I remember getting a FIFA video game in the late 1990's. I had played soccer as a kid and enjoyed it, to a degree, but it wasn't the sport for me. My friends all played on the soccer team in high school so I stayed close to the game. The 1994 World Cup energized me and I watched with interest as Major League Soccer made its debut. I always thought it was odd soccer never caught on in the States. And besides, our top 11 could play with Brazil's top 11 (er, 10) in 1994, why couldn't our league be good? I came home that day, fired up my Sega Genesis and selected DC United as my team. The opponent would be Manchester United.
Yes, I learned how far American soccer had to go from a video game.
I quickly realized that while the very top of American soccer could match up to almost any team in the world, the player depth simply wasn't there. There weren't enough good players to fill up a league. There weren't enough foreign stars – okay, there were none – that were willing to play in a second-rate league to make far less than what they were making in Europe, regardless of the supposed riches America could bring.
While the quality of the MLS and American soccer remain stagnant, the soccer boom in this country was finally taking hold. All the kids that started playing soccer in the 80s and 90s had grown up to become adults with money to spend. And they still liked soccer. More than that, they liked watching soccer. There is more soccer televised now that at any point in history. ESPN2 is regularly showing English Premier League and Spanish La Liga games. Maybe it's just my imagination but Univision is showing a ton of soccer even for them, with live HD coverage of this year's Gold Cup and Copa America. Fox Soccer has upped its coverage, to the point that the Champions League semifinals were on FX and the finals were on broadcast television on Fox.
Unfortunately, this has only done one thing to American soccer – point out its ineptitude. In particular, MLS remains a sleeping giant. I know the talent level has improved. I know the 'designated player' rule has allowed older stars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry an opportunity to become stars here. I know there have been expansion teams. I know that attendance is up.
But I also know that the ratings barely register more than a test signal. I know that for the U.S. National Team to succeed, our best players must go to Europe to test themselves. I know that few, if any, people reading this can name the team that won the last U.S. Open Cup, the last MLS Cup and which MLS team almost won the CONCACAF Champions League. Most importantly, I know that when I'm watching an MLS game....it's not as good as watching the Premier League, or La Liga, or (insert European league here). It doesn't have to be that way. MLS can succeed. Here's how:
The designated player rule and the strict salary cap in MLS are both holdovers from other American sports where parity is cherished. Frankly, parity sucks. Why do you think college football has been on a nearly two-decade ascent in every measurable of fan interest? Because there are power teams. You know when Texas or Ohio State or Alabama is playing, that team is usually the best team on the field. It's why fans of Northwestern or Baylor root every year for the one chance at glory to knock off the big dog in the conference. It's why baseball became our national pastime when the Yankees won every year. It's why the NBA was most popular when Michael Jordan was winning every year and was as popular this year as ever thanks to the Heat's trio and perceived greatness. Sports need great teams to succeed. Leagues needing to gain traction really, really need great teams to succeed.
It's most true to soccer. When you say English soccer, Manchester United and Arsenal spring to mind. Say “La Liga” to a soccer fan and they will immediately retort, Real Madrid and Barcelona. That's how soccer works. The MLS doesn't work like that. Who is the defining MLS team? The closest they have right now is the L.A. Galaxy due to Beckham and Landon Donovan. It could be New York with Henry and a new stadium. Or it could be the Seattle Sounders with its passionate fan base. But the MLS has leveled the playing field. And it's stupid. If you're trying to grow the league, let owners throw their money around. For the quality of play in MLS to improve, the talent level needs to rise. How is that going to happen? By paying for it. Ditch the designated player rule, let owners spend freely and see what happens.
When is the MLS on nationally? That's a great question – I have no idea. Sometimes it's Thursday nights. Sometimes it's Sunday night. Sometimes it's Monday night. It's not a good way to build an audience. Think about Major League Baseball, which is on Wednesday nights on ESPN, Saturday afternoons on Fox, Sunday afternoons on TBS and Sunday nights on ESPN. Every week. I know when it's on. Hell, I know when I can catch English Premier League soccer during the season – Saturday morning at 8:55 on ESPN2, 11am Sunday on Fox Soccer – better than I can the soccer league that takes place in this country. Which brings me to a second point – MLS needs to ditch ESPN.
There is a misconception among smaller sports leagues that being on ESPN is the end-all, be-all. When in fact, the opposite is true. If the sport is a ratings Goliath like football or basketball, then ESPN is where you need to be. If the sport isn't, then ESPN will swallow you up whole and forget about you. The NHL left ESPN for basically its own network in Versus and the league just had its most watched game, Game 7 between the Bruins and Canucks, in nearly four decades. The Indy Racing League was on the verge on collapse after years of being banished to the nether regions of ESPN2. A move to Versus and, volia, the league is showing signs of life again.
Sports on television is a valuable commodity going up by the second in this DVR world. The MLS needs to take advantage of this. Leave ESPN and being shuffled around the schedule. Go with Versus and get a permanent, nationwide slot twice a week. Or go with Fox Soccer and get the same on FX. If the sport is going to be taken seriously, it needs to rise above its current WNBA-like spot on the national television radar. Likewise, a deal with Versus or Fox Soccer could get the MLS Cup and other important games on broadcast television, either NBC or Fox.
Blow Up The Format
The MLS regular season format and playoff structure is easily – I mean, it's not even close – the worst in American professional sports. There are 18 teams and 10 (!!!) make the playoffs. That's more than 50%. That would be like the NCAA Tournament being expanded to 156 teams. Imagine if major league baseball suddenly expanded to 20 teams in the playoffs. The world would end. But since no one pays attention to MLS, only soccer fans get annoyed and MLS executives have the nerve to say that expanding the playoffs 'enhances' the regular season as if anyone could possibly believe that.
Soccer is a sport, much like baseball, where the regular season is the thing. Again, look at the college football, which has 120 FBS teams and essentially a two-team playoff for a title – things seem to be going well for them. Of course, MLS is always compared to the English Premier League, which has no playoffs. There can be a compromise between the European way of doing things and the American thing, where we have a seemingly unquenched thirst for playoffs. It's really not that hard.
Step 1: Eliminate the conference. Put the teams in one table like the Euros do. 18 teams (soon 20) that go home and home with every other team. Very simple. Very manageable. Very traditional.
Step 2: Top 4 make the playoffs. Semifinals are home and home legs, a la the Champions League semifinals, and you do the big MLS Cup to crown a champion.
It solves everything. You get the playoffs, you get the MLS Cup, you get a true champion, you get a meaningful regular season, you get it all. Why haven't they done that yet? My only guess is that the MLS executives get paid to keep the league a second-rate outfit.
Soccer needs relegation. It's just the way it is. It's what makes soccer more interesting than other sports. It's what sets it apart. Teams have to be good consistently, or at least not terrible. Look at the Detroit Lions. Or the Pittsburgh Pirates. Do its owners deserve to keep raking in millions per year while the team finish last year after year after year? No, no they don't.
I fully understand the MLS doesn't want to allow lower-level teams into the league. That makes perfect sense. But I know there are owners who want to get into the game. In 2007, while working for the Hartford Business Journal, I wrote on a group that wanted to bring a team to Hartford – Rentschler Field holds 40,000 and hosted the U.S. National Team's send off game to the World Cup in 2010 – but was denied by Robert Kraft. Kraft claimed Hartford was part of the New England Revolution's “territory” – a phrase used by owners in established leagues like the NFL to prevent competition. The Revolution, mind you, are lucky to fill about a fourth of Gillette Stadium and no one from Connecticut goes to its games. The MLS could've used the opportunity to create a new rivalry and spark some local interest in a new market. Instead, they acquiesced to Kraft and Hartford, a potentially wonderful soccer market on par with Seattle, goes dormant with a perfectly suitable soccer stadium that lays vacant all summer.
Imagine, though, if there was an MLS First Division (or whatever fancy name you want to give it) within between 8 to 12 teams. Give potential owners the opportunity to create a major league franchise. The winner of the First Division each year makes its way to MLS. One team gets dropped from MLS. Think about what the month of October could look like for American soccer.
First Tuesday: MLS Semifinal #1, Leg #1
First Wednesday: MLS Semifinal #2, Leg #1
Second Tuesday: MLS Semifinal #1, Leg #2
Second Wednesday: MLS Semifinal #2, Leg #2
Third Tuesday: First Division championship game
Third Wednesday: MLS Relegation Battle (last two teams in MLS standings, at the home stadium of the second-worst team)
Fourth Wednesday: MLS Cup
Are you telling me you wouldn't be interested by that? I know I would. Besides, we have to do something for during those long two days during the week when there's no football on.
Can you name who played in the UEFA Champions League final? Can you name who won the FA Cup? Yep, I can too.
Can you tell me who played in the CONCACAF Champions League final? Can you tell me who won the last U.S. Open final? Exactly.
I caught Real Salt Lake try to win the CONCACAF Champions League by accident. I was flipping channels and I saw the game on Fox Soccer. I couldn't believe it was really happening. An MLS team? About to win the Champions League? I rushed to Google to confirm that, indeed, this was a really, really big deal. And judging by the crowd in Salt Lake City, they knew it was a big deal. Judging by the lack of coverage almost everywhere else – I'm not sure anyone else did.
I know that MLS is concerned with its own league but the success of the league is based on the success of the team and the sport as a whole. The U.S. Open Cup needs to be televised and needs to be promoted by MLS. Ditto for the Champions League. The MLS teams need to start collecting trophies the way that European teams do.
In the end, I doubt that MLS would ever take on any of these suggestions because, from the quotes I've read, they seem pretty full of themselves. And you would be too if your league existed 15 years after the whole country predicted you to fail. Still, there is so much potential. And it's simply not being met right now.
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