Major League Soccer – Can it truly reach the heights of top European Leagues by 2025?

What prompted this piece was the recent article published on Soccer By Ives about Don Garber’s vision for MLS by 2025 :  http://www.sbisoccer.com/2015/09/insists-worlds-leagues.html

It’s a good article and worth the read.

 

Editorial – In a follow up to this article (below) Stephen Brandt and I, on Yellowcardedpod, interview Brian Dunseth and Thomas Rongen on some of these topics: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/ycp/2015/09/22/wingers-and-bow-ties–mls2025

Before digging into some of my thoughts/questions on what else might be a part of this 2025 vision I’ll first ask this question – does MLS “need” to attain that level?  Mull that one over as I offer this caveat prior to digging in a bit deeper…

My thoughts offered are not intended to reflect that I don’t follow the league, support the league, or wish the business model of the league to fail. – I like (no) I love soccer – it’s been a passion of mine since the early 90’s and I continue to think and feel it is the greatest individualized-team sport in the World!

In no particular order some topics I think are worthy of consideration as MLS looks to develop/implement reach their 2025 vision:

Unbalanced League Schedule:

Probably the single worst aspect of the current system is an unbalanced league schedule where some teams you play once a year, some teams you play twice a year, and some teams you play three times a year….

I get it – at least for now – but it seems reasonable to me that the vision of 2025 needs to include a ways and means to create a more balanced schedule.

And I find it very doubtful that a schedule looking similar to how things appear today will convince others, outside this country, that MLS is a premier league.

League and Conference Size:

I think most would agree that the league will continue to grow – the question remains on what is the ideal stopping point of expansion?

If MLS wants to compete against the likes of La Liga, Serie A, EPL, and Bundesliga I would offer the stop point is 36 to 40 teams with two distinct conferences of 18 to 20 teams each.

This not only facilitates a balanced league schedule it also facilitates the league taking on the best of the single-table model those other leagues use; while also taking what I sense is a great attribute of American sports – the Playoff system.

There is a down side to this in that it may eliminate teams like New York City visiting Portland during the regular season – or other big cross-country games – but with every strength there is a weakness.

A possible end-run on that weakness is to open up the US Open Cup and eliminate ‘geographical area’ match-ups?  And in the current conditions the US Open Cup is not ready for prime-time TV coverage – if eliminating geographical match-ups in the early stages of the US Open Cup occurs those matches might have greater value to the overall soccer TV audience…

However viewed, having a single table for each conference with a playoff scenario at the end of the season does set up MLS to get the best of both soccer worlds – and it might even convince those across the pond to set up a playoff system too?

Expansion – specifically the Expansion Draft:

I get it – the reality, at least at this time, seems reasonable to allow for an Expansion Draft but seriously, is it reasonable to continue penalizing strong organizations – who build depth for the ever-competitive season – by asking them to potentially sacrifice good players they’ve already invested time and money in only to see them disappear just when they begin to reach their potential?

My view is no – the sooner the Expansion Draft is stopped, in MLS, the sooner the league goes on record to reaffirm that if you are going to be a part of the “premier” league in America you need to have already developed an organization from within that will help you sustain that ‘permanent promotion’ to MLS.

Of course – when MLS reaches that final team number the Expansion Draft is toast anyway – so perhaps this potential 2025 vision doesn’t matter?

Free Agency: Maybe the most contentious (now):

A question if you will – when is the last time you heard about a company like Boeing, who has plants in every state of the United States, prohibiting that employee from seeking a greater wage packet, with Boeing, elsewhere?

The current lack of an expanded free agency system in MLS really does hinder the ability of this league to attain a top league status across the rest of the world.

If MLS is expecting to be a great league in 2025 then a more flexible Free Agency system is most likely needed to sustain that vision.

MLS College Draft:

While I understand the goodness and intent behind the College Draft I remain unconvinced that the hype and expectation of a player moving from college to the professional ranks is really a high-value proposition if MLS is to attain status as a top league across the world.

There are other angles to consider to include 1) NASL has no draft, 2) to who really ‘owns the player’ and 3) what rights the college player already has in other competitive leagues.

I figure it’d take a lawyer or two, like with Free Agency, to work out all those details – especially since the ‘college draft’ is a primary mechanism for other American Professional Sports to improve their organizations.

I’m not going to bet on this but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the glamour of the MLS College Draft decrease – especially if MLS is intent on being a top flight league across the world.

On the other hand, if the NCAA pulled their head out their arse and looked to attain full status as an Amateur League within the US Soccer system then a whole new vision could open up where the likes of Ohio State, and other Colleges could find themselves competing in the US Open Cup – now what sort of atmosphere might that create where a College Team finds themselves playing a Professional Team in a College Stadium that holds 100,000 supporters — for me that sort of atmosphere would be monumental – never-mind the financial and media interest it may draw from the commercial world of the United States!

The question, for me, then becomes – what is the vision of the NCAA for soccer in 2025?

Taking a greater leadership role in the development of Soccer in the United States (College Soccer continues to play ‘outside the lines’ of US Soccer and FIFA regulations):

While some College Head Coaches may disagree, from any number of reasons, those that I’ve interviewed seem to agree that – for the most part – the game of soccer played in college is not the same style, or of the same tactical nous, of professional soccer.

Count down clocks and substitution policies – along with Referees that are not FIFA qualified – place young, impressionable players – at the prime age of skill development, in an environment that comes no where close to matching the type of soccer environment they’ll potentially encounter in the professional ranks.

And if college is supposed to provide a ‘learning environment’ isn’t it reasonable that that learning environment match, as closely as possible, the environment those same players will need to operate in as professionals?

To put this into perspective – there are roughly 1100 organized NCAA teams – meaning there’s roughly (20 X 1100) 22,000 players looking to hone their skills in an environment that doesn’t match professional soccer.

In addition, if growing Professional Referees is an objective then if there are 1100 teams that equates to roughly 550 crews of one Referee and 2 Linespeople also adjudicating games under rules different to those of FIFA.

Last but not least – Coaching staff – if MLS is to be truly competitive isn’t reasonable to expect that there also needs to be a pipeline for Coaches. With 1100 teams that’s 1100 Head Coaches and probably 2200 to 3300 Assistant Coaches all learning to manage a game that has little comparison to the types of tactics they’ll encounter when managing a professional side.

With all that said I remain unconvinced MLS will attain this lofty status when the single largest pool of Players, Referees, and Coaches, in the United States, plays outside the FIFA governing rules of soccer.

Professional Referee’s: 

This topic is probably a topic for every league in the World but if memory serves MLS has yet to completely close the loop on mandating that all Professional Referee’s be full-time for every league match.

Some opinions may vary on this but I do sense it is reasonable to believe that the level of adjudicating MLS matches, by full-time Professional Referee’s in this country, will be better in 2025 compared to now.

Perhaps we might even see FIFA decide to have two primary Referee’s adjudicate a game, just like the National Hockey League?  That may be helpful, for not only MLS, but World Soccer as a whole.

Perhaps another 2025 vision includes better use of video technology in support of Referees?

NASL – Where and how it fits – and if not what happens to those organizations:

There’s no question NASL run a competitive league but the money invested isn’t really on par with what teams leverage in MLS.

If it did then the business model that would best match and create a true environment like that of Europe – would be NASL’s.

So part of the MLS vision should probably consider two different possibilities.

1) Either NASL begins to fade away or 2) NASL merges with USL

Here’s the thing though – if soccer continues to grow in popularity for this country there is a risk to MLS that NASL could surpass MLS in league attendance given an influx of new owners that prefer the European Model of competition – the more you invest, the more likely you are to earn more, which in-turn means more attendance and media coverage, which in-turn drives a larger income, and so on….

Conversely – if MLS and USL are linked then it would seem reasonable, that in order to further strengthen a ‘lower league’, MLS needs to see USL merge with and absorb NASL – with ‘MLS Team 2 teams’ in USL getting relegated to a league division 3 status.

I wonder if that sort of consideration has been given as MLS looks towards a vision of 2025 – especially when looking at European leagues there are no ‘team 2 teams’ that can ever have an opportunity to directly compete against a ‘team 1 team’ – and as things stand today it is possible, not probable, but possible that LA Galaxy 2 could end up competing against LA Galaxy 1 in a US Open Cup Final – now what sort of bollocks would that be?

Before closing on this topic – a thought or two on mergers.  If you recall the AFL and NFL merged to create a new NFL.  The ABA and NBA merged to create a new NBA.  The World Hockey League and National Hockey League merged to create a new NHL.  And the American League and National League eventually tied the knot to create inner league play where both leagues still operate under slightly different rules.

Is it too far fetched to imagine, that by 2025, there will be MLS and then leagues operating directly below MLS where the business conditions are the same?  However viewed I believe a reasonable vision of MLS (and) US Soccer, in 2025, sees greater clarity on where NASL fits into the mix.

The business model of MLS (in America) compared to the business model (in Europe):

It’s ironic really – the business model of Europe sees a socialistic society operating a capitalistic business model (survival of the fittest) while a capitatlistic society (in America) operates a socialistic business model.

If you don’t follow I’ll put it this way – no team, in any top league across the World, is ever guaranteed the right to play in their countries highest level soccer league – they must prove, year in and year out that they are good enough to stay in their top league.

Whereas here, in America, if you join the MLS franchise you are always guaranteed (provided you are somewhat financially savvy) to always have a team in MLS.

Now some may offer this is a bit brutal but I think it is worth noting the word “entitled”; teams in Europe are not entitled to anything – just ask Leeds or Glasgow…

But anyway – I kind of digress here because the intent of using the word ‘entitled’ isn’t really about MLS it’s more about the overall tenor of youth soccer in this country.  Americans should never forget that the game of soccer is/and always has been, in other countries of the world, a game for the working class.

When parents are required to spend money, sometimes greater than $3000 per year, to support their child’s development in soccer they feel that their child is ‘entitled’ to play.

So while MLS may have a vision of top-flight status by 2025 I really believe that status will never be attained as long as the youth learning this game think they are entitled to play if they pay…  and with College Soccer facilitating that entitlement to play through their obtuse substitution rules that entitlement is reinforced!

In closing:

I’d offer there are a number of issues that may??? impact a ‘top-world-league’ vision for MLS 2025.

With some European teams operating on a budget the size of the US Department of Defense (just kidding) is it really reasonable to expect that an MLS franchise, with a salary cap, is going to be able to attract the worlds greatest footballers, in their prime, to the United States?

I’m not so sure. 

In case you missed it – Raheem Sterling was just sold to Manchester City for 49 Million Pounds – I think the purchase price for one player is greater than the team budget of most clubs in MLS…

Do we really expect a team, within the MLS Franchise business model, to pay 49 Million for one player?  Not likely…

So in going back to the first question.  Does MLS “need” to attain that level?

I don’t think so.

But I do think and feel there is value in seeing soccer attain top-flight status as a sport in America.

For me that means a vision where MLS is operating on an equal footing with Basketball and Football – the other Football…

As to the rest of the world I’m not sure it matters much to many folks – if we want to watch the EPL, the best league in the World, all we gotta do is turn on the TV and take it in.

Would I want to see a league table that mirrors the yearly expectations of the EPL here in America?

No.

I admit I don’t like the parity concept from a personal standpoint as I’d like to see the Portland Timbers win every game – but it’s not realistic so I understand and get the business model.

And being a stats guy, who’s analyzed team performance in MLS, La Liga, Bundesliga, and the English Premier League, I pretty much like the greater chances the format offers than the usual (same old teams) we see finishing atop those other league tables.

Best, Chris

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