The English Premier League leaders Arsenal will visit the District of Columbia as the honoured guests this summer to participate in the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target at Audi Field. It is right to reminisce a bit about the last time the London Giants played the league’s midsummer party.
The Gunners have done this before. Then they were led by Arsene Wenger to San Jose for the 2016 edition of the ASG, to christen the Earthquake’s long-awaited new home, PayPal Park (known as Avaya Stadium back then). And as is their tradition, they forfeited a goal to Didier Drogba on their way to a good 2-1 win in front of 18,000 fans.
Although 2016 has not been that long, things have changed. For starts, Arsenal will be meeting a different vintage of Major League Soccer than the one they met under the NorCal sunshine that July.
Back in 2016, MLS had only 20 teams. Ground was yet to be broken at what is now the 2023 ASG venue, Audi Field, with D.C. United was still housed at an ancient RFK Stadium for longer. The dominating Seattle Sounders had not won an MLS Cup yet, let alone the CONCACAF Champions League, with barely a single MLSer in the semifinals that year, much less a winner.
The reigning champions LAFC existed, but merely in manner of speaking. Chivas USA’s successor had their name and crest, but no coach, players or stadium yet. Minnesota United was completing their last season in the NASL, three years after the launching of the glittering Allianz Field. Atlanta United’s paradigm-shifting entry into MLS was still months away.
Inter Miami, Nashville SC, Austin, Charlotte FC and St. Louis CITY SC – and all the sprawling investments that followed them – were merely dreams in the eyes of their respective founders. FC Cincinnati were only a few months into their inaugural season in the USL Championship, the beginning of their outstanding path to the top flight.
There are 12 stadiums total, 10 of them soccer-first and more so in the manner of training facilities, academies, staff and other infrastructure. Hosting the 2026 World Cup on North American soil was an idea, too, years from reality. All these, promise valuable levels of stability and sustainability, like what Arsenal gained in relocating from their old Highbury home to the Emirates Stadium 17 years ago.
The youth system takes shape
In 2016, the U22 Initiative to trigger the influx of young talent into MLS was not in existence, neither was the Leagues Cup, MLS NEXT, or MLS NEXT Pro. Some clubs and coaches needed to be convinced that the homegrown pathway project was worth investing their time into, or that importing youths with rich sell-on potential was a profitable bet.
Now, the league can play a Thiago Almada or Brenden Aaronson highlight reel to measure this change.
The MLS adjusted its regulation to prime the pump. Clubs now keep more of the returns they get from outbound sales, especially on local players and can use more of their transfer earnings as allocation money. Today, the U22 Push incentives for acquiring blue-chip youngsters to an extent where they added extra Designated Player slots to the rosters of those who invest here. It is not a coincidence that the average age for squads has been reduced over the past seven years.
Winter of 2015-2016, the number of MLS players sold for money to overseas clubs, was less than what it is now in 2021-22. The total income for those sales was far less too. A report by the Athletic over a year ago announced last winter’s sales as adding up to close to $65 million in total base fees. Now the search for the next top prospect is more eager than ever.
The Quakes’ homegrown teen Cade Cowell is the player that draws the most crowd to PayPal Park these days. Cowell was merely 13 years old over in Ceres, California, still, two years eligible from joining the academy – when Arsenal played in what is now its home stadium. Today he’s got UEFA Champions League clubs watching his career and a huge seven-digit number bandied about as a possible price tag.
Club America’s Alejandro Zendejas who is the USMNT’s latest dual-national recruit was the most noteworthy homegrown sale in the summer of ‘16 going from FC Dallas to Chivas Guadalajara for a reported fee of $500,000. Last year that same FCD set several records by selling Ricardo Pepi to Augsburg on a deal estimated to be around $20 million.
A world of possibility
Arsenal is versed in the player development department, having dabbled in the act once or twice themselves. Besides being owned by Stan Kroenke owner/investor of the Colorado Rapids since 2018, they presently have two Americans in their squad. Philadelphia Union alumni and ex-Rapid Austin Trusty is the other one, and the one now on loan at Birmingham City; goalkeeper Matt Turner, the Gunners’ most prominent North American representative is the other.
Turner stopped the US men’s national team’s run to the Round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup after his multi-million dollar transfer from the New England Revolution to North London early in the year. Seven years ago he was unselected in the 2016 Super Draft and was set to spend his first professional season down at Richmond Kickers. His inspiring story, just like others, portrays MLS as a place anyone can shine.
Turner did not play high-level competitive soccer until well into his teens – being able to go far and fast as he did in the following years or how someone like Cowell ended up in the sights of popular European clubs and the USMNT before he was old enough to rent a car, indicates an extraordinary speed of evolution.
This is why this summer’s big game symbolises a long-time reconnection with the Old Continent. The last two years brought new cross-border spectacles in partnership with Liga MX, and with the expanded Leagues Cup which will debut after the All-Star Game, the growing ties became more permanent. All-Star is often a good opportunity for players to become more acquainted on and off the pitch. Hopefully, Robbie Lyle, ‘Troopz’ and other Arsenal superfans will come by to enjoy some D.C. culture and find common ground.
See Group Stage Schedule for 2023 Leagues Cup announced
The Gunners on their own part, rediscovered themselves after two decades of top-four finishes in the English Premier ended in 2017. Only three original members of the 2016 All-Stars starting XI are currently playing in the league; two of Arsenal’s are still Gunners today. Arsenal wandered through mid-table for a bit, parted ways with Wenger and his immediate successor Unai Emery, gave Mike Arteta some time to settle in and is now resurgent: eight points clear atop the Premier League table with 10 matches to go.
This North American summer tour can be both a preparation and a party. It just makes sense for MLS best to link up with the newly-crowned champions of England and how they and their large group of fans and media, how things have changed on this side of the world.