Feb 28, 2020 - Sports

Major League Soccer embarks on its 25th season

A soccer ball cake with candles for "25"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As Major League Soccer begins its 25th season, the league is financially stable and surging in popularity, and its 26 teams have gorgeous facilities and rapidly increasing valuations.

  • It also continues to expand, with David Beckham's Inter Miami and Nashville SC set to debut this season as the 25th and 26th teams. Plans are in place to reach 30 franchises by 2022 — triple the number from 2004.
  • With soccer's status in America likely to receive a boost when the U.S. hosts the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, the league's owners have grandiose visions for the future:

"We definitely have the demographics in our favor, both in terms of youth and diversity. So I think we'll pass baseball and hockey and be the No. 3 sport in the U.S. [in the next 10 years]." Larry Berg, LAFC managing owner

The other side: For all of its growth, MLS still struggles to stay relevant in a crowded American sports landscape and has made virtually no meaningful inroads in big markets like New York and Dallas.

  • Put simply, MLS doesn't matter to enough general sports fans to break through the proverbial brick wall that separates the "big four" (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) from everyone else.

"Right now there's a feeling by too many that they're not part of the game in this country, and we have to work harder to change that." Bob Bradley, LAFC manager

What to watch:

  • Expansion teams, stadium dreams: The long-term plan for Inter Miami is to recruit global superstars to play in a world-class stadium, but until that stadium opens in 2022, the team will make do in nearby Fort Lauderdale. ... As for Nashville SC, they'll use Nissan Stadium (home of the Titans) for a few years before moving into their own stadium downtown.
  • Young American talent: Thanks to the recent success of MLS' academy system, there are now well over 100 homegrown players in the league, and dozens more have been sold to European clubs. Here are some of the best young Americans.
  • Latino stars in, European stars out: Top players from Liga MX have begun flowing north in multimillion-dollar transfers, and Mexican superstar Javier "Chicharito" Hernández moved from Sevilla (Spain) to the LA Galaxy. Sadly, Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimović and England's Wayne Rooney are both gone.
  • Henry in Montreal: Thierry Henry was once one of the best soccer players in the world and enjoyed a successful MLS stint with the New York Red Bulls last decade. Now, the French icon will attempt to succeed as head coach of the Montreal Impact.
  • Power rankings: The defending champion Seattle Sounders, LAFC, Atlanta United, Toronto FC and New York City FC are the five best teams on paper.

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