For years, MLS has wanted to become a "league of choice". Don Garber has repeated the phrase time and time again during his tenure as commissioner, and the expression has long been part of the league's unique lexicon. Several different owners and executives repeated the phrase on Wednesday as MLS kickstarted its 25th season with a series of panels looking at how far the league's come and how far it still has to go.
In 2007, David Beckham made MLS his league of choice. The moment the English icon set foot in Los Angeles, MLS took its biggest ever step towards relevancy. For the first time in the league's history, MLS made worldwide headlines with Beckham's signing being the catalyst. It was a moment that changed the course of the league forever and, depending on you ask, a signing that may have actually saved the league from failure.
And now, as Beckham returns to MLS as the league's most high-profile owner in one of the league's most high-profile markets, the English legend believes Garber is getting closer and closer to getting his wish. Beckham chose MLS all those years ago and he's chosen MLS once again this time around as he begins life as a club owner. He didn't do it for sentimentality or to trailblaze; he did it because he believes the best is yet to come.
“Do I think in the next 10 years it will challenge the European leagues? It's what we all hope for,” Beckham said on Wednesday.
“It's what we all strive to commit to. I think that's the biggest thing [for] owners of new franchises that keep coming into this league, keep growing this league and have insight into bringing great players here.
“This should never be a league where players from Europe come to retire. That's not where you want to be, it's not where we want to be as owners, it's not where we want to be as investors.
“We want to bring the players here that actually want to be here to play and to further their careers. That's what it's got to be and that's where we are. That's where we're very proud as owners to be part of this.”
Beckham's path to ownership was a complicated one, but with Inter Miami set to begin play on Saturday, Beckham will once again be the figurehead of a movement to push the league forward.
Inter Miami has entered MLS with expectations and ambition, perhaps even more than recent success stories like Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United. From the moment Beckham attached his name to this Miami project, the excitement was palpable.
Miami was instantly linked to some of the world's biggest names. Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Luka Modric and David Silva have frequently been named as Inter Miami targets. Beckham fuelled the hype himself in a recent video with Neymar, where the England icon perhaps jokingly came to a handshake deal to bring the PSG star to South Florida at some point in his career. From the start, Miami has promised to do it big.
However, they haven't quite done it yet. Rodolfo Pizarro and Mattias Almeyda have been brought in as the club's two Designated Players, but there's still that one spot looming large. Beckham and co-owner Jorge Mas revealed on Tuesday that that third spot could be left open until summer when the right fit comes into the picture.
“We’re very excited to have a talented young player in the prime of his career playing in our team,” Beckham said. “But we still want to continue to grow this club and grow this team. That’s one thing that I learned from Sir Alex Ferguson: it’s not sometimes all about bringing the biggest names, the biggest players to a club. They have to be the right players. They have to be the right players that fit into our culture, that fit into our team and integrate within the team that we’ve created already.
He added: “There's also been a lot of talk over the years about other great names coming into this team and that was obviously not by myself but when asked the question, 'What players would you like to come into this club?', We always say we want the best players and the biggest names.”
That's what Beckham and Inter Miami are striving for: to be the biggest and the best. The ownership group has routinely set sights on becoming a worldwide brand, transcending MLS like no team has done before. Sure, the Galaxy have made major splashes in the past, including the original splash with Beckham's signing, but the Englishman's goal is to take things to an entirely different level.
Doing so in MLS will be difficult. The league still has its quirky set of rules and regulations that apply to each and every club, even if the owner is a global megastar. But Beckham's plan is to push the limit as far as he can while taking the rest of MLS along for what should be quite the ride.
“I think that we've always set our standards out to be different than the rest, but I also think that most owners probably feel exactly the same,” he said.
“Though most owners probably come into this league and think that they're different from every team and they want to do things in a different way. We believe what we've obviously created with our club so far from the training facility to the stadium to the fan base that we have to the things that we do, we feel that we are doing things in a different way. We feel that we are creating attention for this club globally.
“And that's what we're excited about: to be, statistically, one of the most talked-about clubs in football at the moment without even kicking a football, that's something that we're very proud of.”