By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 7, 2018) US Soccer Players - The 2018 MLS Cup final provided the latest backdrop for a pressing discussion about the future of topflight soccer in the USA and Canada. That discussion and the debate it engenders is a function of the success of Atlanta United and the ambition of the club’s owner, Arthur Blank.
The massive crowd that filled Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday and the wider buzz that Atlanta United has created for MLS in the city forces a recalibration of what the league can be. Perhaps no other domestic championship game in history has meant as much to its community. Perhaps no domestic club has accomplished so much in so short a time as Atlanta United. The tifo the Atlanta United supporters on Saturday raised on Saturday night pointed to the future: MLS 3.0, a train with the new champions serving as the unstoppable engine.
United’s approach involves a heavy investment in areas that MLS teams have typically avoided. The club signed a top coaching name, Tata Martino, and executed a number of multi-million dollar transfers. Though the club’s total payroll ranked just ninth in MLS according to the MLS Players Union, its aggressive action in the international market with an eye towards future sales makes it unique in the league.
Atlanta is pushing up against the limits of MLS in ways that are straining relationships in its Board of Governors. The collected group of MLS investor/operators and their representatives is the ultimate decision-making body for how the league will chase further growth. As MLS expands and adds new members to the board, there are bound to be disagreements.
For more than two decades, MLS chose to strictly control player salaries and restrict the ability of clubs to spend big money beyond a few players. The Designated Player rule was an MLS game-changer, but it still only allowed the league to add a handful of higher caliber talents. Quality was secondary to cost control. When the league gave clubs some freedom, they did it in a such a way as to prevent the more ambitious teams from outpacing everyone else. MLS made sure that cost control and parity remained a double act.
In the face of Blank’s success in Atlanta and the questions Atlanta United’s story raise, tales of a split in the Board of Governors abound. At the risk of simplifying a complicated situation, the debate centers on the league’s approach to player spending. On one side are investor/operators like Blank, who believe the time is now to rapidly accelerate investment. On the other are more conservative owners who see nothing wrong with the long-standing approach of balancing growth with slower raises in spending.
Pushback on spending could be just that, a desire to reign in the dollars allocated to the on-field product. There's well-sourced reporting of a proposal to eliminate one of the three Designated Player slots. On the surface, removing a DP slot looks like a budget-cutting measure. With the league’s recent push to add Targeted Allocation Money, however, it’s possible that MLS clubs could improve across the board if eliminating a DP slot coincides with an increase in TAM.
Why take away the option? Why not just add more TAM and continue the league’s march towards higher quality soccer?
The answer lies in cost control’s partner, parity. It’s impossible to separate the two when talking about how MLS approaches its immediate future. The slide towards “haves” and “have-nots” in recent years is already threatening the sacrosanct notion that every team, no matter how poor the previous season, has a reasonable chance to win a trophy the next year.
From the very beginning, MLS built-in roster limitations in addition to cost controls to ensure parity. The MLS SuperDraft wasn't just about copying the strangely popular NFL offseason event. It was also about making sure the talent emerging from the amateur ranks from year-to-year spread evenly across the league. When the importance of the SuperDraft began to wane, MLS made sure that parity held via the allocation process, the discovery mechanism, and other Byzantine roster rules.
It was inevitable that parity would eventually slip. MLS can’t stand as part of the bigger soccer world without a step forward on the amounts clubs spend. Moving from American football venues into purpose-built stadiums with new revenue streams demands action in those areas. The variety in terms of market and stadium size separates teams. Competing for championships is naturally tilted by money as the league attempts to meet the demand for more quality.
Some teams cannot keep up with clubs like Atlanta and Toronto, at least not without a major bump in league-driven revenue. If that’s to come, it will have to be in the form of a new television contract. Networks are only going to reward MLS with a significantly larger deal if the product on the field improves. Marquee names like Ibrahimovic and Rooney sprinkled in doesn’t hurt, but the real driver of national interest is better competition driven by better players.
A handful of clubs might not necessarily domiante nn MLS without strong rails protecting parity. As long as the playoffs format remains in place, some unpredictability will stay a part of the league’s character. A poor 90 minutes at the wrong time is all it takes to up-end the best of seasons. There are no guarantees in the postseason.
How much a guard against an entrenched elite the playoffs can be is difficult to say. The 2017 and 2018 MLS Cup champions were two of the most ambitious spenders in the League, while the 2016 winner, the Seattle Sounders, fit into the big revenue group.
Striking a balance between the push for better quality and giving every team in the league a modicum of hope requires threading the needle between the aggressive owners and those who advocate for more of what brought MLS to this point. There’s a lot to like about the current path of Major League Soccer and a strong argument that staying the course is the smartest plan.
Threading the needle just go harder with Atlanta United’s MLS Cup victory. It raised the bar, not just the ceiling. MLS will never be a league of Atlanta Uniteds, but there’s less reason than ever before for the league to let artificial limits dictate what’s next. That’s the Atlanta effect.
More From Jason Davis:
- Are the Portland Timbers MLS Cup underdogs?
- FC Dallas and USL League One
- NYCFC without David Villa
- The next Orlando City rebuild
Photo by Andy Mead - ISIPhotos.com