By J Hutcherson
BALTIMORE, MD (January 18, 2007) USSoccerPlayers -- France technical director Gerard Houllier told a ballroom full of American soccer coaches that one of the keys to teaching the sport of soccer is respect. Respect of the institution and commitment and in every circumstance doing whatever you can to reach the target.
That sort of positive coach speak goes about as far as you let it, the kind of motivational efforts usually associated with business events at the basketball arena near you. Then again, Houllier covered that when discussing positivity and resisting the all too human urge to play down and de-motivate.
With young players giving their first professional commitment to Major League Soccer on Friday along with fans willing to travel on a workday for the relative pleasure of the MLS SuperDraft, that as much as real estate proves the strength of the League.
In year six of the full-blown production version of the SuperDraft, its impact has lessened. Enough has already been written about the decreasing college talent pool, players choosing Europe, and entry into the league by other means. None of these are necessarily negatives.
The MLS player pool is stronger because it isn't as unified as it was in the early years. Players have options, and with it the League has to respond. Part of that is financial, but it's also tactical, providing a style of soccer that will give an elite player the caliber of play necessary to improve.
Again, it’s a respect issue. The players have to respect the League enough to trust it with their development. That is not a given. As too many in the sport necessarily remind us, it’s together across the board in Europe. The training, the pressure, and the quality of squad, etc. Without the day-to-day fight to keep a place, the more intense training, and every decision understood and judged by fans and media.
Former MLS players in Europe are openly criticizing the tactical awareness of MLS coaches and the training sessions they run, rather than making the move, failing due to pressure or ability, and returning to the welcoming arms of the decidedly less serious Major League Soccer. Instead, the first choice National Team is made up of players who know what it is to be playing well and still have a club buy a player capable of taking your spot. They understand what training sessions can be, and how elite coaches operate.
Eventually, Major League Soccer itself will adjust, just like it’s adjusted to a changing business model, player allocations, and the quality of the product on the field. It needs the growing voice of constructive criticism to get there. Players familiar with the system that have moved to Europe telling them there are better ways that will lead to the League all involved should want.
If Major League Soccer has been about anything over the last few years, it’s change. Rather than the dogma and protective responses that had become a given, the League has engaged critics, moved to make the product better, and positioned themselves so it’s a fair choice for the potential fan.
Every year that passes when the comparison to Europe lessens is a good year for Major League Soccer. The League is getting there, even if it still shortchanges domestic players, sets up a system that has veteran players negotiating against an insulting offer or retirement to prolong careers, and doesn’t raise its game to the level of the established professional sports.
It’s a process, and forward momentum is enough. MLS is about to start negotiating on a new collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Soccer Players’ Union, something that does not have to start with the old animosity, opting to be different than the standard League/players’ union relationship. They can admit mistakes, and push for the kind of relationship that gives the players a bigger stake in the League that they directly impact. The players make the game, and the fans make it work as a business.
The MLS fans have pushed as much as anybody, calling out the League for preferential treatment to certain clubs, interpreting or inventing rules that only benefit a vision of the League that’s decidedly not fan centric, and generally holding them to a standard. MLS has to work to deserve its fans, plain and simple.
Media follows the fans. Perfect media relations is meaningless without the fans that push the interest of outlets to cover the sport for them. Sports media at its best works for the fans, not as overt homers or as ancillary media outlets for the League. That connection provides the momentum for growth and the platform for the players.
At the end of the 2007 MLS season, USSoccerPlayers pulled its general coverage in response to treatment from Major League Soccer and its clubs that made fair coverage all but impossible. Since then, Major League Soccer has shown they are willing to open a discussion and push for change. We recognize the attempt, if not the short-term outcome.
Like any pro sport, MLS wants to operate a business, but like all the others it will remain a trust. That applies to players, fans, and the media. Hopefully, MLS does right by all involved.
As of today, USSoccerPlayers is returning its general MLS coverage