Commissioner Don Garber said in 2010 that he wanted MLS to be the world’s second-best soccer association, behind England’s Premier League, by 2022. He doubled down in 2018.
The deadline has since passed.
And the results, though questionable, have been repeatedly endorsed by Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath, who’s been encouraged by how MLS teams have fared against Liga MX competition in the inaugural Leagues Cup.
After a work week’s worth of games, MLS is 6-3 in head-to-head matchups with Liga MX.
“Maybe people raised their eyebrows when he said four or five years ago that this will become a league of choice,” Heath said of Garber. “We’re at that stage now where a lot of players see this now as a viable alternative to Europe.”
One of Heath’s rising stars, Bongokuhle Hlongwane, took his own assessment a step further — well, maybe two steps and a skip. After the 23-year-old attacker asserted himself for two goals and an assist in the Loons’ 4-0 thrashing of Club Puebla on Sunday, he took that same energy into Allianz Field’s postgame press room.
There, Hlongwane said “the standard is not the same,” that “MLS is on another level from Liga MX.”
“I’m not undermining Liga MX, but today showed that we are far better than Liga MX,” he added, to end his media session.
Heath, aware that such a statement would cause a stir in the media, made as much known and wore a nervous smile as he and Hlongwane walked out. He expanded Wednesday on what was said, putting into perspective Puebla’s letdown — which reportedly led the team to hold an “emergency meeting.”
The Mexican side opened Liga MX play 0-2-1, with one point that sat them in second-to-last place.
“I know that after three games, you’re not at your sharpest,” Heath said. “… It was probably a touch premature for Bongi to say it’s a miles-better league.”
Perhaps lost in Hlongwane’s take was Heath’s ultimate point: progress.
Even before he was hired to lead MNUFC through its infancy as a franchise, the England native has a far earlier reference point for MLS — when he arrived in the U.S. 13 years ago, right around when Garber outlined the league’s future.
“I can’t remember if there would have been many players, apart from the crazy elite [exceptions] like Zlatan and maybe a Beckham, where we went with players 10 years ago and Mexican teams nearly always outbid you, had more money to spend,” Heath said. “I don’t really think that’s the case anymore.”
In addition to Inter Miami’s signing of the legendary Lionel Messi, other designated player acquisitions — the most recent of which being former Premier League player Sam Surridge, who was announced Tuesday as the newest member of Nashville SC — have marked a trending shift in the identity of MLS.
“I don’t think Sam Surridge is coming 10 years ago, eight years ago, maybe even not five years ago,” Heath said. “But now the league has taken on a whole new different meaning.
“The way that we look after the players, the stadia, the training facilities — everything has been elevated over the last five or six years. And that’s testimony to the amount of money that’s been invested from the owners.”