MLS / Union

What’s new in MLS this year?

Photo: Stephen Speer

Another season of Major League Soccer gets underway on Saturday night, with Philadelphia Union hosting Columbus Crew in the season opener.

If you’re just tuning back in after a long winter’s nap, here’s a rundown of some of the big changes coming to MLS this season.

A bite of the Apple

No change is bigger than the league’s new broadcast deal, a massive ten-year contract with Apple that will pay $2.5 billion into MLS’s coffers.

As a result, MLS matches will no longer be broadcast on local television networks, so no more PHL17 for Union fans.  Instead, you’ll have to stream the match through the Apple TV app if you’re using a device where it’s available, or through the browser interface if you’re not.

While some games each week will be free on the app — and a small number will be broadcast nationally over-the-air — to get every game you’ll need to be a subscriber to MLS Season Pass. This costs $99 per season (or $14.99 per month), unless you’re already an Apple TV+ subscriber, in which case season pass will run you $79 per season (or $12.99 per month).

What are the benefits?  Well, Apple has promised to spare little expense in its coverage of the league.  Games now have (by and large) standard start times of 7:30 p.m. local time on Saturdays, which will enable a live match whip-around show.  At least in preseason, the broadcast quality looked excellent. Apple has hired an array of broadcasting talent (including former Union analyst Danny Higginbotham) to call games, while the home team’s radio feed will be available as an overlay.  And Season Pass should make it easier to see game replays, highlights, and analysis — all with no blackouts.

But there are definitely downsides.  MLS Season Pass creates a barrier to entry, which many casual fans may be unwilling or unable to pay.  It’s hard to know whether the many Apple-influenced changes will help grow the league and the game of soccer.  (Opening night tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., when it’ll be sub-freezing down by the Delaware River, doesn’t seem like a great attraction.)  Something intangible will be lost with the disappearance of local broadcasts and some of the names we’ve come to associate with the Union — legendary broadcaster JP Dellacamera, for example, has not been hired by Apple to call games.

All in all, it’s one of the biggest changes in MLS history and a unique experiment for a major American sports league.  Expect some rough patches in the early going.

Cups runneth over

Apple will also televise the first edition of the Leagues Cup, an official competition pitting all of the clubs from MLS and Liga MX in a “World Cup-style tournament,” running from July 21 to August 19.

The 47 clubs have been divided into 15 groups of three teams, with Pachua and LAFC earning byes.  Each team will play the other two teams in their group, with the top two teams advancing to the 32-team knockout stage.

As the top seed in MLS, the Union have drawn two of the lesser lights of Liga MX, Club Tijuana and Queretaro.

MLS’s marketing materials describe the Leagues Cup as “highly anticipated.”  Whether that’s true or not, regular-season play will pause for over a month to allow the tournament to happen.

Playoffs? You kidding me?

After a relatively stable playoff system for the last few seasons, MLS announced big changes to the postseason tournament for 2023.

Most notably, nine teams from each conference — up from seven — will now make the playoffs, with the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds kicking things off with a wild-card game.

From there, the next round will be — for the first time — a best-of-three series.  Each game will have a winner and a loser, with penalties immediately following the end of extra time.  The higher-seeded team would host the first and (if necessary) third match, with the lower-seeded team hosting the second.

This change seemingly benefits lower-seeded clubs (who want the exposure and revenue that comes from a home playoff game) and Apple (who want more playoff games on their service).  It’s unclear what this will do on a sporting level, both with a relatively low bar to make the playoffs and the strategy that comes with a best-of-three series.

After this round, the tournament reverts to familiar single-elimination for the conference semifinals, conference finals, and MLS Cup.

Meet me in St. Louis

For the seventh consecutive year, a new team will begin MLS play. This year’s entrant is St. Louis City SC, who play in the city of St. Louis.

Like many expansion sides, St. Louis boasts a shiny new downtown stadium — CITYPARK, in all capital letters for some reason — and a relatively anonymous roster, headlined by designated players Klauss and Eduard Lowen and led by ex-Red Bulls interim coach Bradley Carnell.

But there are a few Union connections. Former manager John Hackworth is the club’s director of coaching. And Joshua Yaro, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 SuperDraft, is on the roster after bouncing around the USL Championship for four seasons.

The Union don’t play St. Louis this season.

20 Comments

  1. the Apple TV deal has got to be the dumbest thing MLS has ever done. MLS already has issues competing for viewership with better leagues overseas, and now has created a huge barrier for entry for new fans, who will not watch on TV or in local bars.

    a short term cash grab that will haunt this league. Haven’t renewed the season tickets, because I won’t be able to follow the U well this year.

    • John P. O'Donnell says:

      Dave, I just don’t know where to begin. Yes it’s a cash grab, welcome to professional sports and the very basis of it.
      .
      First off local bars will have options to show the games as the league has a deal with direct TV business that cost $100 for the season. So find a bar that has direct TV and ask them if they’ll be showing the games.
      .
      On your second point about not buying season tickets because you won’t be able to follow the U…. The season ticket holders get Season Pass for free with their season tickets.
      .
      Last thing but from someone who grew up in Philadelphia before cable…. they said the same thing when teams switched to cable from over the air TV.
      .
      Oh and the cash grab is going great as Forbes is reporting corporate sponsors love the Apple deal and the league is bringing in record revenue because of the new deal being available world wide.

    • “Haven’t renewed the season tickets, because I won’t be able to follow the U well this year.”

      But season tickets gets you the Apple package for free. Stop whining.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      One other piece here: no one, and I mean no one, watches these teams on local channels. A hundred thousand eye balls or so, certainly not enough to be loyal or to attract sponsor (and given the absolutely bare bones coverage by the local stations too, no sentimental reason to be loyal either).

    • I’m not sure where the ‘cash grab’ trope started but this deal is in line with any of the other streaming deals as far as cost goes – and we will be getting a ton more games than we ever have.
      .
      MLS Live was anywhere between $65-$90 for the season
      ESPN+ was in the range of $75-90
      AppleTV is $80-100 (free for STM or TMobile users)
      .
      Both MLS Live and ESPN+ had blackouts for any national or regional broadcasts which severely hampered it’s effectiveness.
      .
      ~Every~ game will be available now on AppleTV, including all of Leagues Cup and playoffs. Trying to stream Union playoffs in the past was super rare with most of them being on tv.
      .
      This also just scratches the surface for what you get in comparison.
      .
      The value is there and well worth it.

    • Agree that it’s ridiculous to pay more to watch a weak league like mls than to watch premier league. Apple keep your mls, the best players will never play here.

  2. The best of 3 first round sounds to me like it’s going to be a disaster. It’s too much. And more than half the league making the playoffs is just ridiculous. I wish Apple, MLS, et. al. would try to figure out a way to make the overall competition a better one and focus on that rather than just looking for more events to sell. Last year’s playoffs were fantastic. It really didn’t need to be altered.

  3. The uniform 7:30 starts is stupid. There is no reason for Saturday night games in February in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Foxboro, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and any other cold weather places I’m forgetting.
    .
    And even stupider is the league going back to an odd number of teams. It’s bad enough that it has over expanded, but then to insist on teams playing each other on significantly uneven rest is just f*’d up.
    .
    And I think the interconference schedule was put together by a bunch of monkeys. Last season the Union played 8 teams in the west (7 of whom are still in the west). This year they play 6. So why are 4 of those 6 the same teams as they played last year? Austin is in their 3rd season and are still not scheduled to play Philadelphia or NYCFC, the two teams who’ve been in the eastern finals both of the last 2 years.
    .
    Let’s face it, MLS Sucks.

    • I definitely agree that the uniform 7:30 starts is not ideal. I assume that the reason was to create enough volume to do the “whip-around show.” But night games in February and March are going to be brutal, and I actually enjoyed late-afternoon games from May to September. I wonder if that’ll stick beyond this season.
      .
      The schedule is confusing to me too, because you’re right that there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to determining cross-conference opponents.

      • Any chance of an article about how the schedule is made ? Or is that a trade secret kept safe in a vault in MLS HQ (Garber’s basement).

      • I’m pretty sure Peter wants to do an article about how the schedule is made, but no one on the PSP staff speaks “monkey” 🙂 🙂

    • With a jam-packed schedule, the cross-conference thing really doesn’t bother me (travel being considered too). You just want a fair shake in the East, which who you’re mainly competing with. Plus all that matters is they get their re-match with LAFC anyway (and possibly in the CCL semis too).

  4. Is it only the home teams radio overlay – why not the away as well – I guess I’ll try watching on my tv and listening to the radio but that hardly ever works due to delays – thanks for the info

    • Yes, it’s the home team’s radio overlay only, at least for now. My understanding is that there are technical obstacles to overlaying the away radio feed.

    • The radio announcers need to be in the building to make sure that the audio syncs up with the video. Until they pay for Away announcers to travel this probably won’t be happening.

  5. PaulContinuum22 says:

    ESPN’s league preview out. Says the Union did their “usual bargain hunting’.
    /
    538 dot com’s MLS Cup odds: LAFC 16%, Union 13%, NYCFC 10%, Atlanta 7%, LA Galaxy, Austin 5%, Seattle, Cincy, FC Dallas 4%. Everyone else 1% or less.

  6. Johnny Ostentatious says:

    I actually think the Apple deal is awesome. $107 for the year is a nice price (cheaper than a NEW YORK TIMES digital subscription), and it sounds like I’ll be able to watch every Union match, unlike last year with several blackouts on the Union website. Of course, I did things backward: purchased MLS Pass first, then two weeks later got Apple TV+ so I could watch LIASON with Vincent Cassel and Eva Green. Doh!

    • FCdelcofella says:

      $107 to watch mls? Horrible idea. I’m assuming everyone on this thread are decent earners. What you miss is the the middle and working class who can’t imagine shelling out another $100 just to watch soccer. That’s just the reality. I wish the union the best but the mls f’d up this one big time. I was a 10 year season ticket holder and had to give them up the year of covid because my ticket rep was an asshole. It’s sad that this will be the first time I won’t be able to watch my club. Btw… your photo says everything I assumed about Apple TV subscribers.

      • John P. O'Donnell says:

        My photo is quite the opposite and to me it’s a steal. It’s the first real time I believe MLS has been covered like a league of choice. If you gave up season tickets the cost of these virtual season tickets is a bargain. Not to mention all the U2 games to follow.

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