Despite Successes, More Work Ahead For MLS

New-MLS-LogoWhen the Portland Timbers raised MLS Cup as league champions in early December, Major League Soccer’s 20th season game to an exciting close.

The 2015 campaign was one that saw an unlikely matchup in the finals, expansion teams in New York and Orlando each lay rock solid foundations as matches in their respective home parks often sold out, and new national television contracts with FOX and ESPN kept MLS in front of fans on a regular basis.

But much more needs to be done to grow MLS and make what is ostensibly the United States’ top flight soccer division more import to soccer fans from the casual to the die hard. While there are many issues that could be discussed as possible warning signs to league officials, we’ll just focus on a few examples seen in recent weeks. (And we’ll leave promotion/relegation alone for now.)

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The MLS playoffs conference finals provided some entertaining soccer. While fans in Columbus and Portland filled the stands to watch the first leg of the Eastern and Western finals respectively, it was disappointing to see empty seats at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

The matches in New Jersey and Texas were the second legs of the conference finals, with a trip to MLS Cup and a chance to host the championship match on the line. It was reported that a security issue may have impacted attendance in Frisco, and many empty seats were visible on TV. In New Jersey, the Red Bulls announced the game was sold out. But then why the empty seats, again visible on television.

To the credit of Columbus Crew fans, MLS Cup was a sell out and an empty seat could not be found at Mapfre Stadium by ESPN’s cameras the first Sunday in December.

It’s rarity in major professional U.S. sports when a playoff game is not a sell out. The notable exception is Atlanta, when Braves playoff games during the 1990s and 2000s often had tickets available and large sections of empty seats could be seen. To be fair, Atlanta historically has not been known as one of America’s great sports cities. Here’s hoping the debut of MLS’ 22nd franchise, Atlanta United FC in 2017, bucks that trend.

The other issue that raised some eyebrows in the early weeks of the MLS offseason was up-and-coming star Matt Miazga rejecting a Red Bulls contract offer. The 20-year old defenseman had a breakout season in 2015, which included his first appearance with the U.S. Men’s National Team for World Cup qualifying.

While it seems to outsiders that Miazga was destined to be a key member of New York’s defense for the foreseeable future, interest in the young defenseman from a handful of Premier League clubs may change that. There’s little doubt that MLS officials will be closely watching how this issue plays out.

During 2015, Miazga’s salary was about $68,000. While he would likely see a raise if choosing to stay with New York, the tight salary cap restrictions of MLS would likely prevent him from making the type of money Premier League teams could offer. 

The Miazga saga also has an interesting sidebar. U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has encouraged his players to seek opportunities to play in top leagues across the globe, most notably in Europe. This suggestion has ruffled the feathers of MLS commissioner Don Garber, who wants the best American players to compete in his league. If Garber wants these players to stay, he needs to find a way to pay them more and also find away to attract more top talent from outside the U.S.

Also, could Klinsmann be whispering in the ear of Miazga about the benefits of playing in Europe?

Perhaps. Only time will tell.

Greg Sleter is the editor of