Major League Soccer concluded its season with Columbus Crew SC’s MLS Cup victory on Saturday night, and with preseason preparations for the upcoming campaign set to begin as early as one month from now, attention is already turning to 2021. But before we look too far into the future, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle and Austin Lindberg look back on a 2020 season that won’t soon be forgotten.
Jump to: Crew worth saving | Impacts of COVID-19 | Debuts of Miami, Nashville | Black Players for Change | Philly legitimizes homegrown blueprint | Young players departing | New low for labor relations | Best XI
The Crew were worth saving
Three years ago, Columbus Crew SC seemingly had no future in Ohio’s capital. Owner Anthony Precourt announced in October 2017 he intended to move the club to Austin, Texas, in 2019 if a new stadium in downtown, partially funded by public tax dollars, couldn’t be secured.
He told ESPN shortly after the announcement that the club needed “to see a dramatic change” in attendance and other factors if it was to remain in Columbus. Reading between the lines, it was clear that in his mind there was little that could keep him from taking the Crew from the capital of Ohio to the capital of Texas.
What he didn’t count on was the fierce resistance, the organization and the persuasion of the fans and local community. He didn’t count on the #SaveTheCrew movement.
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The fans made an almighty racket, making their voices heard at the capitol and in stadiums across MLS — and in many cases, stadiums hosting teams that had nothing to do with the Crew. The city of Columbus canvassed business leaders throughout the region as it sought to put together an ownership group that would keep the club in town.
A year after Precourt’s announcement, the Haslam and Edwards families entered into negotiations to buy the Crew. By the end of 2018, the Crew had been saved. Barely a week later, Caleb Porter was named manager and Tim Bezbatchenko was appointed president.
With significant investment from the Haslams and Edwardses — which included the signing of $7 million designated player Lucas Zelarayan and a privately financed downtown stadium scheduled to open in 2021 — and the vision of Porter and Bezbatchenko, the Crew embarked on a reimagining of the club that culminated with last Saturday’s MLS Cup win.
For so many reasons, 2020 has been miserable, with few bright spots. The Crew’s championship, on the back of their fans’ righteous, successful campaign to keep their club — the league’s original club — in town, is a sliver of sunshine we could all do with more of. — Austin Lindberg
The impacts of COVID-19
Give MLS credit. The league made it to the MLS Cup finish line, even as an outbreak of COVID-19 made its way through champions Columbus Crew during the postseason, with a total of 10 positive cases. This was on top of outbreaks earlier in the year within the FC Dallas, Nashville SC and Colorado Rapids organizations.
None of this seemed possible on March 12, when in the first days of the pandemic, MLS engaged in a shutdown that would last four months. Yet the league managed to get off the deck, first with the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida.
That competition was among the first of several in the U.S. that proved the efficacy of a bubble environment, and it helped get the league back in front of fans. Matters proved more difficult when teams resumed league play in August. The MLS’ three Canadian teams, after first playing a series of games against each other, were forced to relocate to the U.S. because of travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada. A total of seven games were canceled, forcing the league to go to points per game to determine a team’s placement in the conference standings.
The wounds — some financial, others physical — will take time to heal. The MLS Players Association reported that “almost 20%” of the league’s players contracted COVID-19 at some point during the year. The long-term impact of those infections is still to be determined. There were also layoffs across the league, both at league headquarters and within MLS teams.
But the league is still here, highlighting a resilience that has long been one of its hallmarks. One can only hope that the 2021 campaign proves easier to navigate for all involved. — Jeff Carlisle
A tale of two expansion teams
When Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF began the season, it was Nashville that looked like an econobox sedan, while Miami bore a closer resemblance to a flashy sports car. But sometimes the sedan does a better job of getting you to where you want to go, and that proved to be precisely the case in this instance.
General manager Mike Jacobs fashioned a defense-first side that saw Nashville finish seventh in the Eastern Conference — which would have qualified it for the postseason even without the generously expanded playoff field — while Miami finished 10th. And as fate would have it, that saw the teams meet in the play-in round of the postseason, with Nashville proving it was by far the better team in a 3-0 victory.
Granted, it’s impossible to avert one’s eyes from Miami, which is quickly approaching car-wreck status. Chief operating officer and sporting director Paul McDonough paid the price for too many swings and misses in the international transfer market and stepped down last week. Then on Monday, ESPN confirmed a story in The Athletic that manager Diego Alonso exited an end-of-year meeting with ownership thinking he had been fired, and told players and staff about it, only for that to not be the case. Alonso is still the manager, although his continued presence seems awkward at best. After a six-year wait to take the field following the team’s inception, owners David Beckham and Jorge Mas have some cleanup work to do. — Jeff Carlisle
The formation of Black Players for Change
It wasn’t just the coronavirus that had some players on edge. The death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police galvanized the community of Black MLS players and brought about the formation of Black Players for Change. The organization aimed to advocate for social justice and put in place programs to further that end, both inside and outside the game of soccer.
There were powerful demonstrations of support of social justice, with MLS teams taking a knee at kickoff when play resumed at the MLS is Back Tournament, a statement that continued for the rest of the season. Following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the BPC helped orchestrate a protest of most the league’s games on Aug. 26.
Away from the field, the BPC was impactful as well, partnering with the LeBron James-led nonprofit More Than A Vote to encourage minority communities to register to vote and engage in the electoral process. That included getting 95% of the league’s players registered.
The BPC also dedicated its first mini-pitch in Newark, New Jersey. The project, in partnership with the U.S. Soccer Foundation, is the first of 12 such pitches to be built in Black communities across the country in a bid to get more kids involved in the sport of soccer.
Earlier this month, the BPC earned the league’s Humanitarian of the Year award in recognition of its efforts in 2020. — Jeff Carlisle
Philadelphia further legitimizing homegrown blueprint
After 11 years of existence, the Philadelphia Union finally won their first trophy, claiming the Supporters’ Shield in 2020. It was a just reward for a fan base whose passion delivered the city a club in the first place and never let up in the ensuing lean years.
For the fans, it probably means a bit more that this silverware was secured by academy products Brenden Aaronson (who’s off to FC Salzburg in January) and Mark McKenzie (who’s attracting plenty of interest from European clubs himself) and SuperDraft selection and Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake. For everyone else in MLS, it means a great deal, too: Philadelphia’s success further solidifies a familiar blueprint for success.
The Union is the fourth team in the past six years (New York Red Bulls in 2015, FC Dallas in 2016 and the Red Bulls again in 2018) to win the Shield following a formula reliant on homegrown talent. Thirteen years after the inception of U.S. Soccer’s academy program, the past six seasons have been demonstrable proof that cultivating talent in-house is a viable path to success.
As MLS sees spending increase year in and year out, primarily on burgeoning stars imported from South America or Europe, Philadelphia (along with the Red Bulls and Dallas) is demonstrating that clubs can win in this league without spending a fortune on exotic imports — although that helps. — Austin Lindberg
Gregg Berhalter credits Philadelphia Union for Brenden Aaronson’s progress since his first USMNT camp in 2019.
Young players are departing — and that’s a good thing
For years, MLS had had a reputation for practically holding young players hostage, rarely transferring players out of the league before their contracts ran down. But recent campaigns have shown that to be changing. According to data on the league’s website, in 2017 only four players were transferred out of MLS. In 2018 that number grew to 12, and then to 14 in 2019. In 2020 that number climbed to 19.
And it hasn’t been just guys exiting in search of one last payday. In 2019, you had the likes of Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies, of RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich, respectively, leaving the league. In the just-concluded season, there were Reggie Cannon and Alberth Elis both being sent to Portuguese side Boavista. In 2021, the Philadelphia Union’s Brenden Aaronson will move to FC Salzburg, and New York City FC’s Joe Scally will head to Borussia Monchengladbach.
It all has amounted to a revenue stream of which MLS teams are taking greater advantage. And the league’s academies are producing players that are catching the eye of foreign clubs.
Is there room to grow? Absolutely. But there’s no doubting that transfers out of the league are becoming more of the norm. — Jeff Carlisle
Labor relations hit a new low
All seemed rosy in February when the MLS Players Association and the league agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that left both sides — at least outwardly — feeling as though they gained something. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and because neither side had ratified the new CBA, the league used its leverage to force the MLSPA back to the bargaining table.
With the league threatening to lock out the players, the two sides ultimately reached an agreement in June, just a month before the MLS is Back Tournament was scheduled to take place. But the MLSPA membership emerged demoralized and with $150 million less than what it had agreed to in February due to cuts in salary, bonuses and a revenue-sharing plan tied to the next media rights deal.
Even worse, the league managed to get the MLSPA to accept the presence of a force majeure clause in the CBA. While the clause would allow either side to terminate the agreement in the case of catastrophic conditions, it gives considerable leverage to ownership in that it could once again force the union back to the bargaining table.
Labor tensions usually crop up only every five years, but for now they are a continual fact of life between owners and players. — Jeff Carlisle
Goalkeeper: Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union)
Defense: Anton Tinnerholm (New York City FC), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union), Ryan Hollingshead (FC Dallas)
Midfield: Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto FC), Diego Chara (Portland Timbers), Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle Sounders FC)
Forwards: Chris Mueller (Orlando City SC), Diego Rossi (LAFC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC)