5 Things Wrong with Major League Soccer

Soccer in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds since it started to grow popular as a spectator sport (beyond the youth games at local parks) in the early 1990s.  With a growing fanbase for soccer eager to watch competitive games in the United States and an increasingly talented corps of recent college athletes eager to play at home, Major League Soccer opened its doors in 1996.  Since then, MLS has grown to become a (somewhat) legitimate league that (sometimes) compete with the elite teams from Mexico, Central America and South America.

Perhaps the slow, steady rate of growth the MLS was experiencing up until a few years ago was not enough – last year it made big waves when it signed David Beckham to a deal worth up to $250 million over 5 years to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.  The MLS insists that it wasn’t putting all its eggs into one (overaged) basket, but the evidence is on the field: while attendance for Beckham games has been outstanding, attendance figures show that the league has failed to produce new fans that will show up when Beckham isn’t around.

Signing Beckham was not the wrong thing to do.  But the MLS needed to complete the picture before they did so.  The media circus surrounding Beckham’s arrival was in one sense a public relations boon, but it inevitably painted Beckham as a savior of the sport in this country and placed unreasonable expectations and scrutiny on a league unprepared to handle it.  Now, with the media expecting more from the league, making their inner workings ever more transparent, glaring weaknesses have been exposed that, compared to established leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB, have crippled the league’s legitimacy in the eyes of the media and soccer fans.

I’ll continue to watch MLS games and support the Galaxy because I love soccer, and it’s fun to head to the Home Depot Center and catch a game.  But the league frustrates me to no end.  Here are five things that the MLS has done wrong and that it doesn’t seem to understand:

5.  The MLS doesn’t understand its fan base

I will give the MLS credit for organizing with Chivas of Guadalajara in the creation of Chivas USA.  Given the fanbase that already exists in Los Angeles for the most-celebrated and popular side in Mexican history, they’ve created a team that would immediately strike a proud chord in Southern California.  They started with a side that consisted almost exclusively of Latin players and have slowly integrated into the league with players from all over the globe.  In this sense, and through what it has done with Toronto FC, it does understand its fan base.

But what the league does not understand is that sports fans, above anything else, love a winner.  If they can’t have a winner, then they want an organization dedicated to building a winner.  The MLS is hell-bent on modeling its system after the Barclay’s Premier League in England, which since the mid-90s has proven to be a gigantic success.  But the Premier League does not value parity among its teams.  The league elites always land at the top of the standings, the ones in the middle scramble for a chance to play in one of the European tournaments, and the ones at the bottom are just trying to stay in the league. 

If the MLS wants to be successful, it needs to model its league after domestic leagues in other sports – the NBA, NFL and MLB for example – where each team has a pretty good shot at winning sometime in the near future.  If they’re losers, then at least there’s hope.  How do you do this?  Don’t always assign the best international signees to Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.  Spread the wealth.  Be fair.  Give yourself some legitimacy.

4.  The MLS surrounded David Beckham with a bunch of nobodies

Let’s be realistic.  When David Beckham was deciding whether or not to come to the MLS, he was only going to one of two places – Los Angeles and New York.  And even though Becks loves New York City, I’m sure the only real choice was Los Angeles. 

Problem is, there were no other considerations involved.  If Beckham wanted to go to Los Angeles, there would be nothing the MLS could do about it.  But by throwing Beckham into a mix of young, unexperienced players (and Landon Donovan), it assured that the Galaxy would fall further down the standings than it was the year before.  The results?  The Galaxy failed to qualify for the playoffs last year, and this year they are on pace to miss them again, currently on a 10-game winless streak (5 losses and 5 ties).  It’s almost embarassing to think that Beckham could miss the playoffs (what should be the MLS’s premier attraction instead of the All-Star game) his first two years here, and possibly beyond. 

They tried to remedy the situation this year by hiring Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit to coach the team, but that experiment failed after only 20 games.  Gullit had expressed his frustration at having to coach young players were not well-schooled in the fundamentals of the game, and he admonished Galaxy management when they allowed a stadium usher to fill in for an undermanned Galaxy developmental team.  No wonder he left.

Now Bruce Arena and the MLS are left to pick up the pieces.  First order: get someone who can actually play defense.

3.  The MLS schedules regular season games that conflict with national team games

As Grahame L. Jones of the Los Angeles Times recently noted, the MLS makes the mistake of scheduling regular season games near dates when national team games around the world are being played.  Nearly no other league does this. 

This weekend, Toronto FC will be missing 9 of its 11 starters to national team call-ups for its game against Chivas USA.  In addition to starters and bench players who are injured, this creates a situation where Toronto will essentially be fielding a developmental team. 

This is an affront to season ticket holders who expect to see a professional team on the field every game.  The same thing happens to the Galaxy – Landon Donovan and David Beckham are always gone for call-ups, giving the Galaxy a rather dull product on the field and a ZERO chance of winning.  If I’m a season ticket holder, I’m selling my tickets for those games.

2.  The MLS does not abide by its own rules

The MLS has a designated player rule whereby each team gets the same number of “designated players” (marquee signings of players arriving from abroad) to keep the league competitive.  Most teams, especially ones that aren’t in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, have only one designated player.  With the David Beckham signing, the Galaxy had three designated players – Beckham, Donovan and Carlos Ruiz. 

This was not the first time it happened.  When Donovan came back to the United States from a brief stint with Germany’s Bayern Leverkusen, the San Jose Earthquakes still owned the rights to him.  The league forced San Jose to trade the rights to Donovan to the Galaxy, which the league thought would be the better fit for its best player. 

Funny, the Galaxy has benefitted from breaches of the rules, yet they haven’t been able to make the playoffs in either of the last two years (and probably this year too).

1.  The MLS cannot keep young American talent from going abroad

I may be placing too much blame on the MLS, but while they have garnered a lot of new talent from abroad, especially South America, it has failed to keep the players who would have become the true stars of the league.  At times, there is little the league can or should do about it when an exceptional young player wants to leave.  But a confluence of factors – some of which I have described above – contribute a player’s leaving his own country to play abroad, and it’s not just the competition.

It was a foregone conclusion that Jozy Altidore, an explosive young striker who played for the New York Red Bulls, would leave for Europe.  But other players like Clint Dempsey, Brad Guzan and Kenny Cooper are players who have the ability to play in top-flight leagues in Europe but will probably not become stars. 

When the MLS loses domestic players to second division teams in Norway (this is happening), you know they are at least partly to blame.

If you want to build an attractive soccer product, it starts with the quality of play.  If you want to build the quality of play, it starts with keeping what should already have been yours.  

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3 responses to “5 Things Wrong with Major League Soccer

  1. You bring up some good points. I’m also MLS fan.

    Again – you have to look at things from an historical perspective and remember there was no MLS in 1995. It’s already the 11th highest attended league in the World. With it’s current growth rate, I think it will be at the top in the next 10 years. We just need to continue supporting it and bring in new fans.

    5. MLS doesn’t understand it’s fan base: I don’t fully agree but you bring up some valid points. I believe that MLS needs to lift it’s salary cap and start working on intergrating MLS with USL and implement a promotion and relegation system but I don’t think they are ready for the promotion and relegation system yet. MLS hasn’t even fully expanded. I think MLS should intergrate with USL to start building each leagues attendance and increase their “purchasing power” in bringing in sponsors, TV rights etc. It has been wise the build the league in the way they have to avoid the fate of NASL.

    4. MLS surrounded David Beckham with a bunch of nobodies: I would quite phrase it this way but do agree they should have done more to bolster the L.A. defense. However, as a Houston Dynamo fan – it work’s for me but for the sake of the league – it would have been better to better showcase David’s talent as a player. We all know he’s a playmaker and that Donovan has speed and a nack for putting the ball in the back of the net.

    3. The MLS schedules regular season games that conflict with national team games: I believe that manage the MLS schedule is a real nightmare due to conflicts with other sports. Television drives most sport schedules. I agree that more needs to be done to better intergrate MLS with the U.S. National team and other international tournaments in which MLS teams compete. I think MLS needs to put more emphasis in winning these international tournaments for the status of the league.

    2. MLS doesn’t abide by it’s own rules. Interesting points.

    1. MLS cannot keep young talent from going abroad: I’d like to see MLS keep more of these players by paying them more. However, it’s probably good for U.S. Soccer to have some players go abroad. MLS, however, needs to fill the talent gap by bringing more international talent.

    The most important thing U.S. Soccer fans can do to build U.S. soccer is to continue to support the league by attending as many games as possible. Introducing those who’ve never checked out a professional soccer match. Buy MLS shirts and gears. Watch matches and get others watching with you. As the leagues revenue continues grow – the ability to draw players and pay better salaries will improve.

    I lived in Europe for eleven years – even though as a whole the quality of play at the top of European leagues are higher – it won’t be long until MLS catches up.

    Thanks for the article. I challenge you, however to re-write your article giving an opposite spin and call it “5 things right with Major League Soccer”.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Jonathan. You’re right – there are some great things the MLS has done that are worth writing about. In fact, it’s a great idea to write the “complementary” piece to this: 5 Things Right with the MLS. I’ll do that shortly.

    I think the fact that the MLS has only been around for 11 years is both a sign that there is room for enormous growth and improvement and a sign that they must be patient. As I mentioned before, the league will get better the more it is able to retain its best young talent.

    As with any burgeoning enterprise looking to expand, there will be bumps along the way. Maybe what will ultimately determine whether the MLS is successful with its lofty goals is how it deals with those obstacles.

  3. I highly disagree with #5. We need a soccer professional league modeled like a PROFESSIONAL soccer league. Forget the MLB, NFL and the NBA. They are different sports with different rules and styles.

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