An expanding league, excitement for the game at an all-time high and international stars joining in rapid numbers. If you had to guess which American major professional league I’m describing, the MLS would probably not be anyone’s first guess.
That is exactly the path they have taken in the past five seasons, and their trajectory continues to skyrocket as soccer’s global stars have now chosen the MLS due to the increase in money and excitement for the game in North America. With the 21st edition of the MLS All-Star game on the horizon, let’s take a look back on just how far the MLS has come and who is responsible for it. A preview for the All-Star game is also essential as this year the best the MLS has to offer takes on European royalty when they host Arsenal in San Jose.
It all started in 1996, the inaugural season for the MLS, with 10 teams and a few marquis players. That year, the All-Star game was the Eastern Conference against the Western Conference. The Eastern Conference took home the win, 3-2, thanks to a late goal from Steve Pittman of the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
Over the next 8 years the MLS was searching for a style of game that would attract fans to the growing league and players from all areas of the world. Some of the games included an MLS USA side taking on MLS World, the collection of international players that were in the league. That lasted one year and then they switched over to the MLS All-Stars taking on specific teams such as the USA national team and C.D. Guadalajara a club team based in Mexico.
Looking for an identity in 2005, Commissioner Don Garber turned to the “MLS All-Stars vs. Guest” format and recruited top flight teams from the Barclay’s Premier League, the professional league based in England, to be the opponent. It was a win-win for Garber, and a move that has stuck until this day. The BPL is renowned as the world’s best league from top to bottom, so he pleased American fans by bringing over the world’s best talent to take on the best the MLS had to offer. While those players were overseas there was also a recruiting process involved. Trying to persuade international stars to come to the MLS was always the main goal, and now Garber could showcase his growing product once a year.
Playing opponents such as Everton, Chelsea and Manchester United, some of England’s best clubs, seemed to do the trick as the MLS caught its first big fish in 2007.
David Beckham, LA Galaxy, Debut in 2007
David Beckham signing with the LA Galaxy was the most pivotal moment for the growth of the MLS and game of soccer in America. Whatever Beckham did, the soccer world took notice. He was the cool kid in school that everyone wanted to be like, and when he made the move to MLS towards the end of his career, there was speculation but he silenced those critics. Beckham was a perennial All-Star for the MLS, notched 18 quality goals, won 2 MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012 and boosted merchandise sales by 231% during his tenure in the MLS. Once players saw that they could head to the MLS towards the end of their careers, but still dominate and make lots of money just like Beckham, the floodgates were opened.
Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy, Debut in 2011
The Ireland international was a star in his own right during his days as a European club player, and still had plenty left in the tank when he joined forces with Beckham. Beckham brought the flash and fame, but Keane brought the goals. He is still scoring at an impressive clip and has scored 80 goals since joining the league, and with nine more he’ll crack the top ten on the all-time goals list for the MLS. Keane led his squad to another MLS Cup in 2014 with the game-winner, and as Beckham left Keane filled the void nicely while other stars in Europe started taking notice.
Kaka, Orlando City SC, Debut in 2015
Kaka, a soccer legend from Brazil, came over just as the league was about to take another major leap. Introducing an expansion team is always tough, but Kaka is an international icon who represented Brazil and Real Madrid for many years with class, as well as graced the cover of soccer’s biggest video game in 2011. He quickly erased any doubt that he’d be successful in the MLS as he won the 2015 MLS All-Star MVP trophy, and in Orlando City’s second year in the league they are right in the middle of a playoff race. Kaka’s dominance at age 34 has kept the pipeline of world-class South American and European talent streaming in to the MLS.
Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa, NYC FC, Debut in 2015
The final pieces of the European royalty puzzle that came across to the MLS were Italian legend Andrea Pirlo, Spanish striker David Villa and arguably the greatest English midfielder to ever play the game, Frank Lampard. The MLS previously sent most of its stars to the sunny West Coast, but these three legends give the New York market three pillars to anchor the East Coast. NYC FC has been off to a shaky start from a franchise standpoint, but with the allure of the big city and bright lights to go along with the potential of playing with soccer superstars, NYC FC will be the place to be in a few years.
All of this success has also led to the announcement of four more franchises in the MLS, which will bring the total to 24 teams, the biggest the league has ever been. Atlanta United FC, Minnesota United FC, Los Angeles FC and Miami (pending the building of a new stadium) are all expected to be in the league by 2018.
MLS All-Stars vs. Arsenal, 2016 All-Star Game, July 28th
The MLS All-Stars took down their BPL competition last year 2-1, when they defeated Everton. The task will be a little bit more difficult this season as they take on Arsenal, a powerhouse in English football. The MLS All-Stars now have a menacing line up that can stack up well against any team. The squad will be led by Americans Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Matt Besler as well as international talents Kaka, Didier Drogba and David Villa. The MLS All-Stars are facing a stern opposition, but the league has the momentum of a freight train right now, and with pride and bragging rights on the line the line they won’t shy away from any opponent.
The game will go down in sunny San Jose California at the Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes. To find tickets to one of the biggest MLS events of the season, check out TicketNetwork to enjoy the game live!