By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 1, 2013) US Soccer Players – We talked about it earlier this week and now we know that MLS intends to be at least a 24-team league. We already knew that Major League Soccer wasn't interested in the FIFA ideal league size when they passed 16 clubs. Fair enough, considering the size of the North American market and the two countries claiming MLS as their sanctioned first division. It's the actual ceiling that's of some concern.
The other major North American sports set that number at 30 as a minimum, six more for MLS to add in the 2020s. Whether or not the league can make its case for 'among the world's best' by that point is a very good question. There's certainly not a direct line from here to there for a league with a low salary cap, the reserve clause in place, and the appearance from most of its clubs that striving for success on a budget is part of the MLS experience.
Here's the thing though. If MLS is playing the long game relative to Europe adapting to Financial Fair Play, the incremental raising of the cap and the exemptions that allow for relief in the form of designated players might develop into a competitive system. It's a stretch, no doubt. The many millions it takes to put together a competitive club in Europe won't suddenly turn into a merit-based system with financial equality in place not just within the major leagues, but across Europe. That sort of sporting ethic would require more than a revamp of financial rules. In its place, what we'll see is teams adjusting as they always do. They'll adjust to scale, with the wealth remaining among the biggest clubs from the biggest leagues.
Will that ever include Major League Soccer? We've already seen an erosion in the ideal of single-entity where MLS clubs never compete with each other for players, but it's nowhere near the freedom necessary to build teams competitive with the bigger leagues in Europe. Still, that doesn't stop Seattle from drawing close to 40k a game.
As always, we're working with carefully chosen words defined by MLS itself. They can tailor a version of success that doesn't require credible comparisons with teams drawing 70k a game and spending hundreds of millions of dollars in search of domestic and European glory. It's possible to build a successful league that compares favorably based on average attendance, player development, and a subset of elite players preferring to spend their careers in North American soccer. Is that where MLS in 2013 points?
The Commercial Game
For anyone who dares consider the final score of a Major League Soccer All-Star Game, be warned. This is as much a celebration of all that's right with the league as it is a competitive endeavor, regardless of what the pregame marketing might suggest. So what if Roma seemed to have little problem scoring against the MLS All-Stars while a few of the visiting players treated the game like yet another preseason friendly? That's not the purpose of the All-Star Game, or at least it's not the purpose when the result doesn't go MLS's way.
There's no need to turn any game where points or advancing aren't on the line into more than it really is. Unfortunately, it's incredibly tempting to do just that and judge accordingly. Honestly, that doesn't flatter the host or the opposition. Well, except when what's happening during a game elevates it to something more than an exhibition.
I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the best sporting events I've ever seen was a preseason National Hockey League game back in 1993 where the teams on the ice decided that on the night the result mattered to them. Anybody who's seen a good minor league game knows on some nights pitch counts and the needs of the organization are set aside when two teams decide to play highly competitive baseball. I can't make much of a case for the ‘starters removed early’ setup used by the National Football League, but maybe I don't watch enough preseason NFL.
I've never been one to dismiss or downplay club friendlies, and there were moments during Wednesday night's All-Star Game that held up. Sure, most of them favored Roma and a handful of players that decided to put on a show, but where's the harm in that? MLS is well past the point where even a multi-goal blowout harms the image of the league or should force a rethink of the All-Star setup. Club teams don't play all-star squads with points on the line, and even in an exhibition setting the scenario and need for familiarity always favors the club. MLS knows that and continues to schedule the games. For the league, this continues to be a win.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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