The MLS has tasted struggle. It knows what it’s like to be close to failure. Its predecessor, the NASL, was one, and at times it felt like that might be the MLS’s own destiny. That has chained. The lean years are over, and with some harsh lessons in hand the MLS is poised for good years ahead. There is growth and improvement in all the major areas. More money is being thrown around, more people are watching and the quality of soccer is rising. The MLS has shown America that it can be a viable sports league amidst a myriad of other choices, and it has shown the world that a different take on soccer can be a good thing, an asset the league can use to its advantage.
When it comes to talent, there’s no denying the MLS is getting better, and it’s noticeable from year to year. This extends to the teams’ front offices that bring in the players and the managers who coach them. But that’s not stay the MLS is now on par with the world’s elite leagues, and as long as that’s the case, there will always be detractors who focus on what the MLS is not instead of what it has become.
With each step forward, new criticism emerges, some valid and some not. Sebastian Giovinco’s move to the MLS seems to have cost him a shot on Italy’s team no matter how well he has played, and coach Antonio Conte made it all but clear that being a top player in the MLS is not good enough for his national team squad. As is usually the case, the issue was the league’s lack of skill, an appraisal that even some of the big names that have come to the MLS via Europe agree with, including Andrea Pirlo. The league has also found it difficult to shake its reputation as a retirement league, which may be fair when you look at Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard who limped toward the end of their career after coming to the States. Even Pirlo and Kaka have seen their time in the MLS marred by injury and inconsistency as their careers wind down.
Still, many of those big name players defend the league to the world, even Pirlo when describing his fondness for the “style of sport in America” and the fan experience. The reigning MVP, David Villa, recently went after those who criticize the quality of play. “I don’t think there is anyone that can come to the MLS for one, two, three months and talk badly about it,” he says. Another league MVP, former Tottenham star Robbie King has also talked up the MLS’s growth and contends it could one day be a “massive, massive league.” And Giovinco, yet another MVP, continues to make it clear that he is content in the MLS by spurning potential suitors elsewhere. This is in spite of it hurting his chances to represent his country. The MLS is on the rise, and they want to be a part of it.
In regards to the MLS being a retirement league, the league has made a concerted effort to sign younger Designated Player talent, players that can compete in the top leagues but choose the MLS. Of the 27 first time Designated Players signed in 2016 and 2017, only two are currently over the age of 32. Jelle Van Damme is 33. Tim Howard is 38. Only five more are over 30. Roger Espinoza and Maximiliano Moralez are 30. Sacha Klestjan is 31. Kei Kemara is 32, as is the newly-signed Bastian Schweinstager. Of those, Van Damme, Howard and maybe even Schweinstager fit the mold of a retirement signing, but a legitimate case can be made for each player.
The MLS, for the most part, is no longer intent on simply bringing in big names. Teams are making moves for younger, more sustainable players that are either in their prime or are developing and looking to make a name for themselves in the MLS. Giovinco was a revelation. Nicolas Lodeiro followed suit, and there is a younger crop of newly signed DPs looking to have the same impact in 2017, including Josef Martinez, Atlanta United’s early 2017 season standout.
All this is to say the MLS is only going to get better. It’s a league on the rise, a league that is currently seeing the quickest growth and a league that becomes more compelling by the day.
When the MLS first began, it was a given the league would have some form of a postseason tournament where the league’s annual champion would be crowned. Playoffs are embedded in American sports culture. They are a part of most sports, whether it’s professional, college, high school or amateur leagues. You simply don’t play sports without them. At least in the U.S. But the idea of the playoffs might be rubbing off on to others.
In an attempt to address Bayern Munich’s dominance in the Bundesliga, the idea of playoffs was brought up. Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel voiced his support, which may not surprise people considering he’s currently chasing Bayern Munich and playoffs might give his club another chance to beat them, but the idea also received backing from Wolfgang Holzhauser, a former German Football League chief. “In the long run,” he says, “the dominance of one club is not good for the competition.” Now, I don’t think any of this talk will lead a playoff system in the Bundesliga any time soon, but it’s a discussion that I don’t think happens without the MLS. The league has grown enough so that it can no longer be easily dismissed simply because it’s a fledgling American league.
And if the case for the playoffs is competitive balance, that would be one thing, but the most compelling reason remains the excitement they bring.
The playoffs are the grand finale of the season, the culmination of everything that has taken place up to that point. They’re the ultimate test in grit, endurance, skill and fight, with a little bit of chance sprinkled in. Old rivalries renew and new ones form, all of which helps write the stories of the MLS and its teams. The win-or-go-home nature raises the stakes of the matches, along with the intensity and the overall experience for players and fans alike.
Indeed, this concept is not new to the sport as the World Cup and other prominent tournaments around the world are designed in a similar fashion, so it seems reasonable to want to replicate this at the league level. Plus, when you have the competitive balance that the MLS has (a point we’ll talk about later), the result is often unpredictable, highly-contested soccer, something many of us want to see.
Of course, there are logistical problems that arise with the playoffs, which the MLS continues to sort through. There are contrasting ideas on how many teams should be allowed in and what the best format should be – knockout games, a home-and-home format, a best-of-three series, or some combination of all of them. There are also scheduling issues. How long should they last? How many days of rest should be in between each game? And there is concern over the physical toll that players go through, especially when you factor in other tournaments teams play in and the international schedule that some players go through.
But you work past all of this because the playoffs are just too good not to have. That’s at least one person’s opinion, and in a culture where playoffs are the norm, this fits, although I wholly admit that while I like them in the MLS, they may not work in every league. That’s a choice to be made for others to decide, and I’m sure there are both pros and cons for each league.
I will, however, defend the MLS against one charge – that the playoffs can allow for a champion that simply got hot at the right time of the year and are therefore not deserving. First, you have to get there. They don’t just allow anyone in. Teams that do well in the regular season are rewarded with better seeds and usually a better route to the championship, yet a better route doesn’t mean an easy route, and for a team that got hot at the end of the year without doing as well in the regular season it’s even more difficult. But regardless of where you are seeded, you still have to beat out all the other teams worthy of postseason competition. If you can negotiate your way past the other top teams who are also striving to play their best soccer while keeping their own team focused and healthy, then you deserve a championship. That doesn’t happen with just a momentum shift at the right time; that happens because you have a really good team.
The fact that so many MLS teams are in contention for a championship year in and year out is another thing that gives the MLS something other leagues don’t always have. The system is not perfect, and it should be noted that the spending gap between the highest paying team and the lowest was just over five times (Toronto came in at $21.8 million with Dallas paying $4.33 million), so the notion of true economic parity is false, but it bears mentioning that while Toronto was arguably the better team in the most recent 2016 championship match (a game they loss in penalty kicks), Dallas would have been the champion in most every other league after winning the regular season Supporters’ Shield before losing to the eventual champion, Seattle, in the playoffs.
Suffice it to say having the most money in the MLS doesn’t always get you the best results. You can break the bank in the MLS but only on a few players. If you choose not to dole out large sums of money to a limited number of Designated Players, clever management can still have you contending.
What you get is a league that has made competition a priority. There is a conscious effort to level the playing field between clubs with more money and the ones who need to operate with more fiscal constraints. It’s another byproduct of the American professional sports landscape and something that is not a part of other leagues whose big budget teams almost always take their league’s trophies.
Yes, there are some benefits of having teams with bottomless pockets. For one, they have produced some really remarkable squads that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. History’s best clubs are a who’s who of high rollers in the soccer world, spending big on the great players and creating an incredible product of talent and teamwork on the pitch, all of which helps move the sport forward. And if you want to talk about competitive balance, some might say that these teams find parity in the Champions League.
There is no question that is a convincing case, but there’s something to be said for a league in which you don’t really know who is going to be crowned champion at the end of the year. Teams and their fan bases go into the year with a lot more optimism regarding their teams’ chances.
The European model encourages competition among the bottom-dwellers by way of promotion and relegation, but teams still operate under a free market with little but their own coffers to keep them in check, giving the top teams a sizable advantage. The American model prioritizes competitive balance and is oft referred to as a form of socialism where such leagues go to lengths to ensure that every team has a legitimate shot at contention regardless of money. Others might use the analogy of a country club. Your team has to be approved by the league in order to get in, but once you’re in, you’re afforded the perks of membership and a fair shake. And still some say these leagues operate more like a cartel.
Whatever your preferred comparison is, this creates a different dynamic in the MLS not common among its counterparts. The standings are often tight. Teams can rise or fall quickly, and there is less predictability. The playoffs give more teams a chance, which adds to the drama. You have less overly dominant teams and greater competition.
This could be appealing to some. I get why people still might prefer other leagues, but this is something different, something that has merit in its own right.
What The MLS Should Do Next
I would like to see the MLS use the momentum its riding to challenge the status quo a little. Can the league look at the game a little bit differently? Not for the sake of being different, but to see if it can make the game better. I’m not talking anything major, the game is great as it is, but aren’t there some things that could be tweaked in the name of progression?
For example, I’d love to see the MLS do something about all the time wasting and theatrics that plague the game. I want to watch soccer, not a bunch of grown men feigning injury in order to gain an unfair advantage. I wouldn’t mind the MLS looking into ways to open the game up more and increase scoring. It would also be great for the league to be a leader in testing replay.
And what about those run-up penalty shots? When the MLS first did it, it was laughed it, but some FIFA execs are reportedly considering it for the 2026 World Cup. Now that the MLS has a little clout, perhaps those penalty shots won’t be ridiculed as harshly. I’m not necessarily saying the MLS should quickly go back to the run-ups, but at the very least, wouldn’t they add for a great event at the All Star Game?
American sports leagues do a good job of looking at various nuances of the game and making subtle rule changes to progress the sport. I think the MLS could do the same. Granted, it’s probably more difficult in soccer considering you’ve got an established tradition and an international governing body in FIFA that has more control than what baseball, football or basketball has to contend with, but I’d still appreciate an effort. There’s still a lot of potential in this sport.
All of this could add to the value the league already has and continues to cultivate. It’s a league like not other, which is a good thing, and with continued growth in the forecast, the MLS stands to make more of an impact in the soccer world. All in all, it’s a good time to be a MLS fan.