By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (Jan. 24, 2006) — So, Christian Vieri, ever fickle, may want to join MLS.
“I’ve got a couple shirt companies in Italy and we will be entering America soon so I just wanted to go and work there,” said Vieri on Australian television earlier this week. “But I don’t know. That’s what I’m thinking now but maybe next year I’ll change my mind again.”
Leaving aside the possibility that Vieri may very well change his mind (after all, the 32-year-old has played for 10 different clubs), the question is: Should MLS pursue him?
The answer, really, is that it doesn’t much matter.
Like Youri Djorkaeff now or Roberto Donadoni a decade ago, Vieri does not have the profile to impact the overall stature of the league. Or even the MetroStars.
The real issue is, whether a decade or so from now, MLS will make a commitment to buying international players like Vieri earlier in their careers. Major League Soccer, like the North American Soccer League once did, will have to decide whether it is willing to gamble on becoming a major soccer league.
The NASL had a reputation for being an over-the-hill league. Players who had spent their best years in Europe or South America would come here for one last hurrah. This was certainly true of some players — Pele, Gerd Mueller, who never once retreated deeper than the 35-yard offside line, and George Best come quickly to mind — but there were other greats who were still in their prime: Teofilo Cubillas and Jan van Beveren with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Rodney Marsh with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia with the Cosmos. It was these players who preserved the profile of the NASL after Pele retired in ’77.
The cost of buying and paying these players — a futile attempt to keep up with the Cosmos — ultimately destroyed the NASL. Still, by many important measures, the league prospered like never before after Pele’s departure. The Cosmos averaged far more fans the year after he retired — nearly 48,000 fans per game in ’78 compared to just over 34,000 in ’77, and averaged well over 42,000 per match through 1980. League-wide attendance, with an average gate of over 14,200 per match, peaked in 1980 and that year’s Soccer Bowl, which was played at a neutral site, drew around 55,000 fans.
By comparison, MLS does not appear to have come that far. The average match in 2005 drew 15,108 fans, which is less than 1,000 more than the NASL’s peak. The big difference, of course, is that MLS is achieving this in a financially responsible manner. But one does wonder how many more fans the league would be drawing if teams were filled with players comparable to Beckenbauer, Marsh, and Cubillas. Let’s say Michael Ballack, Michael Owen, and Hernan Crespo.
Think about it, MLS does not draw that many more fans than the NASL despite the fact that it has two huge advantages over its predecessor. The NASL’s only educated fans were immigrants. American kids were just beginning to play and American adults were apathetic about, or even hostile to, the sport. Major League Soccer, by contrast, has access to generations of former players, not to mention an ever-expanding futbol-mad Latino population.
MLS’s second advantage is that there is now a healthy pool of talented American players at their disposal. NASL teams only had to field three North Americans, meaning Canadians or Americans. This was a huge problem because there was such a dearth of talent. The U.S. never came close to qualifying for a World Cup and there simply were not many native players who belonged on the field. The Strikers, for example, sometimes fielded a guy named Steve Ralbovsky at left back. One time Johan Cruyff (past his very best, but still worth of being in the Dutch national team) dispossessed him and scored. After that, a clearly spooked Robo, as he was affectionately known by Striker Likers, booted the ball up the field, like he was playing kickball, every time he touched it. The obvious point is that that MLS has no such problem. There are now many good American players, and there is real reason to believe that one day we will be among the best eight soccer-playing nations in the world.
MLS’s conservative approach has been justified up to now and will continue to be for sometime. First, they needed to establish an identity and prove they could survive. Second, they need to get all those soccer-only stadiums built. And third, they need to wait for our youth system to produce enough players to stock a league. But where will MLS go once the latter occurs? Is the league going to allow the bulk of the players to migrate to Europe? Or is it going to pony up the big money to keep them here? This will be the moment of truth. Are the owners going to content themselves with being a minor league, by global standards, or, are they going to gamble that they can become a world-class league?
Every major American sport has gone to the next level because of a star. Babe Ruth and all of those home runs saved baseball after the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Red Grange’s gallops put the National Football League on the map, and Joe Namath may have been the final straw that led the NFL to merge with the American Football League.
Similarly, without Dr. J, the American Basketball Association would have folded rather than merge with the NBA during the seventies. And Wayne Gretzky is often credited with the fact that the National Hockey League expanded to places like Dallas and Miami.
All of these sports had the advantage of a pool of qualified players and potential fans. The NFL, for example, just had to find a way to capitalize on the immense popularity of the college game. But Pele had to kick-start soccer out of nothing. He took the sport as far as it could go, but the NASL’s attempt to build on the interest he generated came too soon.
If MLS is going to reach the next level, there is going to have to be a Pele II, a transcendent figure that raises the profile of the game. Hopefully it will be an American, like Freddy Adu, but someone that good will only stay here if the competition equals what’s on offer in Italy, Spain, and England.
The owners will have to be willing, like the NASL, to invest in teams filled with quality players, like Christian Vieri in his prime, and gamble that the generations of Americans who have grown up with the sport will be committed enough to support it.
I am optimistic.
If 48,000 fans turned out to see the Cosmos in the 70s, why wouldn’t a similar number support a far better, more balanced league a decade from now?