I only know one truth… It’s time for MLS to end
The days where the ability for soccer to succeed in North America hinged on the success and longevity of its 1995 creation, and commitment from a handful of owners, are now well in the past.
On the bright side, with 22 seasons in the books, MLS has accomplished far beyond what may have been expected in the early to mid-90s. First-division soccer in the U.S. was never going to be a guaranteed success, and MLS at times looked to be yet another failed attempt to bring the world’s sport to American communities. Despite early stumbles, MLS stayed afloat and established a footing as an attractive option for investors, sponsors, and in some cases, players. For bringing stable first-division soccer to a number of North American cities, establishing standards to encourage long-term success, and overseeing the construction of multiple soccer-specific stadiums, MLS should be recognized for its part in growing the sport, and the ripple effect these accomplishments have had on lower leagues.
How much recognition MLS should receive for soccer’s growth during that period is however still up for debate. It depends on how “growth” is defined and measured. Is it sheer attendance figures? Success of the national team? Number of viable teams throughout all soccer divisions? Number of players participating in youth academies, and subsequently developing into first-team regulars?
The purpose of MLS within U.S. Soccer has not been properly defined, but it seems we’ve reached a point where MLS only exists to help itself. Media pushed by MLS channels suggest attendance is the ultimate proof soccer has “made it” to communities across the country. Other ‘support’ metrics like willingness for cities to pay for MLS stadiums are heralded as accomplishments for the sport, but are clearly a result of ownership’s wealth and connections, land available and the political climate of each city. While these stadiums are a fantastic development, they’re primarily being used by MLS as bargaining instruments to drive interest in the league and threaten relocation to clubs with older stadiums.
Only exist for two seasons as a professional team, have no plans to build a soccer-specific stadium and haven’t won a playoff match, but can draw >20k = MLS expansion front-runner. Be an MLS charter franchise, construct the country’s first soccer-specific stadium and reach the Eastern Conference Finals in two out of the last three seasons, but only draw 15k = a struggling market deserving of relocation.
The level of municipal public support is significant, and we haven’t seen that in Columbus, so I would almost put it on the other way. Maybe Columbus should look at what Detroit, Nashville and Cincinnati and Sacramento are doing and think maybe if this thing had turned from where it used to be, the Crew might have been more successful.” – MLS Commissioner Don Garber
There’s always bigger fish
There are, of course, many reasons why Garber might perceive greater support among potential expansion cities compared to MLS originals. First and foremost, the league has pitted deserving cities against each other to artificially inflate the value of each expansion slot, and with that also inflating the level of front-end commitment from both owners and fans. Anytime Garber visits one of these cities, he’s paraded around like royalty and gets to attend exclusive black tie events while interacting with deep-pocketed big-hitters who lower themselves to appease his every whim. How do you suppose he’s met in Columbus, Denver and Salt Lake?
Maybe the fans and owners of expansions cities feel they are genuinely supporting their team during the selection process, but the support cannot truly reflect the soccer culture of each city (i.e. FC Cincinnati reportedly cutting operations if they are not awarded one of the first two spots).
If FCC doesn’t make MLS this round. Per an independent study from Vory’s law firm. pic.twitter.com/HweoRFGIih
— Charlie Hatch (@charliehatch_) November 15, 2017
Attendance is also a poor measure of support, especially across leagues, because each league has different procedures for measuring attendance, and you can bet each league/team finds unique ways to raise those totals.
How is any of this helping grow the game again?
Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them
#SaveTheCrew and USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup sparked a conversation about MLS’s true impact on American soccer, one with more pointed criticisms of the establishment and suggestions that MLS is doing more to hold the sport back than push it to the next level.
One of the most popular and divisive arguments has been that the popularity of the FIFA video game series has done more to raise the popularity of the sport. It’s a solid point. The games familiarized an entire generation to the sport’s best players, teams and customs. It introduced players to the potential of an open system and the drama of building a minnow into world power in the matter of a few seasons. Now that these individuals have aged to become the primary ticket-buying demographic, they are seeking out local options to attend games. If they happen to live near an MLS city, it makes sense that they would be interested in their local team. Still, they probably have allegiances to other clubs around the world and understand those clubs play better quality soccer and have less confusing regulations.
Access to live broadcasts of foreign leagues of better quality and more popularity also has to be considered with the growth of American soccer interest. The gap in quality between MLS and other top-flight leagues is not lost among viewers, who routinely tune out MLS in favor of the Premier League, Liga MX and Bundesliga. Between November 21 and December 3, MLS’s two conference final matches finished with the 18th and 19th most viewers for a soccer match in the U.S.
How could anyone credit MLS with the organic growth of interest when they play second, third, or fourth-fiddle to foreign leagues within their own country.
Also, how is it that after six World Cup cycles since MLS began play, the USMNT are only slightly more competitive on the international stage now than when they qualified in 1994 or 1998? Even when the USMNT has done well in the World Cup (looking at 2010 & 2014), the squads were heavy with players who had long moved past MLS or bypassed MLS as a development league to immediately train in Europe. Compare that with the MLS-heavy roster that lost to Trinidad & Tobago filled with players who either missed their chance to move abroad, prematurely ended their European careers early for a bigger paycheck and the comforts of MLS, or were generously a decade past their prime.
A few players developed in MLS academies have trickled out of the league to more worthwhile careers abroad, but those examples are the exception to the rule. DeAndre Yedlin is one of those exceptions who got out at the right time and has improved his game abroad. Too many others who were once in the same breath as Yedlin have languished frustratingly in MLS, and continue to spin their wheels with their teams. Diego Fagundez, 22, Gyasi Zardes, 26, Wil Trapp, 24, Juan Agudelo, 25, (attempted a move to Stoke City but couldn’t secure a work permit) and Bill Hamid, 27, were once penned as future starters for the national team, but were given minimal chances with the senior squad (with the exception of Zardes) and now constitute a lost generation of talented soccer players. Why is it that these players who have logged significant minutes in MLS (Trapp notably captaining the Crew and multiple youth national teams) can be so easily overtaken by teenagers like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, each of whom earned first-team minutes within a year of training with two of Germany’s top clubs.
This could be due to a great many factors, none of which reflect well on MLS. Effective coaching, attention paid to youth, match minutes given to youth and lack of meaningful competition in MLS all combine to create perfectly mediocre players who supply the USMNT with low-end depth who remain marketable within MLS.
Perhaps a talent like Tyler Adams can soon make a Yedlin-esque move, but with MLS’s production track record it can no longer be viewed as a reliable path to a national team that’s expected to make it past the group stage, much less qualify for World Cups. And if the U.S. is ever going to be a true World Cup contender, MLS as it exists needs to be gutted and re-purposed to better serve its players.
MLS finds your lack of faith disturbing
The problem is that MLS seems incapable of divorcing its own interests from what’s best for American soccer, which is to be expected. The league’s executives and investors expect a return on their investment, so they treat the league as if it’s a business and its fans are the consumers. Also like a business, when metrics are down, they can retaliate against their consumers, blaming them or outside forces for their own failures. To them, the success and growth of American soccer doesn’t just still depend on MLS, it is MLS.
To them, spending money and time elsewhere in the soccer universe implies the consumer is against the growth of soccer, instead of a decision based on the poor practices of the company.
To them, the national team is a non-factor. Youth academies are only necessary to market “homegrown” players, and overpaying well-known national teamers and international stars is necessary to improve attendance, regardless if it stalls the development of those players and takes away opportunities for promising young players. Improving the on-field product is secondary.
To them, other leagues within the U.S. are competitors who stand in the way of MLS’s plans for “growth.” The lower divisions only exist as a battleground for cities to earn the right to pay the league for a chance at first-division soccer. Never mind the groundwork laid by successful lower-division clubs, only to have someone from the outside use their success for their own financial gain and shut them out of what they built.
MLS has done what we all wanted it to do — establish a first-division league in North America. However, if MLS and the US Soccer Federation are in the business of squashing the organic growth of soccer in the U.S. so it can be rebranded as support for MLS, it is taking a clear stance against true growth of the sport.
Now, young MLS, you will die
What we’re seeing now is a Renaissance of clubs in all regions of the U.S. and Canada ready to compete and grow. With so many cities now fielding stable teams in lower divisions, MLS’s methodical, self-serving expansion process is damming the emerging demand for top-flight soccer across the country. Single-entity soccer now stands in the way of what would make soccer truly special in the U.S — allowing all communities to participate and have access to the top division through a open system with a path via promotion/relegation. Sooner or later, the spillover of clubs shut out by MLS will organize to create a legitimate competitor more in tune with how people are used to the sport being played around the world.
In order to avoid an American soccer civil war, the structure of American soccer needs to dramatically change. MLS needs to open a fairer path to the first division that helps American clubs reach MLS based on on-field merit, a move that would encourage better development of players and positively impact the national team. USSF needs to consolidate all leagues and divisions under a true pyramid with linear movement between leagues, again based on on-field merit.
In its current state, MLS has become too self-absorbed and its interests too intertwined with the USSF to effectively bring about a vibrant soccer country. By being too arrogant with their own power, they’ve allowed something much more powerful and genuine to rise underneath them. The sooner MLS sets its ego aside and realizes its potential, the faster it can let itself pass on to another form and become more powerful than we can possibly imagine.