Part of it was due to still being on vacation, and the other part was my general obliviousness. But I only realized at the last minute that MLS started its season this weekend, about 12 minutes after the last one ended with NYCFC’s manager in his undies in the rain in Portland, thanks to having to wrap up before November’s World Cup. So America’s wackiest, most confusing, and yet most endearing league is back on the radar. Let’s try and catch up if we can.
What’s the big story?
Sadly, as with most other leagues, it’s off the field. On the flip side, it should be settled relatively soon. And that’s MLS’ new TV deal.
One of the big reasons it’s been hinted that MLS is something of a Ponzi scheme, adding one or two expansion teams every year to pad the books with expansion fees, is that their TV deal is pretty sad when compared to everyone they’re competing for viewers with. MLS only gets $90 million per season from Fox, ESPN, and Univision, which is definitely pauper-level even compared to the NHL. Their current deal expires after this season, so an announcement of what it will be starting in 2023 should come within the next month.
What MLS can get is another question. They will almost certainly peg the length of the deal to the 2026 World Cup, after which they will be praying for an explosion of interest (#RicardoPepiGoldenBoot). But between now and then, MLS will have the problem of their ratings pretty much being in the toilet. MLS games average about 276,000 viewers, which is just over half of what TNT is getting for its NHL games now. Yes, MLS games are almost exclusively on the much more crowded weekend afternoon slate, and competes with NHL and NBA playoffs in the spring, baseball in the summer, and then college and pro football in the fall. But 250K viewers isn’t going to have networks handing over their wallets and telling the league to “go nuts.”
This is also why the combined cup tournament with MLS and Liga MX teams starts next year, the first year of any new TV deal. Liga MX is still the most popular league in the states, and that tourney is part of the new TV package, and should juice it to at least somewhat arouse ESPN and/or Fox or CBS or whoever.
The other factor to keep an eye on of course is if the MLB owners are really intent on shooting themselves in the face with a bazooka and keep baseball parks empty in April and even May. That would be a boon to MLS, though whether they have the gumption and forethought to take advantage is hardly a given. This is a league that still hasn’t made a prime slate of games for the day after the All-Star game in July, when there’s literally nothing else going on.
Ok, so who’s good then?
Usual cast of characters. Seattle looks to be loaded, though they blew their home opener last night to Nashville, who are now in the Western Conference. Defending champion NYCFC return essentially the same roster that won the damn thing and were analytic darlings, minus James Sands (who may return after his disastrous spell with Glasgow Rangers). But, they are likely to lose the top scorer in the league last season, Tata Castellanos, somewhere in the middle of the season as he goes on to bigger challenges (River Plate were the big rumor in the offseason).
Last season’s regular season champs, New England, added Jozy Alitdore and his hamstrings made of balsa wood, which will be nice insurance should one or more of their explosive attacking troika of Gustavo Bou, Carles Gil, or Adam Buksa fuck off.
Atlanta United looks to be set to bounce back, with Josef Martinez another year removed from knee surgery, and they certainly didn’t take any of the shine off tearing Sporting KC apart yesterday 3-0. Toronto FC are probably going to charge up the standings from their wooden spoon season last year thanks mostly to their capture of Lorenzo Insigne (more on this in a sec). And if LAFC can keep Carlos Vela in town, interested, healthy, and away from the fork he could destroy the league again to have them in prime position (hat trick in the opener Saturday). They changed managers from Bob Bradely to Steven Cherundolo, and perhaps that will actually cause them to play with a midfield and not turn every game into lacrosse.
Anyone crashing the party?
People seem bullish on Orlando FC, even though they’ve lost both Daryl Dike and Nani. Facundo Torres is the new arrival that has every gaga in central Florida. Nashville’s move to the West will up their mileage, but their miserly defensive ways (33.8 xGA last season which was at least two better than anyone else) will probably have them at the top of those standings as they were in the East last season. They’ll also be opening the country’s largest soccer-specific stadium in the spring, but have to negotiate their first eight games on the road first.
Speaking of which, who are the big new signings?
Well, as mentioned above, Lorenzo Insigne is the real coup for Toronto and will arrive in July. That’s after he helps Napoli’s chase for the Scudetto, because this is a player still in his prime and having a good season in Italy. He’ll carry the torch from Sebastian Giovinco as the Italian forward who tears the league to pieces, though he’ll only have half of a season doing so.
Xherdan Shaqiri, the Power Cube, is another huge name to arrive and might actually drive the Chicago Fire to relevance for the first time in a decade. He’s only 30, and in this league a competent No. 10 can take a team just about anywhere.
Atlanta splashed $16 million on Thiago Almada, a 20-year-old Argentine winger that if he lives up to the hype will make a terrifying front line with Martinez and Luiz Araújo.
There’s also a whole new team, and that’s Charlotte FC. The good news is that their home opener next week might have a crowd of 75,000. The bad news is that their manager isn’t exactly bubbling with excitement over the roster.
You’re as set as you need to be. Get in up the wrist, it might be the only summer sport, along with the NWSL, to watch.