The 2023 MLS opening weekend saw healthy attendance numbers and excellent production on Apple TV. Still, this season has many lingering questions as to where the league will go next.
Finally, Major League Soccer is back, with a mega production deal to boot with Apple TV. On opening weekend, two games were played with over 65,000 fans in attendance for the first time in league history. Had the LAFC vs. LA Galaxy game not been canceled, that mark would have been at three, with the match at the Rose Bowl expected to have eclipsed the 70,000 mark.
The level of play was strong and stars such as Argentina World Cup winner Thiago Almada, Uruguayan Facundo Torres, and United States men’s national team players Jordan Morris and Walker Zimmerman all shined in their respective opening matches.
While on the field many highlights and goals were being created, the biggest talking point entering MLS in 2023 was how the new Apple TV production would look on game day. All those questions were answered, and at least at the presentation level, Apple TV and MLS’ new marriage got a healthy passing grade.
Apple TV: A Sterling Debut
Overall, MLS and Apple TV delivered for the fan on all counts. The production was first rate, the studio analysis was in depth and insightful, and most of the commentating teams were entertaining. In both English and Spanish, MLS truly got the best in the industry, and it showed.
The main highlight is that MLS is now in a hub, and everything follows one aesthetic. Unlike the ESPN and Fox deals in the past, where game day coverage was up and down, here all the games were presented with excellent quality and the right camera angles for the fans.
The graphics had that Apple flavor and were smooth on the eyes, just as we would expect from the tech giant — nothing fancy, but extremely effective.
The MLS 360 concept of having all the games live with the studio crew providing in depth coverage of what was going on was interesting and innovative. Still, at times too often the camera was focused on the crew’s backs, but these little things will improve with time.
The major victory of week one on Apple TV is that everything had a purpose. The intention of what is to come was laid out — the production quality and presentation fans have been calling for, for a long time is here to stay.
The side content and stories that will be done during the year will only provide insight and flavor to the game coverage. Fans will come around to the importance of proper presentation, and why the Apple TV deal is the first step into getting the league to a worldwide audience.
A Great Start for a Rocky Road Ahead
The near perfect start to the 2023 MLS season painted a picture of a league on the rise, a league almost about to break down the walls and truly become worldwide. Yet a bloated and unnecessary tournament smack in the middle of the season between MLS and Liga MX sides will either save MLS from the dog days of summer or totally smash the brakes on an emotional season.
The Leagues Cup is the first of many partnerships with Liga MX, and to give the tournament some juice it will qualify the top three teams for the CONCACAF Champions League, with the winner earning a direct spot in the round of 16.
The tournament on paper is simply a money grabbing opportunity for both leagues trying to capitalize on the Mexican-American fan who flocks to see Mexico play in the United States. The group stage is a laughable ratio of nearly two MLS teams to one Mexican team. The underlying statement is that by law of averages, an MLS team should win this tournament more often than not. MLS has 29 teams to Liga MX’s 18.
As the difference in salary budgets between the two leagues continues to shorten, and with MLS teams closing the gap on Liga MX teams, it can help both leagues get accustomed to playing international tournaments. Although how Liga MX and MLS teams will approach the Leagues Cup remains to be seen.
Further, the Leagues Cup could really hurt the MLS season. If there is a major storyline, record, or race of any kind that has fans intrigued, it will come to a big halt and shift focus on a tournament whose importance is a bit difficult to understand.
A Playoff System of Yesteryear
While MLS has made big strides on their production and presentation, one thing the league and teams continue to do, almost at a shockingly bad pace, is not listen to their fans. From ill-advised rebrands, fan protests, or the new playoff system, MLS seems more detached from what their fans want than ever.
The 2023 MLS playoff format is proof of that. When the new system was “leaked,” it was panned heavily on social media by pundits and fans alike. Yet, MLS did what MLS has been doing a lot of recently, not caring about what some consumers had to say and implementing it anyways.
Roughly 60% of the league will enter the postseason, nine teams from each conference. The eighth- and ninth-placed teams from each side will play in a single-elimination Wild Card match, and the first round of the playoffs will be a best-of-three series which will see matches go straight to penalties if they finish tied after regular time.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because back in the early days of MLS, the playoff system was nearly the same: a best-of-three series with no draws — although instead of penalties the game would be decided via the polarizing shootout if it finished in a tie.
The best-of-three round was highly criticized, as clubs would be able to virtually give up after going down early knowing that they’ll have one or two more chances to win the series following the loss, no matter how bad it is. Many assumed that this format was selected because Apple TV was looking for more games, and MLS concluded this was the right course.
The following rounds and the MLS Cup Final will continue to be played in single-elimination format, which brings up a pretty compelling point from detractors: Why weren’t all the rounds, except the final, not made to two-leg games?
As MLS continues to experiment and cash in at various points, the league is on the right path to becoming world-renowned. The underlining story for most of the season will be the will-he-or-won’t-he drama when it comes to Lionel Messi and his potential arrival to MLS. Messi is the ace in the hole to truly make MLS a worldwide league.
For now it is getting many things right and still needs to improve on a lot it has done wrong, but no one can deny that MLS is on a good track, and that in itself is satisfying.