Has MLS Reached the Tipping Point?


Tipping point: the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to become a larger, more important change. A series of small changes

The 2014 MLS season ended with the LA Galaxy clinching their 5th MLS Cup and having some of the highest ratings the final has had in years. With the end of the Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry era, many wondered who would take the torch and can the league continue growing?  Unlike years past when one or two high-profile players have joined MLS, this year sees a plethora of high-profile signings of all kinds.

The tried and true high-profile player in his thirties is still getting most of the press (some of it not all good) but there are now new targets as well. In the last few years USMNT players have started returning home to play in MLS and the money they have signed for is something that most would’ve thought unheard of just five years ago. Just this week Toronto FC went out and signed Sebastian Giovinco, a 27 year-old player who has made 20 appearances for the Italian national team since 2011.

Other teams have decided to reward players like Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Chris Wondolowski with DP contracts as they have become stars for their team.  And yet while player signings are usually the main focus of the off-season, there are still yet more going on.

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  • Last season with Chivas USA ceasing operations, MLS was looking for a team to replace them in the LA market. Rumors had floated all season of a group that was interested but as the season wore on, no real names were being mentioned. Then in very late October a who’s who group of owners was revealed. They share glitz and glamor but more than anything they were very well-funded.

    The team was announced with a temporary name of LAFC and the cost was well over a $100 million dollars. Everything it seems is coming up roses for MLS since the last CBA negotiations in 2010. In just five years from when the Philadelphia Union had entered the league with a $30 million dollar price tag, the cost has gone up more than three times.  Going forward, at least one more team will be added depending on the situation in Miami.

    MLS has four groups in three cities trying to get in as number 24 before 2020. The price of the next franchise is rumored to be in the $100 million dollar range. Even with Chivas USA folding, MLS was able to turn that situation into a plus for the league and walk away with another gem.

    The gem I speak of is one Erick Estéfano “Cubo” Torres, a player developed in MLS and who has made it onto the Mexican National team radar. After paying a record transfer fee to Chivas Guadalajara, Torres will join the Houston Dynamo permanently after completing his six month loan spell with Guadalajara. Even his National team coach, Miguel “Piojo” Herrera has endorsed his decision.

    Another turning point for the league as Herrera thought that it was important for Cubo to get as many minutes as possible, so as to be considered for call up this coming year with the Gold Cup, Copa América and other international youth tournaments around the corner for Mexico in 2015.

    Even with these many positive signs happening, a tipping point can also occur with a negative situation. After the New York Red Bulls decided it was a good idea to fire the only coach who was able to bring the team any kind of silver for the trophy case; they decided to follow that up by scheduling a Town Hall Meeting for the season ticket holders. If you haven’t seen it, here is a link to the beginning of the meeting. Mind you, some of the language is quite graphic.

    The thing that I take from this is the passion of the supporters of the team. Many have a twenty year relationship with this franchise and it hasn’t rewarded their loyalty over the years, which is something the MetroStars/Red Bull franchise has never had for any of their coaches since its start in 1996. No coach has gone more than three years with the team and that is from a list that has included Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley.

    The fans are so passionate that they have started a #RedBullOut campaign. For a league that had started off marketing towards soccer moms, this event showed that teams in MLS are now scrutinized like any other professional team in America and Canada.

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    That scrutiny is about to hit a climax with the coming CBA negotiations, as players in the league are starting to let it be known that money and free agency will be the two main issues. Will there be a line drawn in the sand for the first time by Major League Soccer Players Union? With the current amount of money being spent by teams, it’s going to be hard for MLS to get sympathy from the public claiming they are poor and losing money.

    Players are starting to turn down offers from the big leagues in Europe to come and play here. Can MLS risk a strike and stop the momentum that is starting to pick up speed like a freight train going downhill for the league?

    Many changes have taken place in the last few years. MLS has invested a lot in the league by building fifteen Soccer Specific Stadiums, plus adding one more in San Jose this year. New stadiums in Orlando and Washington DC are on the way in the next couple of years and other expansion teams in New York, Miami and LA are trying to get stadiums built. Can MLS afford this negative publicity with the start of a new TV contract and dedicated soccer nights about to become the norm on Friday’s and Sunday’s? They’ve built academies to develop youth and now have required teams to be affiliated with a current USL Pro team’s or start their own USL Pro team.

    Finally the league has a way to get young players meaningful minutes to develop the stars of tomorrow for MLS. Hopefully this effort will raise the level of the league so that they cannot just compete, but win against team in our region in the CONCACAF Champion League.

    This year has seen a series of small changes to how foreign players and coaches view the league. Now more are looking at MLS as a league of choice. They see the positives of living in the US and Canada. Other players realize that getting minutes in games can help their development and give them exposure to their National team coaches so that they get picked for their National Team. Owners who are well-funded are doing everything they can to secure a franchise. MLS is a hot commodity right now. 

    Meanwhile, in New York just this past week, NYCFC and Red Bull have taught us how incidents become significant enough to become a larger and more important change can be needed by the fan-base. They are demanding more from ownership once they get the right to own a franchise. It takes more than a new SSS to make the fan-base happy as they want their team to put a winner on the field.

    I’ll give Red Bull management credit for engaging with their fans; but I think tired old talking points are no longer acceptable. Fans of MLS are demanding more, as are the players who don’t play on a DP contract. So I ask with this new CBA in 2015 will MLS reach the Tipping Point?

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