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MLS has finally become a grown-up

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In its 22nd season, Major League Soccer has done away with gimmicks and unfounded arrogance. It’s decided to just be itself.

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MLS has kicked off its 22nd season. And at age 22, MLS finally appears capable of settling into adulthood. You shouldn’t wonder anymore whether it’s a league you really want to spend time with. It’s different now, and you’ll probably like it.

If you’re older than 22, the following paragraph will make a lot of sense to you. If you’re younger than 22 and you’re wondering if you fit this description as well: you absolutely do. I’m sorry.

Much like a human person, MLS entered the world amidst excitement over its arrival. It didn’t take long at all for it to get into trouble, though, and people got over how cute it was very quickly. As a pre-teen and through its early teenage years, MLS was a poser, desperate to show everyone that it was cool. By its late teens, it developed unfounded arrogance and told everyone who would listen that it had the whole world figured out. But as a young adult, MLS started to figure out who it really was. Now, at age 22, it has a decent grasp of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s starting to come to terms with what it is, and what it could realistically become in the future.

A self-assured and realistic MLS is a significant departure from the days when commissioner Don Garber told anyone who was willing to listen that MLS would become a top league in the world by 2022. Whether rooted in delusion or a need to entice expansion bidders, it didn’t make sense to anyone who was paying attention — Europe’s top clubs are growing revenue and increasing salaries just as quickly as MLS clubs are.

It was a bombastic claim, and one that did more harm than good to the league’s cause among knowledgeable fans in North America and abroad. But Garber has no reason to trot out this stump speech anymore, since the league has more solid expansion bids than they have teams to give out.

Those new teams will thankfully avoid being saddled with horrible poser names, or so we hope. Whether you’re a fan of the current naming convention — Minnesota United FC, Atlanta United FC — or the old one — New England Revolution, Los Angeles Galaxy — we should all be able to agree that both are better than the cringe-worthy franchise names produced by middle-era MLS.

With big apologies to fans of Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, Houston Dynamo, and FC Dallas, these team names are entirely rooted in insecurity. They could not possibly be more corny. They scream: “SEE, WE’RE AUTHENTIC! PLEASE LIKE US!!!” People did like those teams (a lot!), but not because they offered an “authentic European soccer experience,” which is a fake thing marketing executives made up. Instead, people liked them because having a local professional soccer club to support is awesome.

And supporting your local club is getting better all the time, no matter where you live.

If you’re in Minnesota, go hang out with Dark Cloud and True North Elite.
@MNUFC on Twitter

This season, two expansion teams enter the league. Minnesota United has one of the best supporters group sections in the country before they even play an MLS game. Atlanta United appears to be the most ambitious expansion franchise in history — they’ve hired former Barcelona manager “Tata” Gerardo Martino, broken a league transfer record to sign Miguel Almiron, and set up an academy that produced United States Under-20 star Andrew Carleton.

Even the league’s signature joke franchises aren’t jokes anymore. Toronto FC took nine years to make the playoffs, but made it to the MLS Cup Final last season. Their star, Sebastian Giovinco, is arguably the league’s best player, and TFC is among the favorites to win Supporters’ Shield this season. Last year’s last-placed team, the Chicago Fire, had an excellent offseason by signing former New York Red Bulls captain Dax McCarty and Hungarian international striker Nemanja Nikolić, among other players. There are no hopeless, laughing-stock teams in MLS anymore. Every fanbase has something to be excited about.

Rich teams are a bit less worried about their brand these days as well. New York City FC and LA Galaxy appear to have abandoned their former strategy of signing the biggest name Old that was willing to sign for them, regardless what they could do to help the team win. Frank Lampard has retired and was replaced by Maxi Moralez, an attacking midfielder still in his prime. Steven Gerrard has retired, opening up a Designated Player spot for 27-year-old Frenchman Romain Alessandrini. It’s likely that most Galaxy fans had never heard of Alessandrini before he signed, but he’s expected to play better than Gerrard did, and that’s what matters now.

Players like Moralez and Alessandrini are unarguably better for MLS than most of the first generation of Designated Players. For every genuine superstar like David Beckham or young talent like Fredy Montero, there were three duds. Most of these players were signed because they played for a famous club in Europe, or as a cynical ploy to appeal to Latino fans. This line of thinking has gone by the wayside in recent years, and teams now sign Designated Players based on what they can contribute to results on the pitch.

The league’s American players should get a bit of a boost from a USMNT coaching change, too. Jürgen Klinsmann, a frequent critic of MLS, is out. Bruce Arena, a big believer in the league, is in. He’s been very open about his belief that the majority of USMNT players should be developed in the United States and spend some time in MLS. A number of MLS players who found themselves marginalized or frozen out entirely over the previous five years will have their national team prospects revived, and that can only be a good thing for their club teams’ drawing power.

Arena has better reason to believe in those players than his predecessors did as well — they’re facing increasingly better competition. MLS’s biggest foreign stars are no longer in their mid-30s, but in their primes. The average age of all players signed from abroad during this winter transfer window is 26.

"Wherever you travel, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador or in Europe, MLS is a destination right now,” FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo told the league’s website. “We are a place where people like to come. They know what it is, they know the league, they watch games. That has changed drastically from 20 years ago ... Today you can compete with teams around the world to sign those players; before it was not the case."

MLS might not be able to sign world class players before they’re well past their prime, but they can sign very good mid-level South American and African players, as well as occasional impressive prime-age talents from Europe and Asia. When given the option of trying to fight for their place on European relegation battlers or being first choice on an American team, the latter option is looking increasingly attractive for players who want to leave their current league for a new challenge. Slowly, over time, American and Canadian players get better from competing against superior competition from other continents. And that, in turn, attracts even better players to the league — Nicolas Lodeiro and Miguel Almiron are the latest examples.

MLS: MLS Cup
Nicolas Lodeiro starred at Boca Juniors, and he helped turn around Seattle Sounders in 2016.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The league also gets a little bit more serious about developing their own talent each year. The 2017 roster rules were released this week, and they include two more Homegrown Player slots than last season. Teams are also allowed to use up to $200,000 of Targeted Allocation Money to buy down the contracts of Homegrown Players, so they count less against the salary cap. Previously, TAM was only used on players with salaries over the Designated Player threshold.

But about those Designated Players: Teams are spreading the cash around their rosters now, rather than putting big money into attackers and fielding mostly cheap replacement-level players in defense. According to Jeff Carlisle at ESPN, teams have made 15 defensive signings with a financial commitment over the DP threshold, which is more than double the number of players signed that met that criteria in both 2015 and 2016. Carlisle spoke to Orlando City manager Jason Kreis for the above story, and he offered up his opinion on why the league has started valuing defensive players more.

"I felt like there's been an unevenness almost that the attacking groups of most teams were better than the defending groups of most teams," said Kreis. "Now I think it's only natural that now the market is starting to correct itself, where everybody is saying, 'Wait a second, I've actually got to be able to defend against guys like Giovinco and Altidore and David Villa and those types of players.’”

That correction wasn’t always a certainty, though. It’s one that required owners to start valuing wins and losses over everything else. They had to believe that the core value proposition of their product was similar to that of every other sports product. People who like sports, for the most part, want to be a fan of their local team, and they want their team to win. MLS is no different, but it believed that couldn’t possibly be the case for most of its life. After spending decades trying to be more of a pure entertainment product and cultural experience than a sports league, MLS has decided to be itself. It is now, finally, primarily about soccer.

And that’s why MLS is more worth your time now than ever before. It has given up on gimmicks. Every team’s primary goal is to win as many soccer games as possible. They believe in themselves enough to trust that results on the pitch — with or without internationally famous stars — is enough for them to draw fans. Every team has been given an incentive to develop their own young talent and to sign prime-age players who can help them win, regardless of name recognition. If you go to an MLS stadium or flip on a game on TV, you are more likely to see good soccer than ever before.

In year 22, MLS has finally grown up.