Major League Soccer bullish for new season after pandemic chaos

LOS ANGELES – Major League Soccer’s 2021 season kicks off on Friday with league chiefs believing the competition has emerged stronger than ever after the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Just over a year after MLS chiefs called a halt to the 2020 season as the coronavirus swept across North America, the 2021 campaign gets underway with the league welcoming a 27th team as well as a plethora of new purpose-built stadia.

With MLS academies also churning out a procession of young players, some of whom have recently been snapped up by clubs in Europe, it is little wonder that MLS Commissioner Don Garber is bullish about the health of the league.

“The story in MLS is momentum,” Garber said this week during a conference call with media.

“More teams, more stadiums, more fans and more players that are representing the excitement on the field.

“We had momentum going into last year, that got put on pause a bit with the pandemic, but now that momentum has kicked back.”

Nowhere is that sense of momentum more evident than in the arrival of Texas expansion franchise Austin F.C, who make their debut on Saturday in a nationally-televised away game against Los Angeles F.C.

Austin, who will play their home games in the new 20,500-seat Q2 Stadium, have already sold 15,500 season tickets with 15,000 more fans on a waiting list.

“This is a city on the rise that marries perfectly with a league on the rise,” said Garber. “There’s so much energy and pent-up demand there.”

Preparations for Austin’s inaugural season have been given a burst of star-power via Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, a minority partner in the team’s ownership group who is eager to help shape the culture of the franchise.

“I’m not interested in being a mascot,” the 51-year-old said this week.

“How much success can we have in year one? We’ll see. But we didn’t build Austin F.C. in a day, and we’re not going to be a fad.

“This is the beginning. The seed has been planted and we want to be a big, strong oak. It’s a 100-year war.”

Existing teams meanwhile will lift the veil on new soccer-specific venues.

The reigning MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew will move into the 20,000-seat Astor Park, while FC Cincinnati will show off their state-of-the-art West End Stadium, which can hold 26,000 supporters.

“This is a league we’ve built brick-by-brick,” Garber said. “It started with the question ‘How do we get a professional league?’ just after the World Cup in 1994. Twenty five years later we’ve got many teams, and we’ve built a fan culture. But the real story is the stadiums.”

– Youth movement –

Long-term investment in coaching and player development is also starting to reap dividends. In 2013, MLS formed a partnership with the French Football Federation aimed at schooling academy coaches through France’s celebrated Clairefontaine training center.

The success of the program has led to a steady flow of young talent groomed in MLS academies towards Europe.

FC Dallas youngster Bryan Reynolds completed a move to Roma in Serie A in February, while the Philadelphia Union’s Brenden arrived at Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg in January.

“The story of Major League Soccer today is about youth,” Garber said. “We’re now at the youngest average age that we’ve ever been in the history of the league. We’re investing deeply in developing players and academies.

“And now you have programs that provide opportunities for young players.”

Homegrown academy players now account for 21% of first team players in MLS, while the playing time of academy products has doubled in five years.

The recent trend of MLS attracting young South American talent to the league is also set to continue, with FC Cincinnati snapping up Brazilian striker Brenner from Sao Paulo for a reported $15 million in February.BSS/AFP