Friday, April 15, 2016

The 12-Step Plan to Make MLS a Top League by 2022

“We want to be thought of the way the Premier League is thought of, Serie A is thought of, La Liga is thought of, the Bundesliga is thought of. When people think about the best leagues in the world, everybody knows who they are, and we want to be one of those leagues.” – Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, July 2014

liverpool beats dortmund
On Thursday afternoon, the scenes from Anfield as Liverpool completed a comeback for the ages against Borussia Dortmund were awe-inspiring. These were top clubs from top leagues laying it all on the line. It was the epitome of world-class football.

It also further illuminated the great challenge for Major League Soccer if it wants to be on that level.

Even the most ardent MLS supporter – and I have not been one – must admit the league is far from the best in the world. At times, the league has become a laughingstock. This past week, Sacramento Republic tried to make #BuiltForMLS a trending hashtag and they succeeded. The problem is the hashtag trended thanks to soccer fans mocking the league for its ineptitude.

Despite grand proclamations after each World Cup, the MLS has not shown the type of growth you would expect from a country that has more registered youth soccer players than all but one country in the world.

Americans love soccer. Americans don’t love soccer in America. This is a huge problem for the sport and needs to be addressed. It’s time for MLS to stop antagonizing and start embracing the large numbers of Americans who only watch foreign leagues, whether that’s EPL, Liga MX or the Champions League.

In order, here are 12 steps that MLS can take to achieve the seemingly impossible goal of being a top league by 2022.

Move the MLS Cup

The most popular television show in America is the 4:25 p.m. NFL game on Sunday afternoons. Guess when the MLS Cup was played in 2015? Yep, directly opposite.

This is mind-boggling, and a recently new development. For years, the MLS Cup was played on a Sunday – against television’s 2nd most popular show, Sunday Night Football. Then, the game was moved to a Saturday afternoon against the SEC Title Game, which is annually one of college football’s most-watched games of the year.

Why? Why? Why? The ratings from 2015 were frighteningly bad, falling far short of regular season NHL games and early morning EPL games. The MLS Cup cannot be programmed against football in December and expect to stay relevant.

The MLS needs to follow the lead of other sports and give up the fight against the NFL. If the MLS Cup absolutely must stay at the first week of December, it needs to be moved to a weeknight. On a Tuesday night, maybe ESPN can treat what should be America’s biggest soccer game like an actual event.

Stop Adding Teams

There are 20 teams in EPL, La Liga and Ligue 1. There are 18 teams in Liga MX and the Bundesliga. So why on Earth does MLS want to have 24 teams by 2020 and a ridiculous 28 teams as the ultimate goal?

The quality of play in MLS is behind other top leagues and adding more teams only thins out rosters to drag play down even further. We all know what is driving this, as expansion teams cough up an insane $100 million to join. But since none of this money has made its way into salaries, it hasn’t done the league any good.

The perfect number for MLS is 20 teams, split into two 10-team conferences. This is not rocket science.

Scrap the Current Playoff Format

In a league with 30 teams, MLB has 10 teams that make the playoffs. In a league with 20 teams, MLS has 12 teams make the playoffs. I wonder why no one cares about the MLS regular season?

Personally, I would remove all playoff games from the MLS because they have provided little to no tangible benefits. But I comprehend that MLS Cup is a necessary evil in the American sports landscape. Still, the fact that 60% of teams make the playoffs is absurd.

I would suggest the perfect number is 3 or 4 per conference – with 3 giving the top team a bye, while 4 would be acceptable if finishing first had another benefit. Regardless, 12 is far too many and hurting the overall product.

Change the Champions League Qualifications

Due to Canadian teams involved, the Champions League qualifications are full of if’s. If a Canadian team wins, if the Supporters Shield team wins the MLS Cup, if, if, if. It’s not good because it confuses the casual fan.

liga mx beats mls
Look at the EPL and how very simple it is – the top four makes the Champions League. No if’s, no but’s.

Because the schedules are not identical, it would be unfair for MLS to take just the top four. Instead, take the top two regular season finishers in each conference. That’s it. Make it simple.

The winner of the MLS Cup won the MLS Cup and the winner of the US Open Cup won the US Open Cup, those are trophies and should suffice. The league needs to focus on creating urgency in the regular season for the top teams, instead of coasting into the playoffs, and this is how you do it.

Stop Playing during FIFA International Windows

I don’t have much to say here because it’s ridiculous. MLS is the only American sport that would dare play regular season games without its best players. Could you imagine if the NHL kept playing during the Olympics? Could you imagine if the Cavs played one game with LeBron playing elsewhere?

It’s unthinkable because it’s stupid. If every other league can figure out how to schedule around these breaks – and MLS plays fewer games than others – than MLS can figure it out too. How does playing games opposite the World Cup help anyone?

Scrap the All-Star Game

If you want to be perceived as a top league, it’s not a good look to have all your best players on one side against an European club. You’re telling the entire world you’re a minor league. This is bad.

I understand the need for a mid-season showcase, so why not make it a benefit for winning, say, the US Open Cup or MLS Cup? The team that wins that Cup gets to host a mid-season showcase against the top European club. You can still name an All-Star team, and maybe do a skills completion before the showcase game to keep that signature event on the calendar.

Stop Signing Old Players

David Beckham was a landmark signing for MLS because, despite his advanced age, he was still a world-class footballer that could play at the top level. He was also a huge star and brought much-needed attention to a league that desperately needed it at the time.

You know what MLS doesn’t need? Guys like Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard, who could no longer compete in EPL, being granted massive contracts to finish out their career. The “retirement league” stigma looms over MLS on a daily basis.

Instead of spending money on older players that don’t bring fans to the league, funnel that money into developing young American players and signing overlooked talent wasting away on the benches of top European clubs.

Increase Emphasis on U.S. Open Cup

I never know when the US Open Cup is on. That’s probably because it’s not on. The US Open Cup is the only part of American soccer that has ever emulated European soccer. Since it features teams from NASL, MLS rarely promotes it properly.

MLS needs to realize that a smaller division club upsetting MLS teams is a good thing, because it adds the needed pressure to the proceedings. Make the US Open Cup a signature event and push for a television deal that puts it on ESPN, Fox Sports 1 or NBCSN. This could be a signature event and another way to grab casual fans. March Madness shows us every year that people love knockout tournaments and they love big upsets.

Scrap the DP Rule

It’s ridiculous that guys making far less than I are professional soccer players in this country, playing alongside guys making millions. When new teams are paying $100 million for the right to join the league, it’s criminal.

Allow teams to pay players fair value. If superclubs emerge, that’s a good thing. The “parity” in MLS looks suspiciously like mediocrity, and top leagues are not mediocre.

Increase Emphasis on Champions League

Right as the 2016 MLS season started, MLS clubs were slaughtered by their Mexican counterparts in an embarrassing display. While the American soccer media came out of the woodwork to defend the performance, it was pathetic.

The Champions League needs to be a focus for MLS. Once the DP rule is scrapped and teams can develop depth on their rosters, they can start competing with Mexican clubs. You can’t be a top league if Liga MX bashes your brains in every February.

End the Single Entity Ownership

Once we’ve reached this point, it’s time to end the single entity ownership that is ultimately the anchor around the neck of MLS. Cut the cord and let teams live and die on their own. There may be attrition, but that’s the beauty of capitalism.

Simply put, the league will never, ever be a top league in its current structure because there’s no room for growth. Right now, it make no sense to scrap the single entity structure since the league is losing money. After instituting these first 10 steps, MLS might eventually be closer to turning a profit.

Push for Promotion & Relegation

Yes, this is the ultimate goal – to open up American soccer to everyone. Right now, the league is focused on big markets and desperately emulating the NFL. It’s not working.

I fully understand, as with the single entity, that MLS and the US Soccer Federation can’t institute promotion/relegation right now. Instead, a roadmap must put in place that marks out how that end goal can be achieved.

It doesn’t matter how that plan looks like – it could be dividing the U.S. up into two regions for travel, or maybe it’s dividing the top division’s conferences differently each year based on location. What matters is that everyone involved in American soccer puts their heads together, negotiate a solution and put it in action.

Why Soccer Works Everywhere Else

During a recent EPL game, the announcer summed up the thrill of English football right now: “There’s a battle for first, there’s a battle for fourth and there’s a battle to stay up.”

Every year as the MLS regular season winds down, the only battle is between mediocre teams that can’t finish in the top half of the table.

MLS isn’t a top league but it’s not completely broken. At least not yet.

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