If demography is destiny, then Major League Soccer probably doesn’t need to worry too much about its long-term game plan. The U.S. and Canada are changing. Younger generations are more into soccer than ever before, with 70 percent of soccer fans in the U.S. either a Millennial or in Gen-Z. MLS itself boasts the youngest fanbase of any men’s pro league in the States. The league has said that roughly 30 percent of its fans are Hispanic or Latino, an encouraging number given the evolving makeup of the U.S. and Canada.
For the true believers, those numbers make the continued growth of the league something of an inevitability. As long as owners continue to invest in the product, MLS should one day become a real player in both our continental sporting landscape and in the global soccer ecosystem. The big question isn’t if the league will rise, but how high and how fast it will climb.
But in the short-term — specifically, in the four-ish years between now and the 2026 World Cup that will take place in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada — there’s one major unknown that will shape how MLS and its clubs will behave.
MLS enters the 2022 campaign off the back of one of the most transformative stretches in its 26-year history. As commissioner Don Garber pointed out in his season preview news conference on Tuesday, the league is going through “an incredible period of growth,” one that has left a good foundation for MLS to build on ahead of that 2026 World Cup.
Since 2017, Garber noted, MLS has added eight new teams. Charlotte FC will begin play this season as the league’s 28th club, with as many as 75,000 fans expected at the team’s home opener at Bank of America Stadium on March 5. St. Louis City SC will join the league next year in a sparkling new stadium it is constructing downtown, while the league is working towards awarding its 30th team to Las Vegas as early as March or April.
Teams around MLS have opened nine new stadiums in the last five years, with Nashville SC set to move into its new, 30,000-seat building — the largest soccer-specific stadium in the U.S. or Canada — in May.
Crucially, the league is now attracting a wealthier set of ownership groups. Since last summer, new owners have taken over in Houston, Orlando and Salt Lake City — all have already shown increased willingness to spend more on players than the previous regimes at their respective clubs. They join aggressive owners that have recently come into MLS at Atlanta, LAFC, Cincinnati, Chicago and Columbus as groups with the potential to meaningfully move the league forward.
Perhaps most importantly, MLS is carving out a new role in the world of soccer. Once something of an isolated backwater, the league is now seen as a legitimate destination for up-and-coming international talent and big-name players at the tail-end of their primes. It’s also starting to be viewed by some European clubs as a source of potential stars.
We saw both developments play out this offseason — and at higher prices than ever before. Joe Mansueto, the aggressive new owner of the Chicago Fire, spent more than $10 million combined to land Swiss star Xherdan Shaqiri and young Mexican talent Jairo Torres. Atlanta United replaced Ezequiel Barco, a highly-touted Argentine youngster who never lived up to his $13.5 million transfer fee, with Thiago Almada, another highly-touted Argentine youngster who cost $16 million to sign.