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MLS in 2022: One of the World's Top Leagues?
Major League Soccer has major aspirations and wants to be among the elite by 2022. Jon Arnold examines the road the league will have to take and the potential pitfalls of doing so.
BY Jon Arnold PostedMAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER IS GROWING. By nearly any measure, the American soccer league is better now than it has ever been since the first ball was kicked in 1996. The soccer, and the attire, is easier on the eyes. The stadiums are less cavernous and full of more fans, chants, and banners. Those fans bring expectations, and the question becomes not if the league is growing but if it’s growing quickly enough. There are other questions too, questions the league hopes to answer authoritatively within the next decade. What is MLS doing to develop young players into top talents? How can MLS get fans into stadiums in struggling markets? Can a league with a salary cap become one of the biggest soccer leagues in the world by 2022, especially when it’s competing with four major leagues domestically? The last issue has been a goal since the league announced its intention as part of the 2022 World Cup bid. It was a lofty ambition, but one that MLS executives said could be accomplished, especially with the excitement of hosting a World Cup on the horizon. We know what happened next: The U.S. lost out to Qatar, and the biggest soccer event on the planet would not come to America. But MLS remains determined to reach its goal. It has nine years. ** THERE IS NO OVERLORD, committee, or governing body that bestows the title of “top league." There are coefficients, computer ratings, and fan votes, but nothing authoritative. Spain, England, Germany, and Italy are generally considered the four best, with other leagues below that echelon. But it’s not obvious how to measure quality. There's no Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. So when the American soccer community wakes up and shakes off the hangover from New Year’s Eve 2021, how will it know if MLS has achieved its goal? “We have four very broad metrics on which we’ll judge our progress,” Nelson Rodriguez, MLS's executive vice president of competition, technical, and game operations told ASN. “One is the quality of our play, second is the passion of our fans, third is the relevance of our clubs, and fourth is the value of our enterprise.” All of them, he agrees, are subjective—the first three more so than the last—but they form the basis for what MLS is hoping to do during the next decade. Rodriguez said MLS executives realize they’re competing on two theaters: one domestic and one foreign. “It forces us to remind ourselves to be patient. No other sports league was launched at a time that had such built-in and historical competition,” he said. “Our four major sports leagues have been here 50 years or longer. They’re engrained.” In addition to getting interest away from pro and college sports in America, interest in leagues abroad has flourished in the States, and that slows no sign of slowing down. “There are four networks that show soccer regularly here in the U.S. and in Canada. You can go to the Internet and see any game at any time,” Rodriguez said. “It really puts us in a situation where the expectation is to be like the NFL, but we’re only 17-years-old, so patience is a big key to that. We have to remind ourselves of that; we have to remind the media of that.” In his March to Soccer speech before the beginning of the season, Garber explained that a slow approach has been key to the league reaching the level it is at today. “Over the past 17 years, we’ve been working very hard to establish a very solid foundation for the professional game,” he said. “We’ve done it in a very patient, strategic way. I think there have been many who have tried to push us to go faster than we were ready to.” The emphasis is on patience partially because moving too fast nearly proved disastrous in the early stages. While the league expanded quickly after its launch, two teams were contracted after the 2001 season and MLS found itself on difficult financial footing. Since then, the league office has carefully overseen most decisions, including expansion. League executives, however, believe the bar they’ve set for 2022 gives them something both difficult enough to push toward and reasonable enough to be achieved. “We know that it’s a bit audacious to assign such a tight timeframe to it, but that is also quintessentially American,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t believe that our fan base or anybody who understands North American culture or North American sports in particular would settle for anything other than being among the best if not the outright best. It forces us, in a way, to be very disciplined about measuring progress over these next ten years or so and also keeps us focused that the vision is not so out there as to be unrealistic.” ** THERE ARE ALWAYS DISAGREEMENTS between management and labor, especially when it comes to money. There’s no question, though, that if MLS is going to become one of the world’s top leagues, it’s going to have to spend more money. “They need to generate the revenue to be able to pay the players without going broke. It’s pretty much that simple,” Raymond Sauer, the president of the North American Association of Sports Economists and founder of The Sports Economist blog, explained to ASN. “You get the best players and people will watch those games, but they need to be able to pay them without going broke.” One prominent player has noticed the league’s salary cap creating an issue with teams keeping talent on their squads, sounding off after his club sent a player to another team in a deal that was perceived as being made solely for salary cap relief. “If you’re in any other league in the world, you keep your good players. Not in this league,” Thierry Henry, the New York Red Bulls forward, told MLSSoccer.com. “That’s just the way it is and that’s why most of the time you see players [moving] and being traded. It is an American way of dealing with things, salary cap, draft, trade. “In Europe, we don’t do that. In Europe, if you perform for your team, you’re sure of staying. But here it’s different and if you want to be compared to some of the big leagues in Europe, something has to be changed. I don’t know what, but something has to be changed.” The salary cap needs to grow if the league is going to succeed in reaching its goal. And grow a lot. “Quite a bit. Significantly. There’s no question about it,” Sauer said. “They’ve got to double or triple it, but they’re not going to get there overnight. Progressively raise it, hopefully they get a better TV contract, expand their stadiums so they can get more match-day revenue and that sort of thing.” Garber recognizes an increasing salary cap as a necessary step. In his March to Soccer news conference, he cited building a bigger financial base both for domestic player development and buying top foreign talent as a key to helping achieve the league’s lofty goal. He offered Mexico’s Liga MX as an example of a top league that hasn’t broken the bank but still competes globally. “They’ve got great fans. They’ve got incredible television ratings. They’ve got a good quality of play. They regularly are winning this region, certainly in the Champions League, and their salary budgets aren’t dramatically different from ours,” he said. “So, I don’t think that you have to spend the hundreds and hundreds of millions of Euro that are spent at the top level of many of the clubs over in Europe to be a great league and one of the top leagues in the world. “We do need to grow our business, and we probably need to increase our spending, but only to do that at a time when we’re going to be able to manage that, and I’m confident we’re going to be able to achieve that.” The league has taken steps to allow teams to spend more money, instituting the Designated Player rule prior to the 2007 season. There are more than two dozen DPs in MLS now, but the cap is just $2.95 million for the 2013 season. By comparison, Barcelona’s players take in an average annual salary of nearly four times that number. Per player. According to an ESPN the Magazine/Sportingintelligence survey, MLS's biggest spending team is the LA Galaxy. At $555,799 in average annual salary, they’re 219th in the world, among Scottish Premier League clubs, Japanese baseball teams, and La Liga teams coping with the struggling Spanish economy and fighting off relegation. The Columbus Crew, MLS' lowest spending team, spent less per player than every squad in the Canadian Football League. Even though there’s work to do, Sauer said that the MLS’ single-entity model is a huge plus and from an economist’s perspective, the ambitious strategy could pay off. “Announcing that you’re going to be aggressive is the right thing to do,” he said. “It gets people’s attention. It says that there’s something more coming down the road, so people will be interested in watching it develop.” Talking big and laying out a plan isn’t one that previous American leagues employed, Sauer said, but in today’s climate MLS won’t be able to get the breaks that leagues got in the past. “They’re going about it in a different way. I don’t think the National Football League really anticipated how big they were going to get. It was sort of serendipitous,” he said. “In the case of MLS, they’re going about it in a very methodical way, very prudently. You miss a little bit, this has been quashed out of the NFL now, but you had the swashbuckling owners back in the ‘70s and what not. The Barlows in San Francisco, the Cowboys, and so on. Those days are gone. The NFL is much more of a corporate entity, and MLS is trying to develop in that sort of same vein. So, it’s a bit different, and I think they’re going about it in a smart way. But you don’t know if it’s going to be successful in the way they want it to be.” ** EDDIE JOHNSON WAS ONCE an up-and-coming player in MLS, the kind of player who was part of the “bottom up” section of the “top down, bottom up” approach the league is taking to expanding its player pool. That means bringing in and keeping the men who “are established international players who are still very much in the prime of their career and still have lots to contribute on the field and in the locker room,” Rodriguez said. And it means developing future players from the bottom up. “Bottom up is the next big investment that our league is making, so all of our teams now have 18- and 16-year-old academy teams. All of them, in the next 12 months, will unveil a 14-year-old academy team, and it’s putting more young players in a professional environment in the way it exists all around the world and the way it exists in athletic disciplines in North America,” Rodriguez said, comparing the system to those used to develop Olympic athletes or world-class musicians. In addition to these teams, the league is also partnering with the French Football Federation to send one coach from each team to work on a coaching license designed to help form young players into professionals. Johnson, a regular starter on the U.S. national team, moved from being a bottom up player to a top down one. After success in MLS led to a failed stint in Europe, he returned to the States to revive his career. He played well for the Seattle Sounders and found his way back to the national team. After a preseason match, the forward compared MLS in its current state to the one he played in before going to Europe six years ago. “The league’s grown. It’s gotten a lot better, a lot faster,” he said. “There are better players in the league, and every team has their own identity. MLS is headed in the right direction. I just can’t imagine in 5-10 years from now how much bigger it’s going to be.” Others are having trouble imagining too. What will MLS look like in a decade? League executives have a vision. Fans have hope. Critics have doubts. Most importantly, the U.S. has a soccer league with the most American of ambitions. Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) is a writer based in Arizona and ASN’s CONCACAF correspondent.
March 05, 2013
March 05, 2013