MLS at 25: 25 predictions for the next 25 years

Will Carlos Vela run away with 2020 MLS MVP race? (1:45)

ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle breaks down the 2020 MLS MVP race and explains why Carlos Vela is his frontrunner. (1:45)

Saturday marks the beginning of the 25th season of MLS (stream every out-of-market game on ESPN+). The league is hardly recognizable from the one that began play on April 6, 1996, when the San Jose Clash hosted D.C. United at Spartan Stadium.

And there's still plenty of growing left for MLS to do. So in celebration of how far soccer in the U.S. and Canada has come in the past 25 years, we asked our analysts to predict how MLS might look 25 years from now.

1. MLS will rival baseball and hockey in the U.S. sports landscape

MLS is the eighth-best-attended soccer league in the world, and it won't be long before that growth puts it in a position to challenge baseball and hockey. -- Herculez Gomez (@herculezg)

2. The first automated referee system will be implemented

The good folks at the Professional Referee Organization (and elsewhere) will no doubt dislike seeing more of the human element taken out of officiating games, but this is a development that seems inevitable. -- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)

3. Some original soccer-specific stadiums will be obsolete

Owners won't expand their decrepit soccer-specific stadiums, they will bulldoze the originals and build new ones. I'm talking FC Dallas in Frisco, I'm talking about Columbus Crew, maybe even Colorado. -- Herculez Gomez

4. Heading will be banned in some form

While there's no conclusive evidence that properly heading a ball repeatedly is a driver of concussions (there's no conclusive evidence that it's not, either), we do know that injuries resulting from attempting to head the ball do result in concussions. We're already seeing heading banned in various ways at the youth level, and it's easy to see that extending to the professional game after a couple of decades of those kids growing into adults. -- Noah Davis (@noahedavis)

5. An MLS club will win the Club World Cup

First things first: An MLS team has to win the CONCACAF Champions League, which still hasn't happened. All signs point toward that happening at some point, and as Monterrey proved in last December's Club World Cup semifinal against Liverpool, on their day, the CONCACAF champions can at least hang with Europe's finest. Teams like LAFC and Atlanta United have already shown great ambition, and you wouldn't put it past them to try to pull off a Club World Cup feat. -- Arch Bell (@ArchBell)

6. The calendar will move to spring/fall seasons

Liga MX has it right with a split season, and MLS will follow suit. Think about the benefits: Design the calendar correctly and teams can avoid the hottest month of the summer and the coldest of the winter, doing their best to get around climate change. Split seasons bring excitement to more games, presenting an opportunity for ever-more dramatic playoffs. -- Noah Davis

7. Don Garber will still be running the league

After the NHL's Gary Bettman, MLS commissioner Don Garber is the most tenured such executive in sports. He's a smart guy. There's been growth in the league, and he's part of that. -- Herculez Gomez

8. There will be some form of interleague play between MLS and Liga MX

This is something that both leagues want. Money is the motivation. -- Herculez Gomez

9. A joint league in the U.S., Mexico and Canada will have promotion and relegation

You'd have to split up the league eventually anyway, even if MLS remained on its own. You can't have a 40-team table, you just can't. But more important, you have media companies that are willing to pay to start the pyramid. If you have 18 teams from Mexico, 30-some-odd teams in MLS, however many USL and Canadian teams that have real viability; if you have three leagues of 20 teams, that's 60 teams. The 2026 World Cup is going to stimulate that thought process. -- Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman)

10. Atlanta United will be the first former MLS team to win the combined Liga MX/MLS league

You know a combined North American league is coming. It's just a matter of when. And given that Atlanta has shown a willingness to spend whatever it takes to be competitive, you know it will adapt to whatever new challenges a combined league will create. -- Jeff Carlisle

11. There will be no salary cap

If you really try to compete, and do it right, and you have promotion and relegation, how do you cap that? The salary cap and roster regulations (designated players, young designated players, GAM, TAM, etc.) ultimately will become obsolete should a joint league with promotion and relegation happen, and then you're talking about a real interesting dynamic. -- Taylor Twellman

12. A woman will play in MLS

OK, so this is the most unlikely prediction of all of them and has probably a 0.00001% chance of happening, but admit it: At some point while watching the U.S. women's national team, you've wondered just how good one of them could be in MLS. -- Arch Bell

13. Sons of famous dads will be preparing to make their MLS debuts

The average age of first-time fathers is 31, as of 2015, meaning that the likes of Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Sebastian Lletget, Gyasi Zardes, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris are all the right age to be having kids who could grow up to be knocking on the door of MLS first teams in 2045. -- Noah Davis

14. Adidas will no longer have a monopoly on kits

A combined league comprising American, Canadian and Mexican clubs will prove too unwieldy for one kit supplier to oversee -- especially if that league has three divisions and 60 teams. And if the salary cap goes away, a financial Wild West will extend to kit deals. Bid farewell to Adidas' stranglehold on soccer jerseys in the U.S. and Canada. -- Austin Lindberg (@LindbergESPN)

- Power Rankings: Seattle on top; Miami has a long way to go
- MLS 2020: Your team-by-team preview
- Ranking MLS' new-for-2020 kits

15. Every game will be played on turf, many will be played indoors

As turf technology improves every year, the idea of playing on grass -- a fragile surface that takes incredible resources to maintain -- grows more and more absurd. By 2045, the idea of playing games on grass will be laughably luxurious, especially given how many stadiums will be domed to deal with volatile and unpredictable weather conditions. -- Noah Davis

16. At least one club will relocate

With expansion franchises becoming increasingly scarce in the years to come, existing stadium infrastructure aging and struggling to keep up with attendance demand and investors flocking to MLS, at least one club owner will find the lure of a brand-new publicly subsidized stadium in another market too enticing to pass up. Columbus was spared, but not every market in a similar situation will be so lucky. -- Austin Lindberg

17. An MLS academy product will become a Ballon d'Or finalist

The way that Alphonso Davies is going at Bayern Munich, it just may well be the Canada international to accomplish that feat this decade. Or maybe it will be LA Galaxy starlet Efrain Alvarez. The point is that in recent years some very good young talent cultivated in MLS has made its way to Europe and is shining on the big stage. A tuxedo-wearing night in January in Switzerland for an MLS academy product might come sooner than you think. -- Arch Bell

18. With sea levels rising, Miami Freedom Park will be placed on stilts

As a South Florida native, I know that Stiltsville was a thing once upon a time. Given how long it's taken David Beckham & Co. to get Miami Freedom Park off the ground, here's hoping that such drastic measures aren't needed. -- Jeff Carlisle

19. Remaining owners of original franchises will sell majority stakes

There's more risk in investment every year as these ownership groups become more sophisticated and more aggressive -- like Atlanta, LAFC and Miami. There's still smart business in owning an MLS club, they just won't take on the majority of the risk anymore. -- Herculez Gomez

20. Teams will no longer fly commercial

The league's new CBA sets teams on a path toward this anyway, with clubs required to charter flights on eight travel legs in 2020 and that number rising to 16 in 2024, but by 2025 every single leg of travel will be chartered. No longer will 6-foot-5 center-backs fight to avoid middle seats on transcontinental flights. -- Austin Lindberg

21. Landon Donovan and Eric Wynalda will square off as managers

The two are already set to face each other as managers in the USL on March 7. In 25 years, these two elder statesman of the game will continue their coaching rivalry. -- Jeff Carlisle

22. An MLS club will take part in the Copa Libertadores

While there is a history of MLS teams playing in the Copa Sudamericana, they have never been involved in the Copa Libertadores. But that will change as travel for teams improves and the financial lure of South America's club soccer crown jewel becomes too attractive to ignore. Soon enough, the likes of River Plate, Boca Juniors and Flamengo will be coming to a stadium near you soon. -- Arch Bell

23. The Revolution will still play in Gillette Stadium

We kid ... There's no way it will be called Gillette Stadium two and a half decades from now. -- Noah Davis

24. The Cosmos name will return

At some point, Red Bull is going to struggle to justify their investment in the New York franchise, and while any prospective new owner could look to return the franchise to its original MetroStars heritage, the inherent equity of the Cosmos brand would prove far more lucrative and subsequently enticing. Now, just to work out an agreement with Rocco Commisso for the name ... -- Austin Lindberg

25. Bob Foose, unable to get rid of TAM, steps down as executive director of the MLSPA

I kid, but MLS' apparent addiction to arcane roster rules shows no signs of abating, and that is likely to be the case 25 years from now. Perhaps when the combined Liga MX/MLS competition comes to pass, Liga MX can convince their MLS brethren that less is more when it comes to roster rules. -- Jeff Carlisle