Major League Soccer has grown significantly both on and off the pitch since its inception in 1996. The quality of the product is unquestionably much more advanced than it was in the league’s inaugural campaign as is the sophistication of the marketing and the interest level from the public. However, one area where massive progress has also been made is the ability of the league to develop stars – local and international.
This year’s Golden Boot was awarded to 23-year-old Valentin Castellanos of New York City FC. The Argentine originally joined the club on loan in 2018 from Uruguayan club Montevideo City Torque, before NYCFC opted to make the move permanent ahead of the 2019 campaign. Castellanos arrived in New York with little fanfare or excitement, but in his fourth season in MLS he led the entire league with 19 goals.
Castellanos is far from the only player who has been able to make a name for himself in MLS to garner international attention as many Canadian international players are discovering as well. Whether it be Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio, Ayo Akinola and Richie Lareya or the New England Revolutions’ Tajon Buchanan, who has already signed with Belgian side Club Brugge, the rest of the world is starting to discover the potential that MLS players have.
Alphonso Davies’ success at Bayern Munich unquestionably helped erase a lot of the doubt that European clubs had about the quality of players MLS was developing, but he is far from the only one to prove they can get the job done on the biggest stage. Brampton, Ontario’s Cyle Larin was drafted first overall by Orlando City in 2015 and spent three seasons in Florida before making the move across the pond to Besiktas in Turkey. The Canadian striker is enjoying an incredible season that sees him battling at the top for most goals scored in the Turkish Super Lig.
MLS has done a phenomenal job in identifying young talent and helping them reach their potential, something the league needs to ensure it continues to do moving forward.
Did You Know
Real Salt Lake knocked off the second-best team in the Western Conference after 34 games, without having a single shot all game. Not just a shot on target – a shot, on or off target. At all.
Pablo Mastroeni’s men went into Lumen Field in Seattle and beat the Sounders in a penalty shootout after 120 minutes of playing straight defense. While there are no issues with a solid defensive outing, there is a problem with a team coming into the first game of the playoffs looking to go to a penalty shootout before the game even begins.
It really makes you question the idea behind the one-game elimination playoff format that had been re-introduced in the league in 2019. The format was brought back to help garner more interest and generate a big buzz for playoff games, but if more of them turn out like the one we saw between the Sounders and Real Salt Lake, fans will inevitably be increasingly turned off.
When a team has 21 shots and 62% possession, they shouldn’t be eliminated by a team who had zero shots and 38% possession. Yes, one-offs happen and we’ve seen this is major finals before, but it is certainly not the norm and shouldn’t happen in the opening round.
The Sounders do not deserve to be let off the hook here and were not great on the night either. There are no excuses to be made for their inability to get past a Real Salt Lake side who had been missing their captain, Albert Rusnak. However, from an outsider’s perspective it isn’t a very good look to see teams playing for penalties from the first minute in the first game of the postseason.
While many fans love watching the NBA or the NHL and understandably so, the ugly truth is both these leagues have regular seasons that are far too long. Both leagues see their teams play 82 games during the regular season, with more than half the teams qualifying for the playoffs anyway. Is there really a need for 82 games to determine the best eight teams in each conference?
The same thought process could be applied to MLS. While the concept of the playoffs does make sense and has always worked in North America, it can be frustrating to see top teams eliminated in one game after having such strong seasons.
The New England Revolution set an all-time MLS record for most points in a regular season this year, topping Los Angeles FC’s 2019 record of 72 points with 73. However, they saw their dreams of an MLS Cup triumph disappear after losing to New York City FC in a penalty-kick shootout in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. It’s hard not to think of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s famous words when he played for the Galaxy
“I think the system is ****,” he said back in August 2019. “How can you learn mentality if you only have to reach the playoffs? You just need to win the playoffs, and that’s it. The results in each game are important, but here, if you come in seventh place, you make the playoffs and win, you are champion.”
He’s not wrong. The team that dominated the rest of the league during the season and made history over 34 games was eliminated in a penalty-kick shootout after 120 minutes.
Something doesn’t seem right. While playoffs do need to remain in place, there must be a better system than a single elimination tournament at the conclusion of the regular season to determine who wins the league’s most prestigious prize.
By: Marco D’Onofrio