I covered the inaugural MLS match in 1996 for El Gráfico magazine. It was played by the San Jose team and the Dallas team (the names do not matter because they change them, as they change owners), in which the Argentine Diego Soñora played. For those who were used to watching football in Argentina and South America, it was a strange game, on a small playing field, in an old and desangelado stadium.
I remember few things, but I do remember that the goal for San Jose was scored by Eric Wynalda, also a forward for the United States National Team; and the annoyance of Diego Soñora -whom I knew from Boca-, when leaving the locker room. He said something like "these guys don't know how to play football." His sentence was blunt, but surely he was quite right.
Those teams, that league, that stadium were far from top-level football. It wasn't competitive.
Almost 30 years passed.
MLS is today a league of 29 teams (30 next season) that have an average valuation of US $ 529 million, and this year Los Angeles Futbol Club, champion of the 2022 season, was the first team to reach a value of 1,000 million dollars. San Diego, the last franchise incorporated, paid 500 million income, but also each society must ensure the construction of a stadium and the assembly of a squad, which brings the investment to about one billion dollars.
Since 1996, 22 specific football stadiums have been built, and 3 (including the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, considered one of the most modern in the world) that can also be used for other sports. With less history, but also with less nostalgia, there is the case of the Columbus franchise, which has already built two stadiums, the last one opened last year.
All venues chosen for the 2026 World Cup have an MLS team with consistent fan attendance. In these almost three decades the United States "built" fans of teams and no longer just fans attracted by retiring stars.
For those who like numbers, MLS was the sixth league that contributed the most players to the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
On the opposite plane, it still offers images not worthy of a hierarchy championship. Perhaps the most forceful is that of New York City playing at Yankees Stadium. It's a legendary stadium, but a baseball stadium. The shape of its playing field, the classic diamond, is unbecoming of football.
There is another certainty that deserves to be reviewed. The supposed competitiveness of soccer in the United States. MLS is competitive because that's how sports leagues are organized in that country. That's why the worst team in the NBA picks the best player in the next draft. Major League Soccer's deficit is not internal competitiveness, but international competitiveness. What weakens it is its membership in CONCACAF, which by budget brings together teams of lesser possibilities and infrastructure. Only Mexico represents the possibility of permanent demanding duels.
By the way, the last champion of the CONCACAF Cup – the Libertadores of Central and North America – was the Seattle Sounders, with Uruguayan Nicolás Lodeiro as the leader. If 30 years ago Mexican teams had fun with those of the United States, that no longer happens.
The Seattle Sounders of MLS beat Pumas UNAM 3-0 to clinch the Concacaf Champions League and thus played the Club World Cup. Photo: EFE
The MLS is not the Spanish league, much less the English, nor the Italian, nor the Argentine, it is clear. It doesn't have that tradition or that history. But it's a serious tournament where the result matters. No one who invests 1,000 million dollars is the same to gain than to lose.
The sports culture of the country is another major fact. The NBA, American football and baseball are the examples. Sport is a central part of the life of the average American, and although soccer does not reach that commitment, its base of sustenance is part of the same universe and is not alien to that mentality.
Then there are the cultural differences. "Here the defeat is processed in a more intellectual way," Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who has passed irregularly as coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, once said. More intellectual means that you do not break stadiums or throw stones (in general) but you make decisions linked to the results.
"I thought I was going to play here with the cigar in my mouth," Gonzalo Higuaín said shortly after arriving in Miami, when he was criticized for his poor performance. Not only did he not play with the cigar in his mouth, but it took him a couple of years to adapt. When he did, it was decisive.
Gerarado Tata Martino was a champion with Atlanta United and would now return to MLS to coach Messi at Inter Miami. Photo: Reuter
The last paragraph deserves Tata Martino, former coach of the Argentine National Team and then of Atlanta United, with which he was champion in 2018. His contribution was decisive in changing the mental model among investors in the companies that own the teams. He arrived, put together a roster of young figures, was champion in his second season and sold the Paraguayan Miguel Almirón, former Lanús, to English Newcastle for 26 million dollars.
It was the turning point that modified the idea of looking for stars on the way to retirement (although there are always exceptions) to hire young people as a previous step to Europe. That is why Thiago Almada plays in Atlanta and his future sale is expected at 30 million.
To that tournament will arrive the Rosario. It is not the football paradise, but it does not deserve to be underestimated or analyzed from old prejudices. If the concern is that it guarantees Messi's validity, MLS is in a position to do so. Equipment is a bigger problem. But the idea that this step means the retirement of the best in the world is not true. Everything will depend on him.