Why Aren't You Watching MLS?

   By: Kyle Wheelock

For sports fans who don’t keep up with baseball, this is the most dreaded part of the year: the stretch from mid/late July to August where most of the major sports are in the midst of their respective offseasons and NBA and NFL free agency has all but died down. There are no games to watch until NFL preseason starts, and if you’re not a fan of American football, then you’ve just got to suck it up until either club soccer or the NBA start up again. The downtime can be mind-numbing for most fans, so with all of that being said, I would like to pose a question: Why not watch Major League Soccer? 

         Yes, Major League Soccer, MLS, the United States’ highest level of competitive soccer. Fans of the Premier League or La Liga might roll their eyes and scoff at the idea of watching comparatively weaker competition than what they’re used to in Europe, but again, we’re in a sports drought and European club soccer doesn’t start up for another 3-4 weeks so unless watching the Tigers and Royals duke it out for four straight days sounds appealing to you, you should hear me out.

         Yes, MLS isn’t quite on the same level as most of the UEFA and CONMEBOL leagues, that’s true, but it's growing. For those not fully aware of the MLS’ existence, it was founded in 1993 as part of the U.S. being selected to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Initially MLS had a reputation for being a retirement home for stars aging out of higher competition (and with the arrival of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimović, this stigma still exists in some capacity), however some of these guys can still contribute at a high level in the league. Plus, MLS contains a lot of homegrown American talent, and is a great way to learn about the American players who could one day help the U.S. National Team (and Canada’s as well).

         The league has grown rapidly, it currently has 24 teams split across its eastern and western conferences, and more are coming: Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC are set to join in 2020 followed by Austin FC in 2021. That would bring the total up to 27 teams, and there plans to expand to 28 teams by 2022 and 30 teams at a later date. So, on the off chance that your city doesn’t have a nearby team to root for, don’t worry, that’s probably going to change in no time.

         Now, as for the 24 teams that currently exist, they play a 34 game regular season from March to October before the top seven teams from each conference play each other in a single elimination playoff tournament. At the time of writing, most teams have already played either 23 or 24 games, so think of this point in time like the NBA in March or the NFL in November; playoff push time. The final game in this tournament usually falls around late November/early December and the winner is crowned champion, and gets to hoist the shiny MLS Cup. 

         But, there’s always more soccer to be played: there is the U.S. Open Cup, a knock-out cup competition involving all levels of the U.S. Soccer system. All U.S. MLS teams are eligible and typically join in late May (sorry Toronto and Montreal, but Canada has their own competition), games are single elimination and can go to penalties. The 2019 U.S. Open Cup championship will be later this month, either on the 27th or 28th (that’s either a Tuesday or Wednesday night, you know you’re not doing anything). And that’s not even mentioning the Supporters’ Shield, which is awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the best record. In almost every other soccer league in the world, the Supporters’ Shield would be equivalent to winning the league championship, but you know us Americans just have to be different.

         Winning any of the above mentioned trophies grants a club automatic admission to the CONCACAF Champions League, an annual continental club football competition for the 16 top football clubs in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The CONCACAF Champions League runs from February to April, so if you’re reading this it’s too late, but just remember that there’s a lot on the line as the MLS playoffs get ready to start.

         As for the games themselves, they work pretty much like how soccer everywhere works: each team has 10 players plus a goalkeeper, they line-up in whatever formation their manager/coach has decided on, and the games are played following standard FIFA rules - two 45 minute halves (with a total of 0 commercials) plus stoppage time, and games can end in a draw. Shootouts are possible only in tournaments like the ones listed above. MLS games are televised nationally on ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN Deportes, Fox Sports 1 & 2, and Univision/Galavision/UniMas, some teams have a local network providing coverage, and most games are available to stream on ESPN+.

         Great, so the basics are out of the way, now the fun part: who to watch. Yes, you should support your local team (sorry, Orlando and Denver), and as mentioned earlier, you probably already have a local team. But, what about if your team isn’t playing, who are the marquee matchups to keep an eye out for? The MLS cup contenders? I’m glad you asked.

MLS Originals

         These teams were around when MLS first came into existence and therefore have the most history out of all the teams:

·         Colorado Rapids (Denver)

·         Columbus Crew

·         D.C. United

·         FC Dallas (formerly Dallas Burn)

·         Sporting Kansas City (formerly Kansas City Wizards)

·         LA Galaxy

·         New England Revolution

·         New York Red Bulls (formerly New York Metrostars)

·         San Jose Earthquakes (formerly San Jose Clash)

The LA Galaxy have the most appearances of any club in MLS with nine: five wins and four losses, and both D.C. United and the New England Revolution are tied for second most appearances with five each, although poor New England are 0-5 (including three straight finals losses from 2005-07). 

MLS Newbies

       These teams have popped up in the last four years, usually in pairs, and have either come out swinging or are still trying to build for the future:

·         Orlando City SC (2015)

·         New York City FC (2015)

·         Minnesota United (2017)

·         Atlanta United (2017)

·         Los Angeles FC (2018)

·         FC Cincinnati (2019)

Atlanta United are the current MLS champions and have a really good chance to repeat this year (currently in second place by exactly one win), meanwhile Los Angeles FC sit comfortably on top of the western conference as the playoffs get closer.

Underdogs:

·         Colorado Rapids

·         Columbus Crew

·         Minnesota United

·         Orlando City SC

·         San Jose Earthquakes

Calling Minnesota and San Jose underdogs here might seem off based on the standings, as at the time of writing both teams are one win away from being the second seed in the western conference. However, history says that these two have had some rough heartbreaks in the past, playoff seeding be damned, so until they shed that moniker, they belong here.

There’s plenty more teams in the league, each with their own storylines and reasons to root either for or against them, this guide does a great job of it. MLS is a growing league, and it’s growing fast, every millionaire and billionaire are trying to get their hands on a club, and even established stars in other sports like James Harden has thrown his money into the hat, because they all see the kind of future the league projects. Is the talent to the level of a Premier League or La Liga club? No, of course not, but again it’s growing. As someone who’s been to many NFL and NBA games, the atmosphere at an MLS game is like nothing else as far as professional sports in America go.

So, while you’re sitting around on a Saturday afternoon, bored with nothing at 6:30 on a Saturday, consider tuning in to watch an MLS game. Don’t know what to do with yourself on a Sunday? MLS, all day from noon to night. Is that Thursday night football matchup not looking too hot? MLS has you covered. I’m not suggesting you have to drop every other sport and become a devout MLS fan, but at least you should consider it as the playoffs inch closer, you could see something special.