For years, Major League Soccer was considered the last stop for shunned European stars, but veterans like Gareth Bale (LAFC) and Giorgio Chiellini (LA Galaxy) are now the exceptions. In the run-up to the 2026 World Championships in our country, the quality of competition is increasing.
Ricky Puig’s relatives and friends thought he was joking when he told them he was going to play in the NBA. The talented midfielder had veered off course against Barcelona, but he was still only 23 years old. His move to LA Galaxy surprised his friend and foe alike. Puig debuted in Los Angeles on Friday.
“I think there will be more young players coming here in the near future, and fewer older players looking to retire here,” Puig explained when he came to the United States. “This competition has everything to become one of the best in the world.”
In the summer transfer window, Italians Lorenzo Insigne (31) and Federico Bernardeschi (28) had previously joined MLS. The European champions, coming from Napoli and Juventus respectively, also moved to Toronto FC long before their expiration date. The club pays Insignia $15 million per season.
For foreign stars it is still good to make money in MLS, but there is no longer an edge in the competition, as work ethic is increasingly linked to technical ability. MLS is proving to be a more attractive destination than before, and it is also emerging as a breeding ground for young talent.
In the 26th season of the league, which kicked off after the 1994 World Cup, a record number of players were recruited and sold. The 28 clubs combined have raised tens of millions of dollars from transfers of players to European clubs, such as Peruvian Marcos Lopez to Feyenoord. The 22-year-old left-back played three seasons with MLS club San Jose Earthquakes.
“We are part of the global football ecosystem,” MLS president Don Garber said earlier this season. “This has never been the case before. In terms of transfers, we belong to the top 5 leagues in the world. (Garber’s words paint a slightly distorted picture: the league has 28 clubs and is expanding to 30 in the coming years).
Changing the philosophy is the basis of increasing quality. Clubs are no longer blind to foreign star players. New York City champions had Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa on the field a few years ago, but only achieved success after all three left. MLS is currently a competition for young talents.
Clubs have youth training programs for several years, in which a lot of money is invested. A national competition between MLS Next youth teams will start next season.
The buying policy focuses on young talents, especially in Latin America, who see MLS as a springboard to major European competitions. A new arrangement will allow MLS clubs to offer higher salaries to young talent, without counting them under the salary cap. In this way, European stars are also paid.
The next step in MLS growth appears to be the biggest challenge on paper: attracting the interest of a broad audience. In terms of audience numbers – an average of 20,000 per game – MLS can compete with European competitions, but American TV viewers are less interested at the moment. Last season’s final was watched by just over a million people. Football clubs can rely mainly on local interest.
A new TV contract with Apple’s streaming service should increase the league’s revenue. The tech giant will pay MLS a total of 2.5 billion for broadcast rights over the next 10 years. Currently, MLS is the third most popular league in the United States. The English Premier League is attracting more viewers, but Mexico’s Liga MX could draw on the most attention.
In recent years, cooperation has begun between MLS and Liga MX, which will strengthen next season with the League Cup. All 29 MLS clubs (St. Louis City will make their debut next season) and eighteen Liga MX clubs participate in a World Championship-style tournament, with group stages and eliminations. The MLS season, which runs from spring to fall, will be suspended for a month before the tournament.
A potential American winner won’t surprise anyone anymore. Not so long ago, the gap between countries was great, but more and more teams from MLS can compete with clubs from Mexico, the country with which the United States and Canada will host the World Championships in 2026. For the first time this year, the MLS team won the CONCACAF Champions League: The Seattle Sounders beat the Mexican puma in two matches. It was another milestone for the fledgling American Football League.
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