When Will the MLS be a Major League Success?

This weekend was the first weekend of the MLS’ 2013 season and I have to say that I’m still left unimpressed by the product being put on the pitch by the United States and Canada’s top tier football league.

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MLS Commissioner Don Garber thinks his league will be one of the best in the world in 10 years.

The story of the North American Soccer League’s mercurial rise to fame and eventual flaming out is well-known, well-versed and has continued to cast a shadow over the MLS for much of its history but at some point you have to get a little more aggressive in building your brand. After all, MLS commissioner Don Garber reiterated his plan to have the league be considered one of the best in the world by 2022.

Hopefully it isn’t as ill-fated as the USSF’s “Project 2010,” the plan to make the US men’s national team good enough to be competitive in the 2010 World Cup.

Unfortunately, Garber doesn’t have David Beckham, who now plays for Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1, in his underwear on billboards to bring women to LA Galaxy games and the other European retirees in the MLS don’t have the star power to do what Becks did.

Promotion and Relegation

Currently, there is no promotion and relegation in Major League Soccer. Some people think that’s perfectly fine but I think that’s one of the major problems with the league and the entire USSF pyramid.

People will argue that teams in the NASL (2009), the USL Pro and Canadian Soccer League don’t have the financial backing to survive in a top level league but we’re talking about the MLS. The MLS where there are clubs that can’t fill their stadiums for semi-final playoff games.

Promotion and relegation will allow the pyramid to be built from the ground up instead of the top down as they seem so keen on doing. The lure of possibly playing at the top will bring in new, ambitious owners to the clubs at the bottom. Imagine a Mark Cuban or Jerry Jones-esque mogul coming in and taking over a club like the San Antonio Scorpions. They’d go from NASL club to MLS champion in a matter of months.

Of course, the MLS would also have to get rid of their single-entity model.

Salary Constraints

This comes directly from the downfall of the original NASL. The league grew quickly and the New York Cosmos had some of the best players in the world on their squad. However, the free spending also caused its eventual demise.

The MLS keeps a lid on their clubs spending in an effort to prevent the same thing from happening to their league but when those same clubs go to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League, they have a fraction of the financial power that the teams they are competing with have.

Compare Liga MX’s ability to keep Mexican-born players in Mexico to the MLS’s inability to keep American starlets in the United States — a problem which probably also stems from the single-entity model. Guadalajara in Mexico is a huge club and the parent club of Chivas USA in the MLS, but Guadalajara isn’t able to feed their club in the MLS with the funds necessary to become of the top sides in Major League Soccer.

A little financial flexibility and our players wouldn’t be running to the Premier League, the Bundesliga or the Tippeligaen.

Playoffs

Yes, the playoffs is what makes the MLS American. Americans love to see teams go head-to-head and settle things on the field. We love to see upsets and all that good stuff but I think that’s a problem.

Playoffs create the chance for clubs that have not performed well to get hot at the right time and win the championship. I love that in the NFL but keep it out of my association football. Leagues in Europe may not have actual playoff systems to determine their champions but those clubs still settle it on the pitch.

What do you call it when every team plays every other team twice home and away? A round-robin tournament, that’s what.

People would be downright outraged if Liverpool was crowned Premier League champions — obviously Liverpool supporters wouldn’t be — at the end of this season because they snuck into a playoff and happened to hit form at the right time.

Obviously, there are good things about the MLS and of course there are more negatives, but to think the MLS will be a world class league by 2022 is bending the meaning of world class a little too much.

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Defining American Football Glory

Yesterday, Norwich City completed an impressive comeback due in part to goals from loanee Kei Kamara and the ageless Grant Holt. The Canaries picked up Kamara in the January transfer window from Major League Soccer side Sporting KC with an option to bring him on permanently at the end of the season.

However, that’s not what I’m going to discuss. If you were to look at ESPN FC’s front page following yesterday’s round of football you would have seen the headline: Sporting KC’s Kei Kamara powers Norwich City to comeback win over Everton or something to that effect.

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AZ Alkmaar forward Jozy Altidore has burst onto the scene in the Eredivisie but hasn’t enjoyed the same success with the US National Team.

As a disclaimer, I must say that I love when American players go overseas and do well. (Kamara is from Sierra Leone but his family immigrated to the United States when he was 16.) Though not often spoken of, I enjoy knowing that Jozy Altidore is one of the top scorers in the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar. I like that Jermaine Jones is a key cog for Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga. I can’t wait for Brek Shea to get his chance with Stoke City.

All that said, a win for American players overseas should not be celebrated like a World Cup win for the country nor a victory for Major League Soccer.

Rarely in the United States do we see Tottenham’s scores scroll across the screen on ESPN, but when Clint Dempsey plays they talk about it whether he scored or not. Kamara was referred to as Sporting KC’s player instead of Norwich City’s. The fact that the aforementioned Shea was left out of FC Dallas’ side on more than a few occasions for bust ups with manager Schellas Hyndman was forgotten when he became another American making his way across the pond.

We as Americans need to realize we are behind the curb in the footballing world. That fact is made painfully obvious when we celebrate Dempsey being subbed on in the 75th minute in some League Cup tie.

Major League Soccer is the current retirement home for European footballers. Nigel Reo-Coker, 28, is one of the youngest European players to sign on with an MLS side in some time. While Americans are busying watching Dempsey and Landon Donovan’s every move, Europeans are busying laughing at the MLS for signing players who should have hung it up three years ago. Yes I’m talking about you, Montreal Impact. Signing every over-the-hill Italian player won’t make you good.

Meanwhile, our national team flounders under bad manager after bad manager. Jurgen Klinsmann was the sexy pick, but the sexy pick hasn’t come with concrete results. How do you not call up a player who has scored 18 goals in 17 games? Altidore is the best American striker, Klinsmann. Put him on the pitch.

At some point, we need to separate the MLS from American players overseas. They may have gotten their start in the American league but their talent is not eternally tethered to it. Clint Dempsey is Clint Dempsey because of Fulham not the New England Revolution and Donovan wouldn’t be half the player he is without Bayer Leverkeusen, Bayern Munich, and Everton.