Halfway point in the MLS season. What can be said so far?

After an impressive victory over Tottenham in the All Star Game, Outside90’s Dan Cunningham takes a look at the progress made by MLS in this, its 20th season.
Last week marked a great moment for MLS – despite Harry Kane’s sublime finish taking the plaudits – the All Stars proved their talent and dispatched Tottenham in well-deserved fashion.

But there is more to The All Star game. It not only marks the halfway point in the MLS season, it also presents a moment to take stock of the season so far.

Who is losing?

Well, apparently, the league.

Commissioner Don Garber declared last week that in a so far very successful season for the league, they are in fact, loosing money and not reaping the monetary benefits one would expect.

Yet, this appears to be the only (publically-known) negative in a very successful season for MLS.

How much are they loosing?

The exact amount was not disclosed.

But it is clear the reason for it is down to the teams writing big checks for top players and to fund player development through their academy programs (in the hope of discovering the next home-grown hero – ‘a’ Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley or Tim Howard).

And they are spending big.

$56 million

This is the total salary pot paid to just 10 players in MLS this season.

In a league whose salary cap per team is $3.49 million, there are a lot of loopholes – 21 MLS players cracked the $1 million mark this year and you see the likes of Toronto FC spending more than $18 million on just three designated players.

Garber said it himself as substantiation for the losses, “we’re still in investment mode”, and it does form a valid argument that this investment is a requirement if the league is to reach its ambitions of becoming a top-World league by 2022.

While apparently not monetary, there are other benefits to come of this.

21,109

Buoyed by these international soccer icons, intrigue in the league is on the up and they are drawing record attendance numbers so far this season.

After they finished last season with record-breaking attendance figures pushing them over the 19,000 fans per game line; 2015 has seen a 10% uplift on this figure.

More countries join the fold

When you have David Villa, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard and Kaka in your league, the rest of the world is going to pay attention.

Through TV deals with a range of new broadcasters, MLS stars can now be seen all over the globe – the biggest of their partnerships is a multi-broadcaster deal between ESPN, Fox and Univision worth a reported $720 million. (Supplemented in no small part with Sky in the UK, Eurosport in Europe, Globosat in Brazil and BeIN SPORTS in Asia).

So it proves there is a substantial amount of money coming in to the league. Which poses the question of how much exactly are they spending?

4

And finally, this season has been one categorised by the league’s expansion ambitions.

Four being the number of new teams planned over the next four years. Atlanta (2017), LAFC (2018), and (almost certainly) Minnesota and Miami (2019).

These ambitions are certainly a way to bring a larger cash flow into the league.

So half time is over. What is to come in the next half?

The next half of the season marks the beginning of a crucial three-month lead-up to the playoffs.

Despite half a season worth of matches, and a few teams experiencing a blip in form (Galaxy and Seattle the notable exceptions on the West coast), on the whole there is little so far to separate the pack in either conference.

But with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Didier Drogba’s arrival, things could change. And it should make for an interesting run in of games.

And after this half is done; where does the long-term focus take them?

While finances are not an area to shout about, there are plenty of pockets of success and a lot of momentum for the sport of soccer to be empowered by.

Supported by the cultural surge in soccer and MLS’s popularity, the direction of the league is ‘up’. They are at a unique stage in their development where they continue to invest and see their identity continue to evolve.

And this league could look markedly different two years from now as they aim to reach that ambition of a top-world league by 2022.

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