From Beckham to Messi: How much has MLS grown in a decade?

Noah DavisESPNJune 30, 2023, 9:59 a.m. ET5 minutes of reading

The training facilities Lionel Messi experiences with Inter Miami will be a world apart from what David Beckham had with the LA Galaxy little more than ten years ago.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Lionel Messi announcing he’s signing with Inter Miami CF has sparked plenty of conversation about what exactly he’s gotten himself into. Major League Soccer is unique and full of quirks, but it’s far from the low-rent, retired league stereotype, it is often characterized as.

This is not the MLS that David Beckham left a little more than ten years ago.

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When Graham Zusi joined Sporting Kansas City in 2009, things were a little different. First, SKC was not 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. There was a lack of food on the training ground. “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 line is almost endless.

“It looks like a breakfast,” Zusi said. “It has lots of options and nutritious food.” Sporting even employs a dietician to help the players optimize their performance on the pitch: “We have pretty much everything we need to succeed.”

Ryan Meara, another of the half-dozen players who have been with their team 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,” said the New York Red Bulls goalkeeper. “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 although there is a perception among some fans that MLS is growing too slowly – a feeling that may be driven by commissioner Don Garbers stated goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world by 2022 (oops) — the domestic first division has come a long way in a decade.

In 2013, there were 19 teams and Chivas USA was one season away from going to the big soccer field in the sky. Today there are 29, with a 30th on the way after San Diego bought in for a whopping $500 million expansion fee. The average salary jumped from about $140,000 to $530,000, an increase of nearly 300%. In 2013, for the first time in league history, each team had a designated player; the story now is how many DPs Inter Miami can legitimately surround Messi with.

It’s also a story of growing roster depth. Whereas a decade ago defenders only had to worry about a few players per team, they now have to worry about many more. “There are teams that have so many problems [for defenders],” New England Revolution center fielder Farrell said. “Like, every single player on Atlanta’s offense is incredibly technically gifted.”

Zusi, when asked how the 2013 version of SKC would fare against the 2023 squad, had a simple answer: “I think it would be a significant dominance for the team now.” (Not one to discredit his former teammates and myself, 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 the 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 in colleges and some of these, run-down, subpar facilities,” Meara recalled.

A decade later, but while the fields and facilities are fine, they are nowhere near the brilliant training facilities that LAFC, New England and many other teams have moved into. The NYRB is in talks to build something new to hold keep pace with the league-wide infrastructure arms race.

Travel has also changed dramatically. Long gone are the days of multiple connections on commercial flights. “Flying advertisement [is] stressful for the players,” said Portland Timbers’ Chara. “When I get the charter, I feel like we have the opportunity to be much better prepared for the games.”

However, he misses getting all those frequent flyer miles. Toronto FC’s Osorio agrees, noting that charter flights are especially nice for Canadian teams who don’t have to deal with customs. However, not all charter flights are created equal. The Revs took a charter for the 2014 MLS Cup in Los Angeles. Farrell recalled stopping twice for fuel, 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 pretty much get your own row.”

Among the players who have been around long enough to have a decade of perspective, there are two competing ideas. One, that MLS has come a huge way in a short time. “In soccer, a decade is not that long,” Osorio said. “I think MLS is establishing itself really, really quickly. It’s not a surprise that it’s gotten better. It’s a surprise how quickly it’s improved.”

And secondly, that more changes must happen and happen 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 is the same, but where they seem to have outshined us is players 12 through 25. It’s because of a lot of factors, but I think the biggest one is the salary cap and the limitations of, what you can give to them. ‘second tier’ players.”

There is a general feeling that Messi’s arrival, along with the attention and money he brings, as well as the push for the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada, will launch MLS into its next phase.

“I was lucky enough to catch it last year when Beckham was in the league,” Meara said. “He kind of saved the league right when he came in. And now I think the Messi signing is going to take the league to a whole other stratosphere. The sky’s the limit, you know?”

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