Major League Soccer has seen tremendous growth in the last eight years and only stands to see more in the next seven years as the league continues its commitment to joining the ranks of the best leagues in the world by 2022.
That was the theme of MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s State of the League address on Tuesday as he outlined the successes of the league’s 18th season and gave glimpses of things to come.
To Garber, the competitiveness of the 2013 season that concludes on Saturday with the MLS Cup between Sporting Kansas City (17-10-7, 58 points, 2nd in East) and Real Salt Lake (16-10-8, 56 points, 2nd in West) is an indication of just how closely fought things were this season.
“This season was arguably our most competitive on the field to date,” he said. “We had five teams that finished within six points of winning the Supporters’ Shield. I don’t think you can find another soccer league in the world that can say the same thing. We believe we have one of the most competitive soccer leagues anywhere in the world.”
Garber highlighted the growth of the league – from just 10 teams in 2004 to 19 teams now with two more set to join in 2015 in New York City FC and Orlando City SC. Expansion to Orlando puts MLS back in Florida for the first time since the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion were dissolved after the 2001 season and Garber hopes to continue to expand that reach into the Southeast and Midwest with the addition of three more teams before 2020.
A graphic accompanying the presentation listed Minneapolis, St. Louis, Atlanta, Miami and San Antonio as potential expansion sites, with Garber also mentioning Austin, Texas as a possibility as well.
The success of the markets that have drawn expansion clubs since 2005 has Garber encouraged that the league is growing more viable by the year.
Although total attendance saw a slight decrease from the record-setting year of 2012, 10 of the 19 MLS clubs saw increases in attendance with three more seeing decreases of less than two percent. For the second consecutive year, there were 112 sellouts in MLS matches, including all 17 regular season home matches for Sounders FC as Seattle set the MLS attendance record for a fifth-straight season with an average crowd of 44,038.
“All of this progress both on and off the field reaffirms our view that we should be even more committed to this vision that we want to be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022,” Garber said. “It really starts with the commitment to the rising quality of play.”
There were 33 Designated Players on MLS rosters in 2013, including at least one on every team and three teams using all three slots.
There is also a growth in the MLS presence on the U.S. National Team roster. Eighteen MLS players appeared in a match for the U.S. this year, with nine playing in 10 or more matches. That includes Sounders FC’s Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans, LA Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez and Landon Donovan and Sporting KC’s Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, who all signed long-term contracts within the last year.
It’s not just about veterans and Designated Players, though. Ninety players have come through the Academy system and started for their clubs in 2013, including Seattle defender DeAndre Yedlin.
“It starts with a firm commitment and investment to player development,” Garber said. “Our Academy program and youth development systems remain a key focus of all of our clubs.”
The new relationship with the USL also allows more opportunities for those young players to get game experience with loans to lower division clubs.
Garber also talked briefly about moving to a calendar that more closely resembles the schedule used in Europe, but noted that the league isn’t ready to make the jump to that calendar quite yet.
All of these efforts are done with an aim of elevating the level of Major League Soccer and eventually placing it up among the top leagues in the world. The league isn’t there yet, but as roster rules change, players are developed and clubs grow stronger on and off the field, it is certainly trending in that direction.