This article originally appeared in Future Sport magazine. Click here to read the 2021 edition.

Since David Beckham arrived in LA in 2007, the number of teams in the MLS has doubled, players’ salaries have gone through the roof and only Europe’s five major leagues have a bigger stadium audience. Everything is in place for the MLS to become a powerhouse of world football, and yet it’s still seen by large swathes of the world as a football backwater.

Here, Future Sport takes an in-depth look at the growth of the league since Beckham’s arrival and speaks to those who’ve played a major part in its rise…

It remains one of the greatest mysteries in modern sport and only recently appears to have seen a slight shift: why isn’t football, the world’s most popular sport, loved and adored by the world’s biggest sports-mad nation – the United States?

On the face of it things just don’t stack up. The US Women’s National Team is the current and multi-time FIFA world champion, crammed full of talent that is recognised around the world, from Megan Rapinoe to Alex Morgan. And in 2026, the US will host the men’s World Cup alongside Mexico and Canada, marking the second time it has held the event in 32 years.

In general, sport in the US is a license to print money – the television adverts during half-time at the Super Bowl are talked about almost as much as the game itself – so why isn’t Major League Soccer (MLS) as big and as popular as the Premier League and LaLiga?

Well, it’s not for a want of trying. And it’s getting there, slowly.

Born out of the 1994 World Cup, the MLS took nearly two decades to explode onto the world scene. With small stadiums and even smaller crowds, the league really kick started in 2007 when David Beckham arrived at LA Galaxy from Real Madrid. Despite being at the back-end of his career, Beckham was undoubtedly the most recognisable ‘soccer’ player in the world at the time. The fact he was moving to the MLS from the world’s biggest club also made his move even more spectacular.

Brand Beckham had arrived in Hollywood, and with it came a reported $50m contract and the option to own a MLS franchise further down the line – an option realised in 2020 when Beckham launched the league’s latest club, Inter Miami. In fact, Beckham’s move is seen as one that potentially saved the MLS. According to Bruce Arena, his former coach at Galaxy, the former England captain’s move to LA “probably kept the MLS around forever”.

Since then the names that have passed through the MLS reads like a who’s who of European football elite. David Villa, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry have all had a huge impact on the league and their respective clubs, not to mention Brazilian superstar Kaka.

But for every Beckham or Villa, there have also been big names who’ve come and gone and who the American public won’t remember in the years to come. Englishmen Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jermain Defoe all arrived to much fanfare but delivered with varied levels of success, suggesting the MLS isn’t quite the “retirement” league it’s often made out to be.

“Beckham arriving is when the league took off”, says Chris Shewfelt, Toronto FC’s Vice President of Business Operations. “Franchise value started to grow and there started to be a lot more attention towards the MLS.”

Shewfelt added: “A lot of people in the UK called the MLS a retirement league at that point. At that point it was a case of going out and finding players that would drive marketing, interest in the franchise and sell tickets. Maybe the product didn’t improve that much because you were only improving the top end, not the middle or the bottom, but the evolution of the MLS in recent years has seen tremendous movement in the composition of rosters, an increase in the salary cap, and tools that can be used by general managers to add better players to the middle and lower end of their roster.”

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One Englishman whose success cannot be denied but often gets overlooked is that of LAFC’s Bradley Wright-Phillips. Wright-Phillips, who signed for LAFC this season fowling six incredible years at New York Red Bulls, is currently sixth on the all-time record goal scorers list in the MLS with 166 goals.

Logan Smith, Senior Director of Strategy and Analytics at Wright-Phillips’ former club, explained the journey the league is on as it continues to battle the market dominance of predominantly North American sports and competitions, such as the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB). It’s a battle for fans, battle for TV revenue and a battle to remain relevant in a sports-mad nation. New York alone has two NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB and MLS sides. That’s a lot of sport.

Smith explained: “Being young, we’re trying to fight an uphill battle against other sports organisations that have a historical relationship with fans. People are born into being a Yankees fan, whereas our league is only 25 years old and only just now the younger generations are coming through households that have had MLS as part of their sporting experience.”

He adds: “Sometimes I say I‘m looking forward to 25 years from now when we have the generational impact of sports fandom, but being younger gives us the opportunity to be a little bit more innovative and try new things because fans aren’t so traditional about the experience that they expect.”

When it comes to innovation, perhaps no one in MLS history has quite taken that baton and ran with it as well or as successfully as Atlanta United. Since being founded in 2014 they’ve won the MLS Cup and now hold the top five attendance records in the league. More importantly, they’ve introduced football to a city famed for sport and have now set the bar for every club in the competition. From the boardroom to the match day experience, Atlanta have re-energised the MLS by marrying the American fans-first match going experience with the traditional football-only European approach.

At the centre of it all is the truly incredible US$1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Utilising the arena’s state-of-the-art technology – from the 360 degrees ‘halo’ screen to its unique roof that opens up to the elements – the stadium offers award-winning food and drink, including free drink refills, to keep the fans coming back. And it works – United have an average home attendance of 53,000, far and away the biggest in the MLS.

For context, only Europe’s ‘five major leagues’ have a bigger average attendance across world football than the MLS.

“A lot of it [the fan base] has come naturally,” says Carlos Bocanegra, the club’s Vice President and Technical Director. “As we’re building our club, we’re building our fan base and we’re building the roster. Everything we’re doing we try to do it very organically.”

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Four more franchises are set to join the MLS by 2023 which will take the league to 30 teams – there were just 16 franchises in 2010. Austin FC will join in 2021, Charlotte FC in 2022, and St. Louis and Sacramento Republic will complete the picture in 2023.

Helping to lead the charge for Charlotte is Sporting Director Zoran Krneta, who was appointed at the beginning of 2020, just before the coronavirus crisis kicked off. “It’s super exciting,” he says when asked about launching a new team in a new city. “It’s not like walking into an organisation where there are hundreds of employees and you’re coming in to change some ideas, change some habits and maybe change some people. This is building from scratch.”

Zoran, a GIS and VSI delegate, adds: “It’s a novelty for me and everyone else. How many times in life can you say you’ve started a football club from zero and try to make it competitive and winning?”

The first hurdle Zoran had to deal with was the franchise having to delay its entry to the league by a year, which was originally intended for 2021, due to the virus. The second has been signing staff and players for a club which had no visible identity until it was named as Charlotte FC in July 2020.

“It was very difficult to deal with people like agents, clubs and players and not being able to tell them the name of the club, the colours or the badge,” he says. “That was always the first question!”

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One player who knew exactly who he was signing for was Robbie Keane. Ireland’s record goal scorer and appearance maker spent five years at LA Galaxy. The man who persuaded him to swap the Premier League for California? David Beckham of course.

Three MLS Cups, one MVP award and 104 Galaxy goals later, Keane is rightly considered one of the great MLS imports. He also saw first-hand the growth the league made during his time in the US.

“When I first went to the MLS the Galaxy stadium was always full”, Keane tells Future Sport. “But most of the others were probably around half full. By the time I left, all the stadiums were full. Football just took off massively and has kept on growing.”

The former Tottenham and Celtic striker added: “A lot of players who call me now say they want to go and play in the MLS. I’m not talking about average players; I’m talking about players at the top of their game who would love the opportunity to have a go. I think that says it all really about how much the league has grown. The MLS is the place to be right now.”

Now though, as well as growing the league brand around the world, the focus of clubs is to unearth talent and become sellers. For this, teams are incentivised to sign younger players, including designated players, to get a relief on their salary cap.

Signing younger players means the opportunity then arises to sell talent on – Miguel Almiron’s £20m move from Atlanta United to Newcastle United in 2019 eclipsed the fee Bayern Munich paid for Alphonso Davies the year before.

“The league needs to transition to one where we are a league of sellers, not just buyers, and that’s the phase that we are in now,” explained Toronto’s Shewfelt. “Look at Alphonso. He’s a product of Vancouver Whitecaps; they found him as a refugee and he came into their academy from Edmonton, a small town in Canada. Their programme found him, developed him from a young age and then sold him to Munich.”

Now Davies is a Champions League winner and the most talked about youngster in world football. No longer a retirement league, the MLS can be the birthplace of champions.