Prepare to download the MLS 2.5 mod update
The 2013 season promises to be one of the most defining seasons yet for Major League Soccer. The busiest offseason in the league’s history will give way to the first season without some form of expansion since 2004.
The league has come along way since the days of doubt in 2002. Contraction asked plenty of questions of MLS and its viability. The 2013 season is likely to be the most testing year since, albeit a completely different kind of test. In 2002, MLS proved that it could survive. In 2013, MLS has the chance to prove that it can thrive.
Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake began play in MLS in 2005 and the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston in 2006. MLS then added David Beckham, a legion of Designated Players and at least one expansion team every season since.
Fans can point to a number of different events that have happened in the last decade as giving rise to what is referred to as MLS 2.0: the Chivas USA and RSL expansion, the Beckham rule, the return of the San Jose Earthquakes, the signing of Tristan Bowen to be the first MLS academy product, etc.
For the sake of this piece, Seattle fans created MLS 2.0.
Seattle Sounders FC changed the game for how MLS teams look, act and feel. Now, with the arrival of MLS 2.5, even the most notable Sounder is on his way out of the league.
Fredy Montero, who scored the first ever official goal for Seattle Sounders FC, is returning to the Colombian league. Montero joins Beckham in what may be the most notable player exodus in the league’s history.
MLS soaked up everything it could from arguably its two most notable Designated Players. Beckham was obviously the brightest star in the Los Angeles Galaxy for the past six seasons. His on-the-field performance was a revelation in his final two seasons, but he was a marketing marvel for the league that was craving for an ego boost in the mid-2000′s. Montero is more noteworthy for reflecting a shifting change in roster dynamics. Montero began the trend that many fans had been craving: a talented young player that could become a top club and international player. Montero was also rewarded for his play by becoming a Designated Player, another positive trend.
MLS fans are seeing the roster landscape change dramatically. The league has lost rising young talents like Roger Espinoza, Marco Pappa, Brek Shea and Andy Najar. Najar is the first academy player MLS has sold, marking another step in the growth process of the league. MLS is also letting go of vets like Kei Kamara, Branko Boskovic, Dane Richards and Juan Pablo Angel. If you add Geoff Cameron’s departure last summer, you’re seeing a wealth of young talent leaving the league in seven months time. How much longer are Juan Agudelo, Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez for MLS?
I’ll let New York fans recover for a moment from knowing that Rafa Marquez is no longer affiliated with the clubs. (and people burst into “Hallelujah” everywhere)
Even a number of notable MLSers have changed teams this offseason. Montero scored Seattle’s first MLS goal, while Joel Lindpere christened Red Bull Arena in 2010. Lindpere will be joined in the Chicago midfield by former Colorado Rapids stalwart Jeff Larentowicz. Larentowicz was joined by Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, three pillars of Colorado’s 2010 MLS Cup championship, on the move from Commerce City.
Other notable players with different teams this season include Jamison Olave, Fabian Espindola, Will Johnson, Jeff Parke, Danny Califf, Dominic Oduro, Wil Hesmer, John Thorrington, Michael Harrington and Benny Feilhaber. Mike Fucito is on the move again — I just wanted to remind everybody of the hysteria caused by Seattle’s trade for Eddie Johnson a year ago
It’s not all uncertainty for MLS heading into 2013. There are plenty of reasons to think that the league can pass the test this season.
Teams have added Juninho Pernambucano, Diego Valeri, Diego Calderon and Claudio Bieler just to name a few. Busts like Marquez, Boyd, Wilhelmsson and Robson have been swiftly dealt with as well. A strong class of homegrown players, headlined by Gyasi Zardes, enters the league as fans hope the system begins to promote young players more. MLS also has its own representatives at the African Cup of Nations.
Bruce Arena has told us that Landon Donovan will be playing in 2013 and the Galaxy has at least one more year left with Omar Gonzalez. Javier Morales rejected a move to Espanyol to remain the playmaker for Real Salt Lake and 2012 MLS Defender of the Year Matt Besler turned down a foreign offer to remain at Sporting Kansas City.
MLS and its clubs are as strong as they have ever been in local markets. That trend began with Seattle, leading to great success in “MLS 2.0″ by a host of new stadiums and new teams.
Yet, Howard Handler, MLS’s Chief Marketing Officer, told ESPN’s Roger Bennett last year that driving national ratings for live-game broadcasts remains the league’s top priority:
“We have good partners nationally and locally but we simply have to grow the number of fans tuning in,” Handler confessed. Working out consistent viewing times may be a part of the solution, but raising interest is key.
MLS’s future does not directly hinge on finding a Beckham-lite, but the league will need to find out what it needs to do to gain ground in the national landscape before it can take the next step towards world domination. The league will be looking to improve its national footprint this season following the departure of many of the league’s most marketable players. The arms race in MLS dictates that quality of play isn’t likely to suffer much, if at all, in 2013, but the league and its clubs must look to a new crop of stars to stand out on and off the field.