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MLS Finding its Identity as a Selling League

Don’t worry, it’s a good thing.

Seattle Sounders FC v Columbus Crew SC: - MLS Cup Final Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

For much of its existence, Major League Soccer has struggled with an identity problem. Established in 1995 and beginning its first season of play in 1996, the league is young compared to its counterparts across the world — it celebrated its 25th year of play just last year. Until very recently, MLS seemed unable to figure out exactly what type of league it wanted to be, but in recent years a clearer identity has started to emerge — that of a selling league.

The league’s identity crisis was due in large part to it being young, and needing to find a foothold among a wealth of older, more established leagues in the professional soccer landscape. La Liga and Serie A were founded in 1929, Ligue 1 in 1930, and most of the top flight South American leagues were formed in the mid 1990s or earlier. While the English Premier League wasn’t established in its current form until 1992, professional soccer had existed in the United Kingdom for a long time. MLS was sort of thrown into the deep end and had to work to carve out a place for itself.

It first tried to do so by signing some big names from the 1994 World Cup, like Carlos Valderrama and Jorge Campos, and by trying out some funky rules. Using hockey-style shootouts to settle draws, and a clock that counted down instead of up were two of the most well-known changes and neither stuck around for very long. In the early 2000s the league brought in some expansion teams and helped gain legitimacy with guys like DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard being sold to — and finding success with — European teams.

David Beckham’s arrival in 2007 brought true international attention to MLS, and his subsequent success with the LA Galaxy that saw the team win two Supporters Shields and two MLS Cups during his time there, meant that the rest of the league sat up and took notice. Beckham left LA in 2013 and it isn’t a coincidence that multiple clubs brought in their own aging superstars in the years afterward. Kaká came to Orlando City just a year later in 2014, with Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo joining NYCFC in 2015 and the Chicago Fire landing Bastian Schweinsteiger in 2017. It was this period of time in particular that saw MLS branded repeatedly as a “retirement league,” a moniker that players, coaches, and teams have repeatedly bristled against.

The last few years though have seen the league’s identity begin to change at a more rapid pace while trending in an arguably better direction. The success of LAFC and Atlanta United using key pieces like Brian Rodriguez and Miguel Almiron, and the sale of the latter for an estimated £21 million to Newcastle United, have firmly shifted the focus of MLS teams to valuing young, often South American players. Teams are also realizing that even if they don’t find sustained league success with young talent, they can still profit enormously when selling them, a la the Vancouver Whitecaps with Alphonso Davies.

While the success of those teams and the league’s subsequent shift in mentality has been crucial to the league’s move towards becoming a breeding ground for young talent, there’s slightly more to it than that. The emergence of guys like Weston McKennie, Giovanni Reyna, Christian Pulisic, and Sergino Dest have helped raise the profile of Major League Soccer, even though none of those four have ever kicked a ball for an MLS club. That fact doesn’t seem to matter though, and with young Americans succeeding at the highest level, there now seems to be an arms race for European teams to find a shiny young American to bring onboard. Lately they’ve been making those signings from MLS, with Brian Reynolds, Brenden Aaronson, and Mark McKenzie some of the latest names to make the jump across the pond.

Let’s go back and talk about Davies though, because his transfer to Bayern Munich in October of 2018 marks the point where the international soccer community really began to sit up and take notice of MLS becoming a gold mine for young talent. Of the top 10 most expensive outgoing transfers in league history, eight occurred after the Davies sale took place. Whether those types of transfers continue will depend in part on whether guys like Reynolds, Aaronson, and McKenzie can be successful with their new clubs, but for now MLS certainly seems to be coming into its own as a selling league.

I should mention that I don’t think this is a bad thing. Portugal’s Primeira Liga found continental success in the early 2000s due to its wealth of young talent which was subsequently bought up by Europe’s big guns, and establishing its reputation as a selling league means its now widely considered the best league in Europe outside of the traditional “big five.” Buying and developing young talent to sell at a price is a sustainable model, and one that works if you’re good at it. More and more clubs have recognized this and shifted their philosophies to take advantage of it. OCSC bringing in Ricardo Moreira as director of scouting in November of 2018 and subsequently getting better at identifying younger players is a good example of that.

Contrary to the strategy of targeting aging superstars, the move towards developing and selling off younger players isn’t one I expect to change anytime soon. If you’re good at it, it’s sustainable from a financial standpoint and it can also help you be successful in the league at the same time. From the standpoint of the league itself, that shift towards young talent has been encouraged plenty with the introduction of the Young Designated Player and Homegrown Players. To what extent MLS becomes a selling league still remains to be seen, but for now its getting more comfortable in its place in world soccer and growing into an established identity along the way.