Major League Soccer
As the MLS (Major League Soccer) grows in the United States as a professional league so does my interest in it. Now I know that I am guilty of being an honorary American (my own decision), and I know that the MLS is not yet at the standard of the Top European Leagues, but I must admit that I enjoy watching the games when I can on ESPN. Obviously, Landon Donovan and David Beckham catch my attention for obvious reasons but I just enjoy watching any of the games without the pressure of wanting certain teams to win as Everton give me enough of that type of pressure as it is!
American Soccer has always intrigued me and that interest began with the New York Cosmos when I was growing up. It started as a result of my Dad attempting to teach me about World Football as a child. My dad would talk to me about certain teams in World Football as he attempted to broaden my knowledge of the game. As well as the teams he also taught me about players such as George Best, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Rodney Marsh who he referred to as ‘Top Players’ who went on to play football in the United States. The reason that this attracted so much attention was that the United States then was not renowned for having an established Professional League so it really was a big story. At the time of these players playing in the US the league was called the North American Soccer League. Sadly, for the NASL the league went into decline when these players called time on their careers. As the league declined so did my interest in it although it was never fully diminished and was quickly re-ignited when the MLS was formed and began to grow. Also there was the Everton link with players such as Mo Johnston, Robert Warzchya, Brian McBride, Preki, Landon Donovan, Abel Xavier,Joe Max Moore, Cody Arnoux, John Spencer and Richard Gough all plying their trade in the MLS, not to mention our goalkeeper Tim Howard starting his career there !
Let us fast forward until the inception of Major League Soccer in 1993 which is what this piece is about after all ! The United States were preparing to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup and FIFA themselves were allegedly nonplussed that the nation hosting the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ did not have a Major National Soccer League. In 1993 the US quickly decided (probably due to pressure from FIFA) that they would form the Major League Soccer brand. The 1994 World Cup was a success in the United States and as soon as it ended the US Federation began planning the formation of Major League Soccer. They would then spend the next couple of years putting the foundations in place for the league to begin in 1996.
Major League Soccer got underway in 1996 with 10 teams competing they were as follows ; Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, Dallas Burn, D.C. United, Kansas City Wiz, Los Angeles Galaxy, New England Revolution, NY/NJ MetroStars, San Jose Clash and Tampa Bay Mutiny. After its first season, and MLS attendances suffered and it became difficult attract supporters to Soccer as it had to compete with Big American Sports such as Baseball, American Football and Basketball. The interest in the MLS also suffered after the United States poor showing in the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France. The United States went out in the first round after finishing bottom of their group.
An alternative strategy was required to save a league that was already struggling only a couple of years after its inception. A lot of the ageing ‘International Stars’ that had been attracted to the MLS for its opening couple of seasons either retired or moved on to pastures new. This co-incided with the appointment of Don Garber as Chief Executive, a man who had been very successful in the NFL. Garber began to lead from the front and started putting building blocks in place that would strengthen the league and assure its future. Garber was instrumental in attracting sponsors and financiers into MLS and was also involved in the Construction of purpose built Stadia for some of the Major League Soccer Clubs.
Don Garber also decided that a shift was required in the league’s marketing strategy and from that point began Marketing the MLS as a ‘League that would produce ‘Home Grown Talent’ and where local players would get the chance to forge careers for themselves by playing soccer in their homeland’. It was his vision to develop American Soccer Players that would also benefit the US National Team and not just rely on players from around the world who were coming to the end of their careers to arrive on American soil for one last big pay day. As a result of this vision young talent began to emerge such as Landon Donovan, Da Marcus Beasley and Claudio Reyna.
Results for the National Team began to improve as a result of Garber’s vision to improve the National game. Bruce Arena, a successful coach in the MLS who had won 3 titles with DC United, was appointed as the National Coach of the United States. The US National team reached the quarter finals in the FIFA 2002 World Cup Finals in Japan / South Korea which again ignited interest in US Soccer.
Two years later the MLS received world wide attention when 14 year old Freddy Adu made his MLS debut for DC United. Adu represented a new age of American Talent that had the Famous clubs from around the globe licking their lips at this new talent pool that was emerging. Adu was marketed as the Top American Prospect and landed himself a big sponsorship deal with Nike. Sadly, for Adu he has not lived up to the hype and despite a move to Portuguese Giants Benfica, he has struggled to perform and is currently on his 4th loan deal away from Benfica at Caykur Rizespor in the Turkish Second Division. Adu has been linked with a move back to LA Galaxy this summer.
Back to our main subject, the spotlight was now not only on Adu but also on all the young American players as the build up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Despite the US exiting in the group stages again, they had produced good displays against Italy (drawing 1-1) and Ghana. Following the World Cup in Germany a couple of players moved to Europe. The highest profile transfers from the MLS saw Manchester United sign Goalkeeper Tim Howard from NY Metro Stars and Da Marcus Beasley left Chicago Fire for PSV Eindhoven as European Clubs began to sit up and take notice of American Players
As the MLS continued its growth David Beckham joined LA Galaxy in 2007 on a very lucrative contract. Beckham arrived in the United States from Real Madrid with the task of raising the profile of American Soccer throughout the World. Other World Stars have followed Beckham to America with the likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Thierry Henry two of the highest profile players to have done so.
The years building up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw the MLS continuing to improve and become stronger and more competitive. David Beckham’s presence certainly gave the whole league a lot more coverage worldwide as well as putting more and more US players in the shop window for European clubs. More and more players are now making the transition into European football as the standard of the MLS improves. Players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley are all playing in English football. Add to that the likes of Stuart Holden, Eddie Johnson and Marcus Hannehman who have all appeared in the Premier League season.
Another strong performance from the United States in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa saw the US team reach the quarter finals before losing in Extra Time to Ghana. The improvement of the US National team seems to prove Dan Garber’s theory that a strong league full of homegrown players would be benefit the strength of the National Team.
The Major League Soccer model is unrecognisable today from its opening season and it continues to go from strength to strength. Despite the number of rule changes and the disappearance of some of the clubs (Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion)the league continues to grow and become more professional. The MLS is governed by the United States Soccer Federation and now consists of 18 teams (16 U.S teams and 2 Canadian teams). The teams are split into East and West Conferences.
There has again been changes made to the format of the MLS in an attempt to strengthen it further. The new re-vamped Play-Off structure has only just been revealed and gives 10 teams the chance to be crowned MLS Cup Champions. The MLS does not crown its Champions, the team that finishes top although the team with the most points is awarded the Supporters Shield and are seeded in the Play Offs. As stated they enter into a Play-Off situation. This is where I feel the league loses some credibility. In my opinion, there should just be one league and the team with the most points wins the title, however, I suppose taking the size of the United States into account this would be rather difficult.
So back to the re-vamp, the The league’s new structure will include the top three seeds from each conference and four wild card berths – regardless of which conference they play in- this now means that there are 2 qualifying games for those wild card teams. This expanded system now allows for more teams to be included in trying to win the MLS cup which the organisers hope will heighten the interest even more for the supporters. The seventh seed will host the 10th seed while the eighth seed hosts the ninth seed in a one-off playoff game to reach the final eight. The lowest remaining team will then meet the regular-season Supporters’ Shield winner and the second-lowest remaining seed will meet the other conference champion in the Conference Semi-finals.
The Conference Semi-finals will again consist of a two legged match. The second and third seeds from each conference will play each other in the two-game, aggregate-goal series, with the winners advancing to the one-game conference final at the host site of the higher-seeded team.
There are plans to expand the MLS to 19 teams by Next Year and 20 by 2013 which will see the long awaited return of the New York Cosmos (look out for our piece on the Cosmos coming soon). And this will again see the schedule change again and may even be more conference specific where the Play Offs are concerned.
This re-structuring of the league should continue to improve the league and attract new interest from the American public. The more interest it produces the more likely children will be to play soccer which then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as set out by Don Garber. I will continue to watch the MLS and hope that the standard continues to improve. With the players I have mentioned who are already playing in the league and the likes of young players like DC United’s Andy Najar (see the article on him in the Spotlight Section) then this will surely continue to enhance the Major League Soccer brand.
One other thing that the MLS has that intrigues me and has had me wondering if it could save the game in England in the Salary Cap.
It works by each club having a certain amount of money available for the squad’s wage bill. Each team’s squad can be made up of 30 players who are all available for selection in the 18 man squad on a matchday. Each MLS club is given a the same budget for wages which they then allocate to the players. Now I know that in Europe the wages are massively higher than in the MLS but a strict wage cap say of 50% of revenue could be spent then maybe that would pull teams closer together.
I suppose though the reason it works in Major League Soccer is that the teams in the MLS are centrally controlled and owned by the league. The costs of the league are kept under control as revenues are shared throughout the league. The league also negotiates player contracts and therefore Players are owned by the league and not the individual clubs. This is obviously fundamentally different to how clubs are run in Europe but it is still an interesting proposition.
Here at thtandlcab-football.com we plan to have a MLS section which will provide a short club by club guide as well as a progress report on how the MLS is shaping up, so look out for that appearing here soon !!