As the 2019 MLS season begins, has American Soccer reached The End Of History?
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man put a name to what many Westerners had been feeling: with the fall of the Berlin Wall, humanity’s last great conflict was over, and all that was left was for the Bill Clintons and Tonies Blair of the world to clean up the last few spots of trouble with the Lysol of liberal democracy. Fukuyama has since clarified that he did not actually mean history was going to end.
Nonetheless, a useful concept is a useful concept, and looking ahead toward the 24th season of Major League Soccer I can’t help but feel that the league has reached a similar point.
November’s MLS Cup Final drew comparisons to the Super Bowl. (Remember, back in 2018 that counted as a compliment.) Atlanta United’s victory was a watershed moment for the league. Not much had been expected of the club at its inception, but its supporters surprised the nation with their enthusiasm and the team rose to meet their expectations. Perhaps just as importantly, United’s squad was the kind that devotees of MLS always dreamed of: a mixture of familiar American names and foreign prospects who morphed into superstars on U.S. soil.
Along with Tyler Adams’ move to RB Leipzig and not one but two MLS youth products heading to Bayern Munich, Atlanta United’s sale of Miguel Almirón to a Premier League club completed MLS’ transition from Retirement League to Selling League. Is that distinction arbitrary? Yes. Does it matter to anyone outside of American soccer? Almost certainly not. But we feel seen now. The older and objectively higher-quality world of elite European soccer sees the value in players whom MLS teams have picked out, developed, and allowed to thrive, and that gives us a weird sense of accomplishment. That guy who tore up our league looks like he’s fixing to tear up the Premier League. Take that, England.
And while Atlanta United might be the highest-profile success story in the league, more important in the long-term might be the successful conclusion of the #SaveTheCrew campaign in Columbus. It’s the kind of thing most of us didn’t think was possible outside of movies like Major League – the scrappy, loyal fan base actually managed to save the local team from the slick finance bro who schemed to move them to Austin.
As Anthony Precourt settles into his dual role as owner of Austin FC and Soccer’s Answer to Martin Shkreli, the Crew have something they haven’t had in several years: security. Locally-owned once more, with one of the most respected American coaches at the helm and a solid defense to boot, the Crew can get back to worrying about soccer. Moreover, fans and local government officials blocked what would have been the first-ever instance of an owner relocating an MLS team, sending a powerful message to owners who might want to do so in the future. Take that, soulless oligarchs.
Sure, we still have Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Bastian Schweinsteiger tooling around in DC, LA, and Chicago, respectively. But hey, superstars will always need to retire somewhere. Plus, all three impressed last season – to paraphrase Chris Traeger, stats indicate that the first MLS footballer to continue scoring insane goals well into his forties has already been born. I believe Zlatan is that player. Take that, aging.
Nonetheless, there’s an undeniable shift of focus away from type of player who defined MLS’ early years. In addition to losing their longtime shirt sponsor, Xbox, the Seattle Sounders will begin the 2019 season without midfield stalwart Ozzie Alonso for the first time in their history. The trio of Nicolás Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan, and Gustav Svensson appears perfectly capable of holding down the midfield in Ozzie’s absence. Whether or not Zulily will be similarly able to hold down the middle of Seattle’s shirt is an open question.
The departure of Sebastian Giovinco, unquestionably one of the best players in league history to date, from Toronto FC signaled the end of another era, though the rolling disaster that was TFC’s 2018 season was probably the first sign that a “rebuilding year” was imminent. Though they’ve been foiled thus far, Toronto is reportedly close to bringing in breakout Spanish star Alejandro Pozuelo from Belgium to bolster their offense – it’s the kind of move a club makes when bringing in a marquee player no longer takes precedence over bringing in the right player. New York City FC has bid farewell to David Villa, the last and unquestionably most impactful of the three international legends brought in to bolster attendance numbers and make the team competitive in its inaugural season. City’s biggest signing this offseason was Romanian prospect Alexandru Mitriță – that’s right, the Alexandru Mitriță – another signing I’m choosing to view as an indication of clubs’ confidence in themselves to build without bringing in flashy names.
FC Dallas’ Paxton Pomykal, NYRB’s Cristian Casseres, and Gonzalo Martínez, the Atlanta winger fresh off of lifting the Copa Libertadores trophy with River Plate, are all poised to pick up where departing stars left off. There are so many unknown quantities this season, so much potential for new stars and new powerhouses to arise out of mediocrity, and that’s before we even get to the newest member of the MLS family.
FC Cincinnati, lately of the United Soccer League, more or less managed to create such an entertaining on-field product and fan experience that MLS brought them into the league. If you squint, and push from your mind the underlying knowledge that every decision made in this league is about profit, it kind of looks like they won promotion! (Enjoy that feeling, because while we may be at the end of history, we will never be at the end of the #ProRelForUSA debate.) In a similar position two years ago, Minnesota United FC set a record for the worst-ever performance in an expansion team’s MLS debut, but Cincy appears to have taken a slightly more prudent approach to roster-building than the Loons did in 2017. If a lack of pro/rel is an affront to the natural laws of the game, well, at least it provides clubs with this type of opportunity to experiment, learn, and grow from past mistakes.
Point is, we’re all learning. We’ve learned that we don’t need how to earn the approval of our European peers. We’ve learned that we can save old franchises and build exciting new ones when fans stick together (and gain the critical support of local governments and friendly billionaires). We’ve learned that white is the best color for a uniform, followed by black or a very dark blue, and that anything else is crazy. Took 24 seasons to get it all sorted out (and to get to 24 teams), but we’ve arrived at the end of American Soccer History. MLSsion accomplished!
Stephen Wood is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Jacobin, Paste, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Follow him @TheStephenWood.