On Saturday, Sporting Kansas City made it official: Graham Zusi and Matt Besler are spurning Europe and staying with their club. And they were becoming Designated Players in the process.
The announcement may as well have stated, "Welcome to the future of MLS."
There was a time when nearly all of MLS' best players, except Landon Donovan, dreamed of moving to Europe. They usually had two options: get the move they craved -- even if it meant going to a small Scandinavian league -- or be held hostage by MLS, which refused to sell them. It made MLS both a seller's league and one that angered some of their best players.
But back then, MLS wasn't nearly as good a league. The salary cap was even smaller, there were fewer teams and some clubs didn't have academies, let along homegrown players. MLS didn't even have Designated Players. It was a league more focused on survival than growth.
That has changed. The league is now looking to grow, going from a nice, stable league that has made investments in developing and acquiring players to one that also wants to keep its own players. That means committing to and paying players, just like Sporting did with Zusi and Besler. No longer is Donovan the golden boy getting the rare fat paycheck to stay in MLS, but one of several. And that group is growing.
Besler and Zusi
Besler and Zusi
This represents the future of MLS, and a future that is less than a year away. MLS wants to take the next step, and that next step is on-field investment. The establishment of academies and the creation of the Designated Player were an introduction to that, but they will pale in comparison to what comes next -- an increase of millions and millions of dollars in player spending, and by each team annually.
And the new CBA is going to bring that. The current collective bargaining agreement expires after the season and the league has a new TV deal kicking in and four new teams coming into the league in the coming years, all of which paid tens of millions of dollars to join. Some of that money is going to have to make its way back to the players so by the time they and the owners have sorted out a new CBA for next season, MLS player spending will be set to reach unprecedented heights.
Whether it is in the form of four Designated Players per team, or even five or six, the money will flow. The salary cap will go up, too. No longer will Designated Player spots be the rarest of commodities reserved for only the big names and attacking players, nor will clubs actually have to ask whether they can build a deep enough squad with a Designated Player spot in use.
The league has already begun to move in this direction, but Designated Player spots are still precious. It's potentially hamstringing the LA Galaxy right now, it already cost Toronto FC and there are a slew of U.S. internationals who want to return to MLS this summer, but have their options limited because so many teams don't have a Designated Player spot available to them.
Such situations don't serve anyone well. The league has less to offer players, players have fewer options and teams are limited. MLS wants to take the next step and scaling back this obstruction is just months, and a new CBA, away.
With the new CBA, players like Zusi and Besler getting Designated Player contracts won't take anyone by surprise anymore, nor should it. Teams that win trophies, as Sporting did in winning MLS Cup last season, don't usually make a habit of then letting their linchpins go. They retain the best players they have, build upon them and continue to challenge the best they face. It doesn't matter how "marketable" those players are or what kind of buzz they bring.
MLS still isn't going to compete with the Premier League anytime soon. They want to one day, but that day is not today. If the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues come calling for players, as some reportedly are with DeAndre Yedlin of the Seattle Sounders, then those players are going to leave and they should leave. But MLS isn't aiming to be the Premier League or the Bundesliga or Serie A yet.
MLS wants to get better. They want to get bigger. They want to keep growing. And they can do that.
Teams like Sporting KC can develop players and churn out internationals. They can even re-sign them and continue winning titles. One day, those may even be international titles, like the CONCACAF Champions League.
A year ago, Omar Gonzalez became the first defender to earn a Designated Player contract. A year ago, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley weren't MLS players either, and Spain internationals weren't in the league.
A lot has changed in the last 12 months, and more is yet to change. It is part of a slow crawl up the world soccer ladder and signing players like Zusi and Besler are another step. But that crawl is going to speed up in 2015, and Zusi and Besler won't be the outliers anymore. They are a glimpse into the future -- one MLS has preached is so bright, and the league is finally starting to step into.