Note: Some spoilers for The Journey 2 follow.
Major League Soccer has been having a great year in many respects: The quality of player is better than ever, Atlanta United is drawing crowds of 70,000 or more, and now it's one of the main focuses of FIFA 18.
Despite being mired in probably the worst of their existence, the LA Galaxy are front and center in this year's version of EA's massively popular soccer sim. Their stadium, the Stubhub Center, appears for the first time as a playable arena, and they play a prominent role in FIFA's The Journey 2. EA even takes the time to get the cheesy intro music right.
The only problem? Literally everything else.
As flattering as the attention must be for MLS, which still has a long way to go before finally breaking into the mainstream American sports discussion, the lack of attention to detail in its depiction is disappointing.
FIFA 18 gets almost everything wrong: player acquisition, the playoff format, the atmosphere. I say this as someone who is far too invested in MLS. Proof:
Yes, that's me with Chris Wondolowski for a game that I traveled to see in Portland. Suffice it to say, I spend way too much time watching domestic soccer.
But even if you're not familiar with with the intricacies of the MLS, it's pretty obvious that FIFA 18's depiction isn't accurate. So what's gives? How did EA get this so wrong?
Could the LA Galaxy Even Afford Alex Hunter?
MLS plays a major role in FIFA's second iteration of The Journey—the story mode starring a young up-and-coming English player named Alex Hunter (and friends). After a botched transfer saga results in our hero getting exiled to Los Angeles, he has to build himself back up and try to get LA into the playoffs (gross).
What follows is, on the surface, a decent depiction of the world of the MLS. Teams like the Sounders, Toronto, Sporting KC, and the Chicago Fire are highlighted as legitimate threats; the USWNT and the MLS All-Star Game both make appearances, and the playoff format is actually properly followed. The atmosphere works, too—you won't see the familiar supporters groups, but you'll hear reasonably accurate MLS songs emanating from the stands. And when Seattle scores at home, you'll even see the familiar flames erupt around goal.
Unfortunately, it only works if you don't think about it too hard. In FIFA 18, MLS is treated as a launchpad for a revitalized international career. But in real life, a move to MLS is commonly seen as a borderline career ender—an acknowledgment that you can't hack it at the top level. Just look at how much Mexican fans freaked out when Giovani dos Santos and his brother went to LA.
MLS fans will respond by pointing to the success of Giovinco and David Villa, and the fact that the Villa was even called up to the Spanish National Team. I would counter that there's no way that either of them will ever play for a major European club again. They're in MLS forever.
Think the Galaxy would let Hunter leave? Think again. Selling on young talent is quite rare in MLS. And there's absolutely no way that giants like Bayern Munich would come calling after a good performance in MLS.
Then there's the question of how exactly the Galaxy are able to sign Hunter. Granted, this is super nitpicky, but The Journey's version of the Galaxy have already filled their three Designated Player slots—a tag concocted to get international stars on MLS teams—with Giovani Dos Santos, Jelle Van Damme, and Romain Alessandrini (you even see them on the field with Hunter at various points). Their international slots are also full.
Hunter clearly makes more money than the average MLS player, so how can the Galaxy get him in under the cap? Targeted Allocation Money? FIFA doesn't particularly care to answer; and in fairness, such esoteric details won't make or break the story. But on the other hand, they do matter in a sports sim, and it can't help but hurt suspension of disbelief when they aren't acknowledged. Indeed, little details are a problem in general for FIFA.
Nitpicking aside, The Journey is probably the strongest part of FIFA 18's MLS depiction. The Stubhub Center, the MLS All-Star Game, and other fun additions are all very cool.
But sadly, FIFA 18 doesn't follow through in fixing the one aspect of the MLS it's always gotten wrong: career mode.
Running MLS in Career Mode is Still Terrible
Anyone who follows soccer knows that MLS is kind of a weird league. Okay, that's an understatement. Unlike Europe and nearly every other league in the world, MLS operates on the American franchise model, which means each team is part of a greater whole.
As a consequence, MLS has a salary cap; tightly controls the money allocated for international players, and lacks the traditional promotion and relegation structure found in other countries. This is what the American soccer pyramid looks like (courtesy of Top Drawer Soccer):
Confused? So is EA.
FIFA's career mode has always been a one size fits all model that is biased toward the European teams, which is awkward for fans who want to enjoy their own clubs.
So if you decide to play as, say, Toronto FC, you'll find yourself in a weird, bastardized version of the real league-one in which transfers are handled basically as they are in the real world, there are only five playoff spots (why?), and the CONCACAF Champions League is non-existent.
It also lacks many of the weird, quirky nuances that make MLS... well, not exactly good, but interesting. There's no draft, so you can't quickly supplement your roster with randomly generated players. DPs are likewise absent. TAM... GAM... International Slots... none of these are in FIFA 18.
When combined with the tiny salary pools afforded most MLS teams, Major League Soccer has never been much fun to play in FIFA. But that's the drawback of being just one of many licenses, I suppose. MLS is a tiny, mostly insignificant league in the grand scheme of things; and while it's been on the upswing in recent years, it still doesn't really warrant the resources required to specially tailor career mode to its specifications.
But if FIFA isn't willing to take the time to get MLS right, why are they putting the spotlight so squarely on it in FIFA 18?
The obvious answer is that they want to continue to make inroads into the American market, where FIFA still has plenty of room to grow. Putting MLS, LA Galaxy, and the USWNT front-and-center is EA's way of acknowledging the growth of American soccer culture and enticing in new fans. But with FIFA 18 getting so much wrong about MLS, it feels like a hollow gesture.
As an MLS fan, I've never expected much out of FIFA 18's depiction of the league. I've always been happy just to have the license in the game. But seeing it get so much attention has served to both raise my expectations and make me that much more annoyed at how crappy its depiction is in career mode.
In short, if you're going to do it, EA, then do it right.