Major League Soccer – The Past, Present and Future.

2012 is a landmark year for American soccer. It marks Major League Soccer’s 17th season since its inception in 1996 – equalling that of the glamorous North American Soccer League of Pele, Bobby Moore and George Best fame which ran from 1968 till it’s ignominious collapse in 1984.

Rather than staring oblivion square in the face, as NASL did in it’s 17th season, MLS celebrate 2012 with the introduction of another club into the fold. Montreal Impact are the 19th club – the 3rd from Canada – and bring with them, as the previous two expansion clubs in Portland and Vancouver did, a history that stretches back beyond the birth of MLS. The history these clubs bring only builds upon and supports that which the MLS is creating on its own.

And yet MLS commissioner Don Garber isn’t happy to stop at 19 clubs. 20 is a such a nice round number, after all. Through the years a number of cities and wealthy would-be owners have shown MLS a bit of ankle, but many find it’s not as simple as stumping up the reputed in-excess-of-$40 million franchise fee. Planning permission for stadia can be a major stumbling block on the way, especially as a Soccer Specific Stadium becomes de rigueur in the league.

A St Louis-based group found the cost of bringing the MLS to one of the great ancestral homes of American soccer too much. A group of fans in San Antonio have lobbied hard for MLS to come to their city and have, seemingly by a force of sheer will, managed to place a side, San Antonio Scorpions, in the 2012 NASL season.

Baltimore, Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Detroit have all talked openly of their desire to bring top-flight soccer to their cities (some with more veracity than others) but as yet nothing seems certain.

One thing that did seem certain was that the 20th club would be the New York Cosmos. The resurrection of the grand old NASL side, heralded with a media blitzkreig headed by footballing luminaries such as Pele and Eric Cantona, seemed a nailed on certainty for many soccer fans and pundits, with the only question being when it would happen, and not if.

Recent developments have cast some doubt on that despite many experts insisting that a second New York club – one actually based in New York, rather than New Jersey as the Red Bulls are – is a personal goal of Don Garber.

The club’s CEO resigned in late 2011, and as yet there is still no formal bid, nor plans for a stadium. It looks ever more like a merchandising stunt – new “kits” were issued with nary a player signed – Chuck Blazer, former CONCACAF General Secretary, has emerged fronting a rival New York based MLS bid. And to top it off, Garber himself has been singing the praises of Orlando City.

Orlando’s story is an interesting one. Born out of the ashes of the Austin Aztex franchise, they have only completed one season – the 2011 USL Pro (the third tier of America soccer) but raised many eyebrows in the soccer community with strong performances both on and off the field. They swept to victory in the league, and did so in front of strong attendances that averaged around 6,000 and went as high as 11,000 during the championship play-offs – very healthy numbers, especially considering the low level of the league.

Orlando have quickly built up momentum for a MLS bid, and the club have spoken openly about their desire to bring the MLS back to Florida within the next few years. Only time will tell whether City are a flash in the pan, or whether they can continue to grow and attract healthy support. Certainly, a return to Florida would represent a great turnaround for the league after it was forced to beat a hasty retreat from the state during it’s early years.

The 10 team MLS that kicked off in 1996 included Tampa Bay Mutiny among their number. In 1998 Miami Fusion joined the Mutiny as MLS expanded to 12 clubs. However neither club was able to attract enough fans to sustain playing, and both folded in 2002.

Since then it’s been largely assumed that MLS in Florida had failed, but Orlando City are challenging that perception and could yet usurp the Cosmos as the 20th club in MLS.

Where does the league go from there though? It seems further expansion is inevitable, at least as long as the interest from potential team owners remains.

Certainly, the recent additions of Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact have set a pattern for teams from the lower tiers of the soccer pyramid to step up to MLS, creating links back to the NASL days (both the Whitecaps and Timbers fielded teams in the NASL) that MLS seemed determined to avoid in its early days.

In many ways it makes sense – the supporters are already there, the front office is in place and the club have at least somewhere to play, though both Vancouver and Montreal have built, or are building, new stadia, whilst the Timbers massively renovated their ground to being it up to standard.

It’s a system that looks, if you squint really hard, almost like promotion…

Already, with 19 clubs, the league will be operating an “unbalanced schedule”, meaning that not all the clubs will be meeting home and away. Rather, the teams will face their Conference rivals three times, and the teams from the opposing conference only once for a 34 game season. It remains uncertain, and unlikely, that a balanced schedule will reinstated when the league expands to 20, so beyond 20 clubs…?

Perhaps it gives MLS a chance to bring promotion and relegation to American sports. It’s understandable why it’s not been feasible up until now, despite the frothing at the mouth many of the critics of MLS do about how it’s not a “proper” league as a result. America is a vast place, and travel isn’t cheap. Soccer has also had to carve out a place in a sporting landscape where it doesn’t dominate as it does in much of the rest of the world and teams dropping down to a less prestigious league could’ve sounded the death knell to them, and by extension, hurt the league as a whole in those early years.

There’s also the fact that many of the clubs in the league have paid handsomely for the privilege of being there, and wouldn’t take too kindly to having that investment significantly devalued after a year.

Given the birth of the league, it’s no surprise that many of the staples of league football around the world weren’t considered viable. Despite hosting the World Cup in 1994, the game had singularly failed to grab the nation’s collective attention by the time MLS were kicking off in 96.

In order that it gave itself a fighting chance, it borrowed much of what American sports fans would find comfortable – a single entity system where the league owns the registration of all the players, no promotion/relegation, regional conferences and a draft system. The latter was essential as clubs sought to fill out rosters, and has seen it’s importance gradually dwindle as the league has become more established in the eyes of the football world.

Much of what identified MLS in those early years flowed from other American sports, the NFL in particular. This shouldn’t be surprising as important early investors such as Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft had long association with the pointy-ball game. The ten original sides all played in vast NFL stadiums, which didn’t help to build atmosphere

To an American sports fan, the MLS would have seemed familiar, on a operational and institutional level at least. In those early years MLS actively sought to attract these fans to the game, even going so far as to request to FIFA that they be allowed to play with larger goals (to facilitate higher scoring; the request was denied) and using a sudden death system to settle draws.

Another early innovation that holds over to the present day is the salary cap, which sets an upper and lower limit for the amount in wages each clubs can spend. The cap prevents anyone from indulging in the kind of reckless financial overreaching that characterised the worst excesses of the NASL, though there are cracks in the façade with the implementation of the so-called Beckham Rule, or the “Designated Player” system which allows teams to pay over the cap for three star players, and was brought in to facilitate the signing of David Beckham by LA Galaxy in 2007.

What allowed for one star signing in 2007, was increased to 2 players in 2010, with the further option to purchase a 3rd Designated Player slot. It’s not a stretch to extrapolate further and see the salary caps rules being further relaxed, with the worry being that it would allow the “big” clubs such as LA and New York to dominate the league with their increased abilities to invest in their squads.

Smaller clubs may look to their youth academies to compete going forward, as MLS is finally getting it’s house in order with regard to the nurturing of young talent. The draft system, as comforting to many American sports fans as it is baffling to many from the rest of the world, served the league well in giving it a foundation to find players but it’s usefulness in the long term isn’t clear.

The rise of youth academies – a long overdue development – could be a nail in the coffin of the draft system. The annual SuperDraft allows clubs to sign players coming out of the college system, which each club allowed one pick per round. Under the rules of the youth development scheme set up by MLS, clubs are allowed to sign players on “Home Grown” contracts so that even if they subsequently enter the college system, they are allowed to bypass the draft entirely and sign straight for their home club, thereby robbing the draft of it’s best players.

Given the money invested in academies and in nurturing talent, it’s not a great leap to see that clubs may want to exert greater control of their home grown players, fracturing the single entity system further.

Gradually, all the pillars that supported MLS in it’s infancy are being eroded as the league moves towards a more “European” model. Indeed, it seems that the league itself has stopped targeting the casual US sports fan, and is indeed preaching to the converted soccer fan, and is more concerned with attracting those that follow leagues such as England or Spain into supporting “local” clubs. Moving towards a league structure that is more in keeping with those that these fans are familiar with from abroad could go some way to “legitimising “the league in their eyes.

The last facet of the league that would need reform to bring into line with most leagues around the world would be the adoption of promotion and relegation. The issue is a hotly debated one amongst fans.

American Soccer is, to put it mildly, in need of a some drastic reorganisation. The current pyramid is a mess, with the three distinct bodies running the top three tiers of the game – MLS, NASL and USL Pro – seemingly not co-ordinating or communicating with each other, and it’s a situation that retards the development of soccer.

MLS could take a lead by forming the second tier of the pyramid on it’s own.

As mentioned, financial and geographical concerns have made the idea a complete non-starter. However, as the league seeks to expand beyond 20 clubs, a single league system becomes simply unsustainable. It would require either a move towards a greater East/West split, with less crossover between the two (or perhaps even three) conferences, or towards a MLS-1/MLS-2 system with promotion and relegation.

On the face of it, both would require a similar solution with regards to fixtures. In a 24 team MLS, with 12 in each conference, a schedule that sees each team play teams in their own conference twice, and those in the other conference once (alternating home/away fixtures each year) would give the league 34 fixtures – (11*2) + 12. This is on a par with the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

The problems this system throws up are at least two-fold. One, the conference split causes problems as the majority of MLS sides, and potential expansion teams, are based in the East.

This uneven split throws up all kinds of logistical problems, and going to a three conference system only muddies the water further. It also robs the league of, arguably, it’s biggest “glamour” match – New York vs. Los Angeles. Under a Conference split, these clubs would only meet once a year in regular play.

The South-East seems the most logical place for expansion, lending more credence to the support for Orlando City.

Taking the same 24 teams and placing them in a MLS-1 and MLS-2 structure on 12 clubs each would have a similar breakdown of fixtures – play teams in their own league twice and those in the other league once for 34 fixtures a season – but would guarantee the best sides all playing each other twice, as well as giving those teams in the lower tier at least a few glamour ties a season.

It’s a bit of a fudge, admittedly, but given the high costs involved in setting up a soccer team in the States simply telling a team owner that the team they’ve sunk millions of dollars into is stuck playing second tier football for the foreseeable future is blind to the financial realities of the game in America.

Rather, it gives them some exposure to those big matches as well as encouraging teams to invest in their youth infrastructure and on the playing staff to ensure that they remain in the elite. A lower franchise fee could be charged for teams to begin in MLS-2, attracting investment from a wider group that would baulk at the current, reputed, $70-$100 million fee, with salary cap subsidies offered to those established clubs that have already paid a premium for entry.

The post season play-off system could be retained. With a 2-up/2-down system, and a six or eight team post season play-off, interest could be retained right across the season, with teams having something to play for right up until the final kick.

I wouldn’t dare to say that this is the perfect system – it’s far from that, and such a system is likely impossible – but looking ahead the league has many questions to address if it wishes to continue it’s expansion. MLS should be applauded for the way it’s managed the game, and expanded wisely, and the growth of the sport is something all should be proud of.

But now, as it equals the run set by it’s illustrious predecessor, it’s time for the league to look ahead to how it can take the league even further and establish itself as one of the world’s elite, shorn of gimmicks and stunt signings, but built on a solid foundation of youth development and healthy competition.

Major League Soccer is, I am sure, here to stay. But can it evolve into something even greater? That’s a question that may only be answered in another 17 years, but there’s going to be an interesting few years ahead, both on and off the pitch.


10 thoughts on “Major League Soccer – The Past, Present and Future.

  1. Great read. As a Red Bulls fan, I would hate for NY to get another team. I hate how the 2 NFL teams, 2 baseball teams, etc. divide the NY fan base. For once it’s nice to have a sport with only one team in this city.

    1. I don’t see the need for the Cosmos to return. Yes, they have the famous brand but in a footballing sense I don’t see the point in having another NYC club. It splits the support base, as you say, and it’s unlikely to bring new fans to the league as a team in a fresh city would.

  2. This is a minor point on an otherwise fantastic read, but it’s not wholly accurate to describe the previous MLS Florida teams as “neither club was able to attract enough fans to sustain playing”. Sure, poor business and marketing decisions didn’t help attendance in those places, but other markets were doing just as poorly. The difference was ownership. Tampa Bay had to be taken over by the league and Miami’s owner wanted out. MLS was drowning financially and those 2 teams made for easy cuts. Cuts which ultimately may have saved the league from failure.

    This is the only reference I can find from a quick web search.

    1. Fair point, thanks for that.

      There’s still a lingering sense of fingers being burnt in Florida that seems to be making the league and many supporters reticent about going back there.

  3. Don Garber is fixated on getting another New York team. Coming from New York (Queens, I think), he has the mindset “You haven’t made it until you’ve made it in the Big Apple.” Never mind that the western teams are doing best, both on the field and in the stands, with huge fan support in the Pacific NW. NY & New England come off really poorly by comparison. Doesn’t matter — Garber wants it to be NYC.

    If you look at the map, MLS’s biggest hole is the southeast, but (American) football is so strong in that region I’m not sure it’s the best option for MLS.

    I also wonder if he sees the success of the Yankees and their spending, and will gradually relax the salary-cap rules to favor the big-market teams. Makes no sense from a playing perspective, since it will unbalance the competition, but does make sense from a marketing perspective.

    Also, I wonder if the noise about Orlando is just a feint to make potential NY investors to raise their offers.

    [P.S. Kevin: “It’s” has an apostrophe ONLY when it’s a contraction of “it is”, NOT when it’s a possessive. Check any grammar/punctuation authority.]

  4. While I would love to see promotion/relegation I am resigned to the fact that it just won’t happen here. While in recent years we’ve seen very progressive owners take the lead over several clubs there are far too many business men who are probably looking to protect their investment. A more likely scenario would be the expansion of the reserve league and perhaps fielding teams in the NASL or USL Pro thus ensuring those guys get more minutes. It would be a bold move to see pro/rel happen but it won’t.

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