By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 26, 2012) US Soccer Players – As we watch Major League Soccer work out which clubs belong in the 2012 postseason, let's talk about what the League should learn. Not the obvious things that would make most lists. We're going to stay away from officiating, player allocation, the designated player rule, and the schedule. Some abstract, some concrete, but all things that would do one thing: make the games better.
Rules That Count
My colleague Tony Edwards has spent significant time this season pointing to MLS regulations and guidelines that seem to exist in a state of flux. In a 'break glass in an emergency' moment, those rules can be enforced, tweaked, or maybe even announced to the public for the first time.
It's an interesting world in Major League Soccer. It's simple enough in theory and in practice to change things. The League publicly sets their rules by a predetermined date that falls before the start of the season. If something so cataclysmic arrives during the course of the season, they can figure that out. But… but, do it publicly. No more of this star chamber nonsense where rules and regulations come and go as needed.
We all know that MLS occupies a distinct position in world soccer. They're a salary cap league playing through the summer under a single-entity system. There are some other things that fit that description, but let's agree that covers most of it.
What that does is create a disparity in expectation that makes it difficult to learn from what happens in other leagues. MLS can always be argued as the exception, even when that does the League few favors in terms of quality.
Following what happened in England when a club was punished for not fielding a first-choice squad in a game they thought they were unlikely to win, MLS should establish a lineup expectation rule. Since MLS is first and foremost a league designed around what players get paid, it's simple enough to determine what 'regular' means. It's the players the team values enough to pay more than others.
That means the expectation is for healthy designated players playing, alongside those players that are near the top of the pay scale (say, over $300k). That leaves plenty of room for getting creative with player selection, but stops coaches deciding to game the schedule with their squad choices. Submit that before the start of the season and allow for regular updates based on form during the season.
I would add another twist. The same rule applies to any game an MLS team plays where admission is charged. That means treating the US Open Cup, Champions League, and even friendlies with the same importance as a big league game by rule not coaching caveat. It also means meaningful injury reports audited by the League to make sure the clubs are playing by the rules.
In theory, as a single-entity league, Major League Soccer has greater control than any of the North American major leagues. In practice, clubs enjoy substantial self-determination for everything short of competing to sign the same players, making their own deals with players outside of the allocation system, and paying whatever they want to those players.
In its second decade, single-entity in practice is about cost control. What it doesn't do is impose a template on clubs for how an MLS team is expected to do business. Given the competing models, perhaps it should. Pick two MLS clubs, and it's unlikely the titles of their personnel will match.
Some have presidents that function in day-to-day operations. Some have general managers that do the same thing. Others have technical directors that control soccer while someone else manages the business side. One even has a GM that has to stand for reelection determined by a fan vote. Left to their own judgment, MLS clubs can't even figure out what to call the head coach. Is the person in charge on the sidelines a coach or a manager, and what other titles might that individual hold?
It's silly, creating a system where the branch offices have a substantial disconnect between corporate as well as each other. Creating a rule that sets up the job roles for every MLS club sets meaningful expectations and comparisons. That impacts what happens on the field of play, making it much less likely that fans suddenly discover who was really making the decisions when times get tough. It's the answer to questions of authority and accountability.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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