One vision of how professional soccer could look in eight years:
The 2022 MLS season kicked off with all 24 teams for the third straight season. The teams are divided into two conferences. Each team plays its conference rivals twice and then each team from the other conference once, for a total of 34 games.
The league is also in its third year under a new collective bargaining agreement. The 2020 edition replaced the salary “budget” (which most people called a “cap”) with a “luxury tax,” akin to what has been seen in Major League Baseball for years and was adopted by Germany’s Bundesliga in 2016. “Designated Players” still exist and are partially exempt from the salary accounting. If the team’s adjusted salary expenditures exceed $10 million, they pay into a revenue-sharing pool.
With MLS already ditching limits on free agency in the 2015 CBA, the league now operates under the same rules as the Bundesliga and several other European leagues. Mexico’s league, conversely, fell on hard times in 2017 when the broadcasting consortium carrying 12 of the 18 teams’ games broke apart.
The newer teams include SCSC Wanderers, the Southern California team that replaced Chivas USA in 2016. The New York Cosmos joined in 2017, having returned to the team’s traditional home of New Jersey by purchasing the former Red Bull Arena, now called PeleArena.
Without a doubt, the league’s biggest turnaround story was in Miami. The stadium was built near sea level and was quickly and permanently flooded by the rising Atlantic Ocean. An infusion of cash led to a clever reclamation of the land, and a desalinization plant hums quietly next to the stadium. Fans access the stadium via a colorful pontoon bridge that revitalized the rundown oceanfront. Real Salt Lake fans still tease Miami fans about borrowing the tune of their traditional song, but they respect the perseverance of fans who march to games singing, “If you believe, then you walk across the bridge …”
Miami and the NWSL benefited from the same generous sponsor — a former Stanford women’s soccer player who developed a combination vaccine for Ebola and all strains of the flu. She has set up global health nonprofits with much of her money but also bought a 50% share of Miami Mariners FC and set up a unique sponsorship endowment for the NWSL, which has 16 teams and high-rated weekly games on ESPN2. Portland Timbers/Thorns owner Merritt Paulson was so moved by her generosity that he paid to have all NWSL stadiums’ turf replaced with grass.
Back to the competitive aspects of MLS — MLS Cup is now contested solely by the winners of the East and West conferences. The other rounds of the playoffs were eliminated in 2018 as other Cup competitions took pre-eminence.
The early rounds of the U.S. Open Cup are now contested largely in the six-week break of the MLS and NASL seasons for the World Cup, Copa America or Gold Cup. Amateur and low-level professional teams play knockout games for the first three weeks, with many games broadcast as shoulder programming for the major international competitions. The NASL teams join in Week 4, then MLS teams in Week 5.
The top eight amateur teams in the Open Cup play a one-week tournament in mid-August for the revamped U.S. Amateur Cup. This is the only national amateur competition, as the PDL and NPSL — before they merged with the USASA in 2019 — realized they were cheating a lot of players out of playing time by cutting short the regular season to have national playoffs. College players are able to stay with their teams longer because the revamped fall/spring NCAA schedule starts in early September rather than late August.
Elite year-round amateur teams have joined low-level professional teams in USL regional leagues with promotion and relegation. The amateur teams are still eligible for the Amateur Cup, while the pro teams have a late-October national championship — the Peter Wilt Cup, named after the new FIFA president.
Canada, which oversaw the formation of three successful regional pro/am leagues in the late 2010s, has a similar system. U.S. women’s amateur competition is also similar.
The other important U.S. cup competition is the Disney Cup in February, drawing together the MLS Cup champion, the MLS Cup runner-up, the next-best MLS team, the NASL Soccer Bowl champion, the Peter Wilt Cup winner and the Open Cup winner. They play in three-team round-robin groups, with the winners advancing to the final and runners-up advancing to a third-place game. The top team that isn’t already qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League earns a berth in that competition.
Youth development took a major leap forward in 2018, when U.S. Soccer president Robb Heineman successfully lobbied FIFA to clarify its rules on transfer payments so that any U.S. youth club is due a transfer fee for the signing of any player. Wilt’s leadership helped pave the way for that much-needed change along with the re-awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Australia.
The Development Academy now includes women’s competition, and World Club Champion Lyon made headlines early in 2022 by paying an international-record $7 million transfer fee for Sky Blue Academy prospect Rylie Rampone. That fee helped to stabilize the finances at partner club NYCFC, which had been reeling when Manchester City’s ownership pulled back after the world’s oil ran out in 2020.
Within MLS, there is some movement toward promotion/relegation, with the biggest stumbling block being adequate compensation for those who have paid either the initial start-up costs of the league or paid expansion fees. The league is talking with its broadcast partners to pay enough to make such a system feasible and broadcast some lower-division games. But pro/rel talk also has split the NASL, which had to institute a formal salary cap after a group of oil magnates started a team in St. Louis and immediately spent twice as much on players as the rest of the league combined. That team folded when … well, again, the world ran out of oil.
So that’s one vision of soccer in the USA and Canada in 2022. If you disagree with any part of it, of course, you’re a corrupt individual with no imagination. (Inside joke.)
In any case, the comments should be fun. Have at it.