As we all know by now, soccer cards are the fastest-growing part of the hobby. While the best leagues in the world are far away in Europe and South America, our local game is nothing to sneeze at. If you collect soccer, you need an intro to MLS soccer cards. We got you.
If you are a soccer collector, you have probably noticed that American prospects are far more valuable than highly gifted youngsters from elsewhere. The US remains the center of the hobby, and therefore, nationality is a massive factor in hobby value. For this reason, MLS card releases offer an enormous opportunity. They often feature the rookie cards of the best young American players. Therefore, the popularity and importance of these releases have increased of late.
However, collecting MLS cards has not been easy. Releases have always been inconsistent, with companies often treating them as an afterthought.
In 1994, the USA hosted the World Cup for the first time. As you may have heard, it will host again in 2026, alongside Mexico and Canada. In an attempt to take advantage of the momentum provided by the global tournament, the United States launched a new professional soccer league.
Today the league includes 27 teams and will expand to 30 in 2023. Teams are divided into a Western Conference and an Eastern Conference. While not considered one of the highest quality leagues globally, it has a reasonably high level. It is routinely ranked among the top 20 leagues in the world.
How is the league structured? Regular season play begins in mid-March. Then, the top seven teams from each conference reach the playoffs, where they face off in one-off knockout matches. The final is held in November and determines the champion.
In addition, it is a closed league with no promotions or relegations. If you are a fan of European soccer, you may know that this is a very American approach and has little in common with how soccer leagues operate elsewhere.
The MLS is reasonably popular in the United States. Its annual broadcasting rights are valued at $90 million per season.
Unlike Liverpool FC or Real Madrid, MLS teams have the advantage of being located close to home. So if you are in a big city, there is likely a home team vying for your allegiance.
However, if you have difficulty choosing which team to support, this Tweet includes a handy and helpful chart to satisfy your needs.
In its first four years, MLS did not have any regular card releases. Later, they would enter into deals with Upper Deck and finally Topps. Both struggled to find formats that would stick.
In 1997, Upper Deck released its first series of MLS cards. The 1997 Upper Deck MLS included 440 cards. The cards were divided into base and Gold editions. Unfortunately, the release was not a particularly big hit and did not appear on shelves the following year.
In 1999, Upper Deck came back with a more limited release. 1999 MLS Sign of the Times included 114 cards, 3 of which were autos. This series continued in 2000.
However, in 2001 Upper Deck stopped releasing MLS cards. Notably, instead, they released a series of Manchester United cards. After all, that is where the money was among soccer collectors at the time.
In 2004, Upper Deck renewed its MLS series. By this time, the league was enjoying a renaissance after some tough early years. This time the series was more successful. The company began to include more auto cards and relic cards.
Upper Deck took steps to solidify its place in the American soccer market. Most notably, by signing Landon Donovan, at the time the best US men’s soccer player, to an exclusive signature contract in 2011.
The 2011 series saw Upper Deck combine its MLS release with the Women’s Professional Soccer league. As a result, it was one of the earliest regular women’s soccer sports card releases in the United States. The set was named simply Upper Deck Soccer and comprised of 200 base cards, including 175 MLS cards, 12 WPS regular cards, and two subsets: “MLS Super Draft” (10 cards) and “WPS Draft” (three).
Topps snatched away exclusive rights to the MLS in 2012 and began releasing products in 2013. While Upper Deck did not release products every year, Topps has been more consistent. They have released their flagship Topps MLS every year. They have also tried to pair the Topps MLS with other higher-end releases.
The first edition of Topps MLS was released in 2013. The release was auto-heavy, promising an autograph per blaster and three per hobby box. Topps MLS would continue to appear every year. However, Topps also released other sets alongside it.
Let’s take a closer look at this year’s release.
The set consists of 200 base cards.
42 Dax McCarty
43 Gustavo Bou
56 Daniel Royer
63 Alejandro Bedoya
75 Cole Bassett
83 Darwin Quintero
90 Jonathan dos Santos
94 Mark-Anthony Kaye
100 Jan Gregus
101 Efrain Alvarez
103 Diego Chará
104 Sebastian Blanco
106 Albert Rusnak
129 Henry Kessler
130 Tanner Tessman
131 Paxton Pomykal
133 Gianluca Busio
134 Andre Shinyashiki
135 Sam Vines
There is little variety in MLS releases. Sometimes, it is a hobby box only release and other times there are retail blasters available as well.
The 2021 release of Topps Chrome MLS is the second chromium variation of the flagship release. The previous one came out in 2014, so there hasn’t been any continuity with this product. However, much like their baseball releases, the Chrome variant is very similar in design and concept to the main series.
Topps Chrome MLS was released in two main formats.
Hobby box exclusives include:
Aside from the flagship release, Topps has often attempted to launch a second brand. However, these have generally been hit-and-miss affairs.
In 2016 the company released Topps Apex Soccer, which was a splashy counterpart to the regular release. It featured more imaginative designs, as well as the first on-card autos for a Topps MLS release. However, note that the base cards are still sticker autos; the insert autos are on-card.
In 2017, the Apex series was replaced by an MLS Stadium Club release. The Stadium Club series is well known for its MLB release, high-quality photography, and glossy card aesthetic. However, the series was not long-lived, and it was discontinued in 2019.
2017 also saw the first MLS cards appear in the Topps Now series. The following year, Topps began releasing Topps Now MLS Bowman cards.
As with all Topps Now cards, the series allows you to buy cards dedicated to outstanding events in the league. Collectors have 24 hours to order cards before they are no longer available.
Encouraged by the success of Topps Now Bowman MLS, the company released its first full soccer Bowman release in 2020. The set included 80 promising young players (under age 23) and 20-star veteran cards.
The rainbow for 2020 Bowman MLS was:
The auto list is a good one. The autos are rendered even better by being numbered to ten.
Here is the complete list of autos:
Alejandro Bedoya /10
Alejandro Pozuelo /10
Albert Rusnak /10
Bojan Krkic /10
Brian Rodriguez /10
C.J. Sapong /10
Dax McCarty /10
Joe Corona /10
Jan Gregus /10
Jonathan Osorio /10
Latif Blessing /10
Lucas Cavallini /10
Lucas Zelerayan /10
Mark-Anthony Kaye /10
Matias Pellegrini /10
Ola Kamara /10
Ryan Hollingshead /10
Yuya Kubo /10
Traditionally, the value of MLS cards has been relatively low. After all, soccer cards were not particularly popular in the United States until recently. Moreover, those that did collect soccer cards preferred Premier League or La Liga releases.
However, interest and value have gone up in recent years. So let’s take a look at singles and wax separately.
What is the value of the top rookie cards for each year? We have this handy chart to help us along. These cards are all PSA 10s unless noted otherwise.
|2018 Alphonso Davies Topps Stadium Club||$250|
|2019||No outstanding rookies|
|2020 Daryl Dike Bowman MLS||$300|
|2021 Ricardo Pepi Auto Refractor /25||$4,100 (raw)|
As you can see, Pepi cards are far more expensive than any of the predecessors, even raw. For example, his ungraded base cards are going for over $200 right now. Meanwhile, I couldn’t find a single 2019 rookie card of any value.
Are the unopened wax products a good investment? Considering that MLS prospecting has not been common over the years, we would not expect wax to be particularly valuable in the past.
|2018 Hobby Box||$243|
|2019 Hobby Box||$215|
|2020 Hobby Box||$199|
|2021 Hobby Box||$139|
As you can see, you are not likely to lose any money on a hobby box. The highest value is 2018, which is no coincidence as it contains the Alphonso Davies rookie. With this in mind, the 2021 box is a good investment. With Pepi among the rookies, it may be the most valuable one yet by a good margin.
A lot of the best young American players end up overseas. That is a testament to their quality, as players like Giovanni Reyna and Christian Pulisic are good enough to make waves in the top European leagues. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of exciting young talent in the MLS. Here are some of the best card investments amongst the league’s most promising youngsters.
Pepi is only 18 years old but already figures heavily in the plans of US National Men’s Team coach Gregg Berhalter. The Dallas FC striker came on late against Honduras in the World Cup Qualifiers and turned the game around with a goal and an assist in the crucial match against Honduras. This year, Pepi already has 12 goals in the league, and the lethal finisher has a very bright future ahead.
Cade is a 17-year-old prodigy who made his debut for San Jose Earthquakes at age 15. He has the acceleration of a future star, although his technique needs some polishing. Part of his appeal is Cowell’s equal facility at forward and on the left-wing of the attack.
Is including a non-MLS player in this list cheating? Maybe. But before signing for Serie A side Venezia in August, Busio appeared in the MLS releases for this year. There is a reason European teams courted Gianluca since he turned pro. The youngster is an action-packed central midfielder who always leaves his stamp on the game. As a result, Busio is likely to be a fixture of the USMNT and later a regular at a top European team.
The market for Pepi cards right now is overheated. He is undoubtedly a talented player, but his cards are the most expensive MLS cards ever issued despite his very young age. Pepi may be a major star, but he could also be the next Freddy Adu.
Until his cards come down (assuming they do), it is better to invest in one of the other MLS prodigies.
These numbered Bowman cards are very cool. It is not clear if there will be more Bowman MLS releases, but the combination of a numbered rookie card with the logo of this iconic series will hold good value if Busio pans out. And you can invest in these cards without taking a second mortgage on the house.
The MLS has been a somewhat neglected source of prospects. However, the awakening of the soccer card market in the United States and the high prices fetched by American prospects have changed that. MLS releases are more popular than before, as the league proves to be a robust feeder into the main European leagues. If you are a soccer collector, you will want to get acquainted with the MLS and its card releases.