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.