February 28 – David Beckham and his Inter Miami headline the landmark 25th season of Major League Soccer, which kicks off on Saturday with the curtain raiser between D.C. United and Colorado in the American capital.
Founded in 1993, the league has expanded to 26 teams, with the addition of both Inter Miami and Nashville SC starting play this season. The MLS is confident that the young population of Nashville, in Bible Belt state Tennessee, will embrace the arrival of a football franchise, which will stage home matches at the local NFL stadium before moving into a football-specific venue in the near future.
The league’s star power, with both Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic having left the US, will be provided by David Beckham and Inter Miami, marking the return of ‘soccer’ to Florida after an 18-year absence. Beckham acquired the franchise for a discount fee of $25 million after playing for the LA Galaxy. His team will play their matches in Fort Lauderdale as plans for a new stadium in Miami as part of major regeneration project progress.
The franchise hopes to tap into Miami’s diverse Latino population to build a loyal fan base. It sounds similar to the marketing talk around the failed Miami Fusion MLS franchise that started play in 1998 with Colombian Carlos Valderamma headlining (literally), but ended just four seasons later when the team folded having failed to find a committed supporter base. Fusion also played in Fort Lauderdale on the site Beckham’s Miami have revamped.
“Do I think in the next 10 years it will challenge the European leagues? It’s what we all hope for. It’s what we all strive to commit to,” said Beckham at an MLS kick-off event. “This should never be a league where players from Europe come to retire. That’s not where you want to be. It’s not where we want to be as owners.”
This season, at least, marks an influx of Mexican players in the MLS. Previously, Mexican players were too expensive for MLS franchises, but lan Pulido (Chivas to Kansas City), Lucas Cavallini (Puebla to Vancouver), Lucas Zelarayán (Tigres to Columbus) and Edison Flores (Morelia to D.C.) are among the players making the move north. Even Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández will feature in the MLS, after leaving Sevilla for LA Galaxy.
Los Angeles FC lead owner Larry Berg also expressed his optimism about the future prospects of the league, predicting that the MLS will surpass Major League Baseball in popularity during the next 10 years. “We definitely have the demographics in our favor, both in terms of youth and diversity,” said Berg. “So I think we’ll pass baseball and hockey and be the No. 3 sport in the U.S. behind football and basketball.”
By 2022, the MLS will feature 30 franchises with Austin, Charlotte and St. Louis joining the league. In 1996, when the league kicked off, a franchise cost about $6 million; today that price tag has soared to $325 million. “We have no plan in place to go past 30,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “It’s conceivable that in time we might look at a larger league to be able to address some of those challenges.”
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1586309147labto1586309147ofdlr1586309147owedi1586309147sni@o1586309147fni1586309147