By J Hutcherson (Dec 8, 2018) US Soccer Players – We’re well into the era of Atlanta United making anything they touch look like it belongs to a different league. Their fans going with an MLS 3.0 tifo shortly before the start of the game was equal parts mission statement as creativity.
Atlanta lifted the 2018 MLS Cup after beating Portland 2-0 on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Josef Martinez put United up in the 39th minute with Franco Escobar scoring in the 54th. Brad Guzan kept the clean sheet. It’s the end of a season where once again Atlanta United was the story. This is Atlanta United’s moment, even if they end up needing a partial rebuild this offseason to maintain their momentum. The rest of the league?
MLS is in an interesting situation bordering on predicament. Commissioner Garner said as much during Friday’s State of the League, using a phrase familiar to fans of European soccer. Garber talked about MLS becoming “more of a selling league.”
“We have this careful balance of how do you retain your stars and create consistency, which is consistent with the major leagues here in our country,” Garber said. “We have a different dynamic in the global game. We have been buying for so long, and as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment we have to make in player development. We’ve got to have something that turns this model around, or else it’s going to be unsustainable.”
Selling players and pushing for FIFA solidarity payments aren’t radical proposals from the MLS commissioner. MLS once had a reputation as the league most likely to get an incoming player to arrange for a free transfer. It’s only in the current era that they’ve become full-fledged members of the global transfer market. Even then, there’s still the international oddity of the league signing players rather than the member clubs. It’s one of those reminders that MLS is different by design.
The league’s expansion era continues. There’s no reasonable near future where promotion and relegation is anything other than a constant reminder of some fans’ dissatisfaction. Instead, what MLS is becoming is a league of business plans. Some of them would fit into the earlier era of single-entity. Others operate like they’d be very happy to see the league’s core business model completely go away.
It’s not a necessary reminder that none of us know what happens in league meetings. That club might be bigger, but it’s still made up of people who literally bought into the investor/operator model. It doesn’t matter how different some MLS markets look from each other. They’re still franchise operations majority owned by Major League Soccer. That’s the same operating agreement that has drawn critics since the league’s early days.
MLS is about control. That makes their response to a lack of control over young players choosing not to sign and moving to Europe not at all surprising. The concern that MLS teams might decide that their academy setups don’t recoup enough to make them smart business is fine. A league built on a business model should think that way. It doesn’t necessarily deny young players their opportunity. For all of this issues, there is no single-entity lock on youth soccer.
“I will say our view about this whole area is very, very different than it was two, three, four or five years ago,” Garber said. “I think the product that we’re developing has become some of the most important assets that we need to start figuring out ways that we’re either protecting or we’re finding ways to get compensated for if we can’t protect them or sign them.”
As a business, MLS could make the business decision to engage fully in that global transfer market. They could spend to increase quality, something that various designations and allocations still only addresses in limited situations. They could decide to be a buying as well as a selling league, trying for a balance while taking the same risks as the bigger leagues in Europe. To contradict something Garber said during the halftime show on Fox, it’s most definitely what you spend in those leagues. It’s those leagues including the Champions League also easily available in the United States setting the tone and telling the story.
“When this league was launched, we had a great vision of trying to build a league that could earn the respect of not just those people from the game, part of the game, for so many years, but to earn the respect of the rest of the world,” Garber said during his State of the League. “I think what’s happening here is a very strong statement about how our country is a true soccer nation. I was in the World Leagues Forum in Mexico City two weeks ago with a number of our staff. The buzz about our league, driven in many ways by the excitement that’s happening here in Atlanta, is really very paramount.”
It’s also unique in a league that tends to focus on whatever is working. That was Seattle, their other prestige team that can fill an NFL stadium. Where it’s not remains the key to the future of this league.
“We are in the live content business,” Garber said. “This is an industry that is valuing live content. I keep hearing about how this positive momentum is going to break. Then I read about the new baseball deal, the UFC deal. So far there’s been more and more investment by media partners in live sports and live event programming. That’s what we deliver. I’m pretty confident we’ll be in a good spot.”
That’s part of Garber’s job, promoting his league and focusing on the bright spots. Right now, that’s the expansion story the league continues to tell. There’s more to it than that, and eventually, that will be the story.
Earlier today, NBC had a Premier League fan event at New York’s South Street Seaport. It was part of their network coverage of the Chelsea vs Manchester City game. Both are among the biggest spenders in the game. European soccer might be harder to get this season that it’s been recently, but it’s still easily available. Most American soccer fans don’t have to resort to anything more difficult than turning on their TV. That’s the competition for more than just signing players. It’s the price for the relevance that brings with it ratings and revenue.
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 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- What will the 2018 MLS Cup teach MLS?
- Soccer’s unnecessary reminder in the Copa Libertadores and the Champions League
- Super League fatigue
- Real Madrid picks its moment
Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com