As MLS Hits 25th Year, What Comes Next for the League?

MLS has made significant strides in 25 years, but what are the league's next frontiers? And when will it be considered among the best leagues in the world? A panel of MLS players and coaches chimes in.
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LOS ANGELES — MLS starts its 25th season this Saturday, and while it’s fun to look back at the previous 25 years of a startup sports league, it’s more interesting to ask MLS people about what they see—and want to see—happening in the next 25 years. So that’s what SI.com was able to do in recent interviews with LAFC coach Bob Bradley and forward Carlos Vela, Atlanta United forward Josef Martínez, New England Revolution coach Bruce Arena, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney and Nashville SC midfielder Dax McCarty.

When—if we’re being honest—do people think MLS will truly join the top European leagues as the best in the world? And what sort of important changes will need to take place now that MLS (with 26 teams this season) has matured into an adolescent league and isn’t in danger of folding anymore?

For Bradley, who has coached for five MLS teams and was around for Year 1, so much of building a team (and a club) is about finding an identity that reflects the city where it plays. He did it with an expansion team in Chicago that won MLS Cup in its first year, 1998, behind Polish star Peter Nowak. Now, Bradley has done it with an expansion team at LAFC that won the 2019 Supporters' Shield led by Mexican star Vela.

What direction does Bradley want to see MLS take in the next 25 years? It comes back to clubs having identities. 

“Now I’m going to say some controversial things,” Bradley says, and he launches into some of his most deeply held opinions. To wit:

Get rid of the geographical limitations on homegrown rights areas—and the requirements of having academies at all

“In my view, if different clubs have different identities, if you don’t want to have an academy you shouldn’t have to have one,” he argues. “If you want to just buy big names, buy big names. And then there’s going to be clubs that are known that they find young talent that fits their model and develops and gives opportunities.

“I’ve spent time at Athletic Bilbao [in Spain],” Bradley continues. “If you are a young kid and you come through the system, what you know is you’ll be given the chance if you’re good to play on the first team. So I think we need a version of that in MLS. And so homegrown rights, throw them out the window, O.K.? If there’s a kid that Red Bull [New York] thinks is the next version of Tyler Adams and he lives in Los Angeles, he should go to Red Bull. All right? If there’s a kid that fits a little bit of how we want to play, wherever he is, and he watches us play and he thinks that’s the place he can develop, then he should come to LAFC.”

Institute training compensation and solidarity payments across all clubs in the United States (something MLS instituted in a limited, internal capacity 2019).

“For me, I think we need to take the handbrakes off. I think we need to go for it,” Bradley says. “And now the big part is that we need to do it in a way that we make everybody feel more part of something. And so that means that if there are clubs out there, youth clubs, and you have a player from the time that he’s 12 until he’s 16 and then at 16 he goes to an academy, and then somewhere along the line he gets sold, there needs to be something that goes to the club that had him from when he was 12 to 16. You can’t just look the other way at these clubs.”

Find a way to institute promotion and relegation

“What eventually has to happen is we need promotion and relegation,” Bradley says. “And I say eventually. … Could it happen in two years, four years? Obviously, you have ownership like LAFC, they put in a lot of money. They invest a lot of money. They built the stadium. So I understand that part, but 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. We have to do it by giving more opportunities.

“If a small club anywhere in the country gets its act together, knows how to provide playing opportunities for young kids, has good coaching and can develop players, if there’s a team there, and then at some point they can go from the fifth league to the fourth league to the third league to the second league. … I coached two years at Stabaek [in Norway]. The people that I met had this dream that Stabaek was in the fifth league and they could get to the top. And then when I arrived, they had been in the top and they had dropped down a league and they were the same people with the same ideas. And I think we need more of that. I think we need to connect more dots and make more people feel part of it.”

Bradley is right of course: Those comments will be seen as controversial in many quarters, especially among most MLS owners and people who run the league office. Promotion and relegation in particular seems to be hard to see through, especially now with the recent decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to rule against an action brought by lower-league soccer owners Riccardo Silva and Dennis Crowley. But Bradley is also one of the most respected coaches in MLS, and his views no doubt are shared by other soccer people.

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Josef Martinez, Bob Bradley and Carlos Vela

Now to the other question: When—if we’re being honest—do people think MLS will truly join the top European leagues as the best in the world? MLS commissioner Don Garber has long said that he wanted MLS to be one of the world’s top leagues by 2022, though he has fudged a bit on that timeline over the past year or two.

Here's what a sampling of MLS players and coaches said:

Dax McCarty: “I think 10 more years. That’s a realistic goal and a realistic expectation. I think that after the 2026 World Cup, with the momentum that that’s going to build, I think it’s realistic to think MLS could be a top-three or -four league in the world. And it’s going to have to do with young players coming here knowing that they can develop and be sold for big profits to all the big boys.

“And you’re starting to kind of see the tip of the iceberg with that, with guys like Miguel Almirón. He really has set the bar extremely high for young South American players who are exciting attacking players that can go and further their careers here in this league. But then ultimately, after those 10 years, let’s say 20, 30 years down the road, you know, MLS is going to be doing the $50 million transfers into the league.”

Greg Vanney: “I would probably say another 15-plus [years]. And one of the reasons I say that is I think one of the biggest steps this league needs to take is that our youth players that are developing in North America need to become world-class level players, so that the core of the high-level players who come from this league actually come from our domestic setup through our academies. Then we can start to supplement and/or find those great players around the world who find this as a league of choice and the place they want to be as well. I think that’s one of the things it’s going to take.

“Second is we’ve got to increase the competition environment in terms of mixing more competitions with Mexico and/or playing with some of the South American mixed leagues, because you’re looking at competing against [UEFA] Champions League. A lot of the best players in the world, it’s going to be hard for them to leave Europe if they’re playing in Champions League and all those kinds of things. And so in order to entice them, we’ve got to create a competition structure that is equal to or close to equal to what exists over in Europe.”

Bruce Arena: “I think in the 50th anniversary [of MLS] we’re going to be able to say we’re the best league in the world. What happens between Year 25 and 50, I can’t tell you, but there’s going to be progress.”

Carlos Vela: “It’s a complicated subject. Because in the end, competing against the European leagues is very difficult, because they bring a history that you can never reach through the years, what that means to represent the European game. But I think this league makes giant strides every year. Better players, better stadiums, more passion in the stands. I think very soon it will be one of the most important leagues in the Americas.

“Obviously the world is something more complicated, but in this region it’s going to be one of the best leagues or the best league. It has the desire, the infrastructure. And almost all the most important leagues in the other sports are here. And now soccer also intends to be that important like the rest.”

Josef Martínez: “When I arrived here four years ago, I didn’t have any idea about MLS. Now I have a lot of friends in Europe who ask me about this league. I don’t know if I’ll be here when this league becomes one of the best in the world, but if it doesn’t I’ll still be very happy here. I learned how to live a new life here. I appreciate the caring of the people here, that they care about soccer. This is a growth league. Perhaps it’s not the English or Spanish league, but there’s more to it than that.”