Lionel Messi announcing that he is signing with Inter Miami CF has created plenty of conversation around what, exactly, he has gotten himself into. Major League Soccer is unique and full of quirks, but it’s far from the low-rent, retirement-league stereotype it’s often characterized as.
This isn’t the MLS that David Beckham left behind a little more than a decade ago.
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When Graham Zusi joined Sporting Kansas City in 2009, things were a little bit different. For one, SKC weren’t SKC; they were the Kansas City Wizards, a name left over from the earliest days of MLS when everything was a bit looser and a bit less serious. And then there was breakfast. Food at the training ground was, um, lacking. “My first few years in the league, we had a toaster oven with some bagels available for us,” the longtime right-back said.
Almost 15 years later, however, the array is nearly endless.
“It looks like a breakfast,” Zusi said. “It has plenty of options and nutritious food.” Sporting even has a dietitian on staff to help the players optimize their on-field performance: “We have pretty much everything we need to succeed.”
Ryan Meara, another one of the half-dozen players who have been with their squad for more than a decade — the others are Russell Teibert, Diego Chara, Andrew Farrell and Jonathan Osorio — agrees with Zusi about the progress on all fronts. “It’s night and day,” the New York Red Bulls goalkeeper said. “Everything — the infrastructure, the fan support, the overall awareness of MLS and soccer in this country — is completely night and day.”
In sports, where narratives are built on a game-by-game, week-by-week basis, it can be helpful to take a step back and think about progress. Because while there’s a perception among some fans that MLS is growing too slowly — a feeling perhaps stoked by commissioner Don Garber’s stated goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world by 2022 (whoops) — the domestic first division has come a tremendously long way in a decade.
In 2013, there were 19 teams, and Chivas USA were a season away from going to the great soccer pitch in the sky. Today, there are 29, with a 30th on the way after San Diego bought in for a mind-boggling $500 million expansion fee. The average salary jumped from around $140,000 to $530,000, an increase of almost 300%. In 2013, for the first time in league history, every team had a designated player; the story now is how many DPs Inter Miami can legally surround Messi with.
It’s also a story of growing roster depth. Whereas a decade ago, defenders only needed to worry about a couple of players per team, they now have to concern themselves with many more. “There are teams that have so many problems [for defenders],” New England Revolution center-back Farrell said. “Like, every single player in Atlanta’s attack is unbelievably technically gifted.”
Zusi, asked how the 2013 version of SKC would fare against the 2023 squad, had a simple answer: “I think it’d be a significant domination for the team now.” (Not one to discredit his past teammates and self, he was careful to point out that the previous group was incredibly hard-working and that its sheer competitiveness would keep the scoreline close.)
The league’s growth is also reflected in the state of clubs’ facilities. In 2013, the Red Bulls moved into a new, state-of-the-art training facility. “A lot of other teams throughout the league were training at colleges and some of these, like, run-down, half-ass facilities,” Meara remembered.
A decade on, however, while the fields and amenities are fine, they are nowhere near the resplendent practice venues that LAFC, New England and many other teams have moved into. NYRB are in talks to build something new to keep up with the leaguewide infrastructure arms race.
Travel, too, has changed in dramatic ways. Long gone are the days of multiple connections on commercial flights. “Flying commercial [is] stressful for the players,” the Portland Timbers’ Chara said. “Getting the charter, I feel like we have the opportunity to be much better prepared for the games.”
He does, however, miss getting all those frequent flyer miles. Toronto FC’s Osorio agrees, noting that charter flights are especially nice for Canadian teams that don’t have to deal with customs. Not all charter flights are created equal, though. The Revs took a charter to MLS Cup 2014 in Los Angeles. Farrell recalled stopping twice to refuel, once in Mississippi and once somewhere in New Mexico.
“We thought it was crazy,” he said. “We took off three times to get to LA. Now we fly on a 737 and you basically get your own row.”
Among the players who have been around for long enough to have a decade of perspective, there are two competing ideas. One, that MLS has come a tremendously long way in a short period. “In football, a decade isn’t that long,” Osorio said. “I think MLS is establishing itself really, really quickly. It’s not a surprise that it has improved. It’s a surprise of how fast it has improved.”
And secondly, that more change needs to occur, and occur quickly.
“There’s been so much emphasis on competing with Liga MX now, but look at their rosters compared to ours,” Zusi said. “Maybe one through 11 are similar, but where they seem to have outshined us is players 12 through 25. That’s because of a multitude of factors, but I think the biggest one is the salary cap and the limitations on what you can give to those ‘second-tier’ players.”
There’s a general feeling that Messi’s arrival, along with the attention and money that he brings, as well as the push toward the 2026 World Cup in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, will launch MLS into its next phase.
“I was lucky enough to catch the last year of having Beckham being in the league,” Meara said. “He kind of saved the league right when he came in. And now Messi signing I think is going to take the league to a whole other stratosphere. The sky’s the limit, you know?”