering far more respect than many seem tohink


It speaks volumes about how MLS was designed that the leagues two best teams facing off in MLS Cup on Saturday is a rarity.

This final between Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union is the first clash between the No. 1 seeds in the East and West since 2003, when Landon Donovan led the San Jose Earthquakes past the Chicago Fire. But the more you look at what has changed since the Quakes second (and most recent) title, the harder it is to compare the league to its own past.

The developmental minimum salary was $19,900 in 2003 and would be cut in some subsequent years, whereas in 2022, the lowest-paid players took home $65,500. In 2003, the league was down to 10 teams after its first pair of Florida clubs folded two years prior. Charlotte FC became MLS 28th active member in 2022, with St. Louis City SC joining the fold after the calendar turns. In 2003, Fox joined ABC and ESPN as MLS national broadcast partners, with the latter networksnot paying a dimefor the rights. This June, MLS announced a landmark decade-long pact with Apple, with an attached price tag of $2.5 billion.

To say MLS has massively improved its standing both domestically and in the global landscape over the last 19 years would be an understatement.

So why does it feel like so many clubs, personalities and fan bases associated with the league still operate with an often unhealthy dosage of insecurity?

Throughout its history, MLS has been clamoring for respect. Fans and people within the league ecosystem alike are quick to jump on any mention of the U.S.s big four sports leagues that overlooks mens top-flight soccer. In March, commissionerDon Garber took on the retirement league stigmathat has followed the league for over a decade. Teams within the league have also bought into MLS underdog complex, calling out those who cover the league (on the leagues own website, mind you) for preseason predictions, perceived slights and a lack of attention paid to their performance.

The predominant off-field narrative from these MLS Cup Playoffs, the nobody believes in us, silence the haters routine, has gone from a lesson learned early in Motivational Coaching 101 to the preferred narrative for nearly every team in the playoff picture.

When Austin FC a second-year club that counts Hollywood A-lister Matthew McConaughey among its ownership group and features MVP runner-up Sebastian Driussi made a run to the conference final, the discourse didnt center ontheir rapid rise, thestrong form of a goalkeeper/humanitarianwhos easy to root for or Josh Wolffs evolving positional play philosophy. No, the theme of the week leading up to the biggest game in club history was thatthe office laminating machinewas still operational. The teams players and fans alike banded together over the perceived slights and made it their rallying cry.

Ultimately, Austin lost 3-0, with their only shot on goal coming in the 80th minute. But it was still a phenomenal season for them by any conceivable measure.

Whatisrespect, tangibly, though? Is it fair to characterize any criticism as disrespect until everyone agrees youre the best league in the world? Are a few lazy jokes more important than the billions of dollars being invested by an ever-growing roster of billionaire owners and Apple?

A lot of this feels residual from those early days of MLS. The league was founded not primarily due to public demand for a first-division mens league in America it was a condition of the 1994 World Cup being hosted by the country.

When the initial seasons didnt showcase a league that was immediately a global powerhouse and on par with the countrys more established sports leagues, many in the public switched off. When the league retooled ahead of 2007 by allowing teams to sign designated players (those who require higher wages or transfer fees than the maximum salary), led by David Beckham, detractors pointed to the fact that most of these imports were well past their prime making MLS a retirement league.

Well, were 15 years on from that milestone; Beckham is no longer commanding high wages, but offering them (albeit previously tomore players than the rules allow) at the leagues second attempt at a Miami-based club.

While the Union built their reputation on the back of a player development pipeline created by Chris Albright and maintained to great success by Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner, its possible they wont field a single homegrown player in their MLS Cup debut as the club has tapped into another of MLS growing strengths: using analysis to identify potential bargains both within the league and beyond.Hany Mukhtar, the runaway MVPthis season, was signed forjust $3 millionby Nashville. Even when the fees escalate, theyre often viewed as being closer to market value than the overpays of bygone years.

From a sporting perspective, the year began with the continuation of our commitment to be an active participant in the global transfer market, Garber said in his state of the league press conference on Thursday. In fact, during the early transfer window in January, we were among the top five leagues in the world for investment and transfer fees both in what we spent and what we earned in fees coming in and out of the league. Were continuing to see our clubs managed through this concept of signing world-class international players. This year was an exciting one with Lorenzo Insigne, Hctor Herrera, Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini, who youll see hopefully on the field (in the MLS Cup final), and Federico Bernardeschi in Toronto, just to name a few.

While that quintet represents an incredible influx of talent to the league from a single summer window, two other midseason signings drive home MLS growing reputation. In the past, a playoff hopeful starved for goals like the Columbus Crew would be checking other teams rosters for a backup striker who could score a few down the stretch. In 2022, they poached 23-year-old Colombian forward Cucho Hernndez from Watford as they were relegated from the Premier League. Thetop replytoThe Athletics Adam Leventhals report wasnt a dig at the player or his new home, either: Makes sense for him; better city, better stadium, club that actually wins trophies.

Hernndezs move was soon overshadowed by an even flashier acquisition. After the LA Galaxy brought Beckham over from Real Madrid, they grew a fondness for stars who were just past their primes, but this year, they made headlines by signing a much younger player from a major European club.

Leaving FC Barcelona wasnt an easy prospect for Riqui Puig, but the 23-year-old didnt show it on the pitch. In just a dozen regular season games, he added three goals and two assists while becoming an irresistible watch with his tempo-setting and line-breaking passes.

I saw an opportunity here both personally and professionally, I feel that (in MLS) I can make a big jump forward,Puig told our own Felipe Crdenasahead of the playoffs. I can mature as a person, living far away from my family and from my comfort zone. Its always hard to do, but in life one has to make decisions and seek out (new) experiences. Thats what I believe Im doing now and I couldnt be happier to have made that decision.

Mukhtar and Driussi said similar things toThe Athleticas the season came to a close. MLS is no longer a place to get away from the pressures of European football and cash some dependable checks. It is a genuine, career-enriching option that, while still carrying financial benefits, also serves players well in their career evolutions.

Perhaps no player acquisition can illustrate the leagues growing esteem nearly as well as this years evolutions in MLS relationship with neighboring Liga MX. The Mexican circuit has long been the dominant force in North America, with its clubs winning every CONCACAF Champions League from 2006 to 2021. That streak was finally broken by the Seattle Sounders, whose triumph in April helped soften the eventual sting of the franchises first missed postseason since kicking off in 2009.

When the two leagues announced a new midseason competition to begin next summer, the Leagues Cup, which will feature a group stage composed of clubs from both MLS and Liga MX before a knockout round to determine the triumph, there were no jokes about it being another easy trophy to bring south of the border. Then, in October, came an emphatic endorsement from Tigres manager andformer El Tri boss Miguel Herrera:

Just when we think that we have to try to compete with MLS, which is a huge mistake, MLS is light years ahead of us. They want to overtake the Spanish, Italian and English leagues, they dont even think about the Mexican league. Although I think well still manage to win some games and compete on the field.

Of course, it wasnt all sunshine and progress this year for MLS. In a year which saw Real Salt Lake turn the page under new ownership in the aftermath ofthe Dell Loy Hansen scandal, another of its Western Conference members was under consistent off-field scrutiny. FollowingThe Athleticsreporting that Portland Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and general manager Gavin Wilkinsondidnt disclose Paul Rileys indiscretionsduring his time as coach of the Thorns, it came to light that the Timbers alsodidnt report winger Andy Polos domestic violencecitation during the 2021 season. Throughout the year, fans demonstrated in Providence Park and beyond. When Sally Yates issued her report after an investigation into several deplorable club situations in the NWSL, Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub were relieved of their dual-club roles.

During his press conference on Thursday,The Athleticasked Garber if the league was considering further action or consequences for Paulson after the findings in the Yates report.

I think the best way to answer it is that we at this time dont see any reason at all for Merritt to sell the Timbers, Garber said. Obviously, Merritt has very publicly acknowledged the mistakes that he and the organization has made. Hes taken responsibility for those decisions that hes made, and I think that the steps that hes made in terms of stepping aside and bringing in a new CEO and a termination of two long-term employees, which we supported, were steps in the right direction.There was nothing that came out in the report that would have us think any differently from what I just stated there right now.

Last week, D.C. United followed up a season in which they finished last in the league with an ignominious double-header of a press release. First, the clubdidnt follow the leagues diversity hiring policywhen it appointed Wayne Rooney as its n head coach. Second, it called an allegation that strikerTaxi Fontas used a racial slur crediblebut couldnt independently confirm the infraction.

United was hardly the only longtime franchise to struggle on the field, either. Of the leagues 10 teams that played that 2003 season, only three (FC Dallas, LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls) made the postseason. In a league that is increasingly headlined and paced by the clubs which joined in the expansion boom of the last 15 years, those founding members are struggling to keep pace.

The Apple contract does have its unintended consequences, too. Beloved longtime local broadcast teams signed off at seasons end as the league shifts to a fully national broadcast structure akin to the NFL. While some of those broadcast teams will be retained for radio calls, its certain that goal calls will come with a different flavor in 2023 and beyond.

Such is the nature of change: never linear, never entirely positive, but often necessary for adaptation.

With how much this league changes year over year, we may need to update our lexicon. Weve been so used to describing MLS in stages: the initial era of the league was MLS 1.0, the dawn of the designated player era was MLS 2.0, and the breakthrough of young talent (both domestic and otherwise) working toward a move abroad is the hallmark of MLS 3.0. These changes may be more rapid and less obvious moving forward as the league continues to grow in stature. Luckily, as a longtime Apple user, I can tell you theyre happy to throw numbers well beyond 0 after the decimal.

Just wait for MLS 4.3 Im sure it comes with A/C in every Texan stadium seat.

However the league evolves moving forward, 2022 will be a year which will likely be best remembered for its milestones of growth: the CCL triumph, a likely iconic MLS Cup, a 10-figure broadcast deal. MLS came out of its first two pandemic years able to progress again, both in its reputation to investors and as a part of the global soccer landscape. More teams have must-watch players than at any point in recent memory, and its less and less bizarre to see top talents before or in the heart of their prime decide to come to an MLS club.

And who knows: next year might bringthe most revered playersince Pel and Maradona to North American shores.

MLS clubs will undoubtedly still clamor for approval next season. Its safe to assume that the first few months of the Apple deal will also bring a new batch of scrutiny as the leagueirons out its new broadcast wing. The inaugural Leagues Cup could be an unforgettable new format that leads to regular competition between MLS and Liga MX or it could be an interesting gamble with fleeting relevance.

Whatever transpires, its undeniable that MLS has transformed mightily since the last heavyweight MLS Cup matchup in 2003. Nearly all of that change has been for the better; the areas that havent run smoothly especially the leagues roster rules system, which is increasingly at odds with its aims to be a chief player in the global transfer market must undoubtedly be modified in time.

Less than two decades after warding off the looming specter of folding the league, MLS continues to make strides domestically and abroad. Its attracting major investors, from global tech titans to international celebrities. And its a viable home for players of just about any profile. That sure seems like a great deal of respect.

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Jeff Rueteris a staff writer for The Athletic who covers North American soccer. Prior to joining in 2019, his work appeared in the Guardian, ESPN FC, Sky Sports and FourFourTwo USA. Rueters cover story for Howler Magazine (Winter 2017/18) was a Best American Sports Writing 2019 notable honoree.Follow Jeff on Twitter@jeffrueter