By J Hutcherson (Aug 22, 2016) US Soccer Players - It's an interesting time for MLS. The world's next great soccer league is in growth mode. In 2017, Major League Soccer will have more clubs than any of the top leagues in Europe. They already have more than Mexico. More than Russia. More than China. You have to drop a division in England to find a league with over 22 teams, the number MLS reaches next season. They're getting to it by adding two Uniteds.
Ok, the names of the two expansion teams are a small part of the story. That both are taking a name already in use in MLS isn't something the league considered enough of a problem. Certainly not enough to tell one or both that they already have a United. That moniker is now the equivalent of a club adding FC or City to their name. It's the American soccer version of public domain. It's now whatever else a team decides or doesn't to call itself. Toronto FC might like Reds. FC Dallas might like Hoops. So what when it feels like that kid at school who nicknames himself. We've got 22 teams to worry about.
Except that's not how it works in MLS anymore. The league plays down single-entity as much as possible. Owners replace investor/operators when the league talks about its key contributors, even if they only own that 49%. This is sports business as normal when it suits MLS. It's cutting edge stuff when that's the better story.
And hey, right now it's a pretty good story. The league can point to what's new. They've got owners with experience. This isn't some fly-by-night operation moving from expansion fee to expansion fee, right? It's grounded in two decades of playing soccer games that count in first the United States and now North America. The footprint is big league. It covers all the regions of the United States and the places normally associated with big league sports in Canada. Anybody discussing quality is pointing to the next step for a league moving forward.
It's just that feeling that it's working better in some places. What happens when the MLS model seems to stall? What does it tell us that we're seeing that more with the older teams? Is it enough to point to changing times in the league while writing off the suburban soccer-specific stadiums as artifacts of an older era? Is complaining about quality and not taking financial risks simply missing the bigger picture?
For MLS, that picture is clear. They're a North American pro sports league and that means following a model that isn't soccer-specific. Unlike soccer leagues in other parts of the world, there's no natural limitation to the number of teams in the topflight. FIFA never stuck to a limit, though they talked about it for the better part of the 1990s. The league is free to add what it wants. The NFL has that number at 32 with all of those teams in the continental United States. That league is either looking at relocation or expansion, but there's no mistaking the markets showing interest. The NFL could add teams whenever it wants, assuming of course they can maintain the quality of play.
That's always the trick with expansion in any of the other North American pro sports. The balance between number of professional players and the quality of play. Over the expansion era, MLS has dismissed that as a major concern. They've expanded when complaints about the quality were loud. They've expanded when it was obvious that squad depth was a major issue. They've kept expanding without any noticeable commitment to the kind of players that make the difference in any pro league. The ones making up the rosters, not just the stars.
We've seen players come into MLS more than one commenting on the lack of speed of play. Blame the weather if you want, but that's a criticism of the squads. It's the product the clubs put on the field every week, not the stars or the tactics on their own. It's something that people raised when the league first expanded in 1998, retracted for 2002, and all over again during the next expansion cycle. Since there are enough people willing to pay for MLS especially in the expansion cities, the league knows it can wait on a fix.
That fix should be a combination of player development and spending more on squad players along with those stars. One of those is a long-term solution. The other isn't as simple as raising the caps and the minimums. It's a true transitional moment, moving from one approach to another and getting buy-in from the players that will make the difference. It's also something MLS as a single-entity seems to be resisting. Where the league is United is in adding more teams. What isn't clear is how they see that improving the quality of play over the short-term.
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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