Major League Soccer – From Laughing Stock To Competitor

The landscape of Major League Soccer has drastically changed over the past five years, but what was the catalyst for these changes? Was it Steven Gerrard coming to MLS? Zlatan? Jon Champion commentating on MLS matches in 2019? No, no and…what? Anyway. There are three events to look at here – Atlanta United joining MLS, Alphonso Davies going to Bayern Munich and Josef Martínez signing a new contract.

Atlanta United joins Major League Soccer

Atlanta players celebrate winning MLS Cup (Source)

“Is Atlanta a soccer city?” – everyone, 2014
That was one of the main questions on people’s lips when it was announced that Atlanta would receive an MLS expansion franchise. Surprisingly, a lot of people thought the answer to that question was “no”, seemingly forgetting the legendary Atlanta Silverbacks.

Fast-forward a few years and in 2017, it became pretty clear that The A was indeed a soccer city. 55,297 people showed up to watch Atlanta’s opening game at Bobby Dodd Stadium and even though the game ended in defeat, this was the start of something special. This was a statement.

The Squad

United didn’t go down the conventional route when it came to building a roster. Instead of importing big names from Europe, they signed hungry, young South Americans, who had ambitions of, one day, becoming big names in Europe.

They didn’t just sign South American players though. United managed to bring Argentinian coaching legend Gerardo “Tata” Martino to Atlanta. With a resume that reads Barcelona and the Argentinian national team, you’d be forgiven to think that this was a step down for Tata, but this wasn’t just a quick cash grab, he was actually up for the challenge.

When looking at Tata’s CV you may also notice that he coached the Paraguayan national team, but that’s not a big deal. Or is it? It’s a huge deal actually. Martino is regarded as a legend in Paraguay and that reputation helped Atlanta massively. After they had indentified the players they wanted, securing them was not as much of a problem as it would be for most MLS teams. Paraguayan star Miguel Almirón idolized Tata Martino and the latter played a huge part in Almirón leaving Lanús and joining ATL for a reported fee of somewhere around $8 million to become the franchise’s second Designated Player (DP).

United’s first DP Tito Villalba, third DP and goal machine Josef Martínez, defender Leandro González Piréz, former ATL players Carlos Carmona and Yamil Asad, MLS record transfer Ezequiel Barco, Eric Remedi, Franco Escobar and now Pity Martínez are all terrific examples of Atlanta signing South American talent to bolster their squad.

Martínez (l.), Villalba (c.) and Almirón (r.) after beating NY Red Bulls (Source)

The Supporters

As a Sounders fan this one will hurt a bit. Ever since the Seattle Sounders joined MLS in 2009, they held the record for biggest average attendances every year and the second highest attendance at a single game, recording a whopping crowd of 67,385 in 2013 against their hated rivals the Portland Timbers. The Sounders average attendance in 2016, the year before Atlanta joined, was 42,636 – only five (FIVE) Premier League clubs had a higher average in the 2016/17 season.

But then Atlanta United came along. Once Mercedes-Benz Stadium was finished, United began smashing records set by the Sounders and the LA Galaxy – and when there weren’t any other records left to break, they broke their own records. The first time they broke the single game attendance record was in September of 2017 against Orlando (70,425). In 2018, the crowds kept on getting larger and larger, culminating with 73,019 witnessing Atlanta winning MLS Cup on December 8, 2018.

It’s not just the sheer amount of people coming to watch the side from Georgia’s capital, it’s the diversity as well. Everyone is getting involved and everyone is welcomed with open arms – Atlanta, the birth place of MLK, has a huge black community, which has not only influenced the music game with acts like Migos, Future and 21 Savage, but also the world of football. Atlantan’s have created a vibrant, welcoming and diverse soccer fan base and even as a Sounders supporter, I have to take my metaphorical hat off and say – well done.

Atlanta United fans showing their support with a full-stadium tifo (Source)

Atlanta’s smart business practices and incredible supporters have played a massive part in showing the world that MLS can be a spectacle that even Gary from Milton Keynes can enjoy.

Alphonso Davies signs for Bayern

On July 25, 2018, Bayern Munich announced that they had signed highly rated Canadian youngster Alphonso Davies. But who is this kid and why is this move significant for MLS?

Davies in action for Bayern (Source)

I’m not going to talk in-depth about Davies’ back-story, because a number of journalists have already done so in pieces like this one, written by the brilliant Kristan Heneage. However, here’s a quick overview:

Born on November 2, 2000 to Liberian parents in a Ghanaian refugee camp, Phonzie made his Vancouver Whitecaps debut in a Canadian Championship match in June 2016 as a 15-year old. 15. Fifteen.

Davies was quickly thrust into the team for MLS games and earned rave reviews from fans and pundits alike. With lightning pace, amazing skill and cojones the size of Vancouver Islands, he became one of the first names on the team sheet for then Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson. Davies can be deployed on both wings, but he is most impactful when given freedom and space to roam and cause havoc. Rarely inconsistent and at times prepared to get kicked, the 5’11” Canada international recorded 26 goal involvements during his time in Vancouver’s first team.

Davies scoring v DC United (Source)

Personally, I have no doubt that Davies will be a success at Bayern, but why is his move important to the changing landscape of MLS?

There’s this cliché that MLS, and most leagues outside of Europe for that matter, are retirement leagues. Some would argue that this is still true for MLS (*cough* Wayne Rooney, *cough* Zlatan), but more and more people realise that Major League Soccer is a place where careers begin, rather than die. Bayern paid a record fee for Davies, however the Canadian isn’t the first North American youngster to play in Europe and he won’t be the last. Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie came before Davies, while Ian Harkes and Chris Richards have come since.

Pulisic and, to some degree, McKennie never had any sort of MLS experience before going to Europe, while Ian Harkes was somewhat of a regular at DC United and Chris Richards had been a well-known gem of the FC Dallas academy. Whether you like it or not, MLS is becoming a stepping stone for young players to get to the next level and while that might sound like a bad thing, it absolutely isn’t – it is exactly what Major League Soccer should aspire to be.

And as great as all that sounds, here’s the thing: MLS is not only becoming a stepping stone, it’s becoming something even bigger…

Destination USA (and Canada)

Goal machine, record breaker, MVP and all-round badass Josef Martínez has recently agreed to sign a new long-term contract with Atlanta United.

Martínez putting pen to paper on a five-year extension (Source)

If, before reading this, you had no idea who the likes of Miguel Almirón and Josef Martínez were, then you’re either getting paid to work as a British pundit or you’ve been living under a rock – or both, hashtag Danny Mills amirite? Unfunny and quite sad banter aside, both Newcastle-bound Almirón and MLS-remaining Martínez have become recognizable names in the world of football.

Again, a lot has already been said about Almirón, so let me just forward you another piece from the main man, Kristan Heneage. Here you go.

Unlike his Paraguayan colleague, Venezuelan sensation Josef Martínez has decided to stay in Major League Soccer and the league should be afraid. Josef has scored a whopping 55 goals in just 61 matches for United and with the prospect of Pity Martínez and Ezequiel Barco providing in the same way Almíron did, one can only imagine the sheer amount of goals that will be scored in the coming seasons.

The thing that caught my eye, or should I say ear, was the quote coming out after the new contract was announced.

“Surely right now in Venezuela they’re saying negative things about me…They think I should be playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid. But for me, this is my Barcelona, my Real Madrid. It’s not about me being the star. This team has 11 stars on the field, plus the substitutes, plus everyone who works here for the club. That’s the important thing.”

Josef Martínez, January 16, 2019

Wow. Just wow.

My face, when I read that quote for the first time (Source)

Yes, the cynic in me wants to say that this is all just to make the fans happy, but I kind of believe Martínez here – his goalscoring record at Torino wasn’t great (13 goals in 76 games) and in Atlanta he’s already a legend, so why leave? He has already broken the single season record for goals scored and if he keeps this incredible goalscoring form up, he’ll surely be Major League Soccer’s all time leading goalscorer at some point within the next few years.

“But Tom, why is Martínez signing a new contract great for the league? Surely Toronto securing prime Sebastian Giovinco was bigger!”

TFC signing 27-year old Giovinco was incredible, it was huge, but Martínez is 25 and him coming out and saying that MLS is the place to be, is the best thing to happen to the league since the Seattle Sounders joined. (I couldn’t resist)

Martínez isn’t even in his prime yet and he is already on course to become one of the best ever, if not THE greatest MLS player of all time. Yes, it’s premature to say that, but the goals don’t lie and the more experience he gets, the better his all-round game will become and, to be fair, it’s already pretty good.

Listen, I’m not saying that Martínez is the god we should all pray to – mind you, that would be Daniel Agger – but he is a very good player and he clearly loves Atlanta and MLS and that is absolutely massive.

MLS in all its over-the-top, American splendour (Source)

Compared to most European leagues, MLS is an ever-growing and ever-evolving organism, that has seen huge changes over the past few years. It has gone from retirement league to stepping stone and destination – MLS is now a big player on the global football market, rather than the court jester or the weird uncle. As Major League Soccer continues to grow, players and even teams will come and go, but Atlanta, Alphonso Davies and Josef Martínez will have left a lasting impression on the league, whatever the future may hold.


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