#360USA: Sounders success signals changing of MLS guard

Steve Brenner 07:00 13/12/2016
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Safe and sound: Seattle Sounders celebrate their MLS Cup triumph.

The temperatures plunged to freezing and the world recognised superstars were elsewhere.

Yet as Major League Soccer closed its 21st season in Toronto on Saturday night, commissioner Don Garber would have fought the arctic conditions with the warm glow of satisfaction.

When Seattle slotted in the winning sudden-death penalty after 120 minutes of pure statemate – the Sounders failed to muster a shot on target in normal or extra time – history was made in what was ultimately a disappointing, fractious finale.

It was the League’s best supported club’s first-ever MLS title.

“They are a shining light,” purred Garber afterwards. Indeed, this triumph and Toronto’s trip to the season denouement rubber stamps a new era for soccer on these shores, one where the most important players are those in their prime rather than ageing legends searching for that final pay day.

Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Robbie Keane all bid farewell to the League last month.

Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill left two seasons ago. Keane was a stellar import for the LA Galaxy, arguably the greatest designated player of all time, though the rest won’t be missed too much by fans here.

Garber won’t shed many tears either. His desperation for equality among all means seeing teams stockpiled with Premier League castoffs isn’t the aim.

Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco arrived in MLS at the age of 27 and his thirst for something new cost him a place at last summer’s Euros.

The Italian is one of the best paid players, raking in around $8 million a year, yet has proved fantastic value scoring more than 40 goals in two seasons. For Seattle, Uruguay playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro (below) has effortlessly filled the more box office voids of Obafemi Martins (departed for Chinese millions) and Clint Dempsey (health issues) with some classy displays.

Both are in the prime of their careers while the Sounders’ Jordan Morris is the apple of Garber’s eye – a US rookie who snubbed European teams to stay at home.

Furthermore, these two sides are what many in MLS aspire to: well supported, well run and not afraid to spend money.

“Now with their first title, Seattle are a MLS super-club, “ said former US defender Alexi Lalas.

Others have certainly begun to adopt a more youthful policy. F.C. Dallas were the form team in the regular season whose designated players were all up and coming players in their twenties.

Los Angeles and New York have little choice but to make transfers fitting of their glitzy, star hungry fanbases and surroundings.

Everyone else, however, are wising up and reaping the benefits.

Naturally, the marketing men will look at the stats with some concern. Dallas’ crowds were the lowest in MLS while it was NYCFC’s golden oldie Andrea Pirlo – not Giovinco – who sold the most shirts. The former Juventus midfielder is a household name – his younger compatriot isn’t.

The importance of a viable future however trumps all. Garber wants his baby to become the ‘league of choice’.

Restrictions on movement within MLS as well as the unique pay structure and huge travelling commitments in the United States means it won’t suit everyone.

Yet with every successful campaign seeing the League grow inexorably, progress is undeniable.

“I would argue Sebastian Giovinco is worth every penny we are paying him, regardless of what the Italian national team coach might think about him,” said Garber.

“Seattle and Toronto are the best example of this change in strategy.

“That’s a very strong statement for where MLS is today versus where we were many years ago.

“Without doubt the target is younger players who are coming at the prime of their career or even as they’re beginning to establish their career.”

The times are undoubtedly changing.

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