The State of MLS

HOWARD MEGDAL: For a long time, watching MLS felt like a bit of a letdown following events like the World Cup, or even a Saturday with the English Premier League. And obviously, the talent level is still not at the level of either. But MLS certainly doesn’t feel like a letdown anymore.

Two weeks ago, I witnessed a battle between New York and Los Angeles that exemplified the leap the league has made. No, Thierry Henry did not play due to a knee injury. But it isn’t as if MLS has lacked big names for fifteen years.

Consider instead: an inspired David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and league goalscoring leader Edson Buddle all played for one side.

And that team got utterly dominated.

There are teams all over this league worth seeing now. The Open Cup final Tuesday night featured two such squads in Columbus and Seattle. FC Dallas is entertaining.

And I haven’t even mentioned the defending champions, Real Salt Lake, headed to Red Bull Arena this weekend.

With loosening Designated Player rules, more and more imports are heading to the United States to supplement an improving domestic pipeline. It is no accident that MLS is attracting better players- better players do just that.

My guess? We’re about to see a defining postseason for the league. MLS, in a fundamental way, has fully arrived.

MIKE CUMMINGS: My esteemed colleague is wrong on this one. The World Cup ended a couple of months ago now, and my hangover still feels as fresh as a case of Natty Light. Watching the MLS is, in fact, so much of a letdown that I’ve considered entering withdrawal therapy.

Look, the MLS Cup is less than two months away, and as much as I hate to say it, that means the American sporting public just let out a collective chuckle. (I might have joined in.) Of course, that’s assuming the American sporting public knows that, in this case, MLS stands for “Major League Soccer,” and not “Multiple Listing Service,” the real estate aggregator that still pops up if you type in your internet browser today, nearly 15 years after the league’s inaugural season. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but the fact remains: Even after perhaps the second-most followed World Cup in US history, the MLS is still a joke. And it’s not just soccer haters and Euro-snobs who think so.

Here’s why. And consider this my six-step recovery program recovery for the MLS, if the league ever feels like getting itself straight.

1. Talent level. OK, so Howard was right: As of right now, with more and more players like Thierry Henry around, the league has never been better. Indeed, the MLS has come a long way from the days when guys like Jason Kreis won MVP awards. But that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere close to good enough.

For proof, all you have to do is look at the age of the superstars who come to the league. David Beckham was 32 and Henry was 33. That’s not very old for American fans used to seeing 87-year-old Brett Favre throw footballs and yank teams around in between hawking Wangler Jeans on TV. But in elite European soccer, it’s practically one step away from Abe Vagoda. The fact that they can come over here at their age and still be superstars attests to the poor quality of the league.

But all you really have to do to gauge the league’s quality is watch. The passes are slow, and runs are slower. The tactics are poor. The shots look like they came off the foot of Betty White. For fans of European soccer, it’s like watching high school football on a blue field while an NFL game is going on across town.

And I don’t buy that the league is better because there are more teams worth watching. Let’s not confuse competitive teams and parity for quality soccer.

Now, to a certain extent, that level of play isn’t completely MLS’s fault. The league has done what it can to improve its product, as Howard mentioned with the relaxed rules on player allocation. But here are a few things the league has messed up, in lightning-round form.

2. Silly team names. These are an easy target. A list of the bad: Crew, Revolution, United (the team’s actual nickname! Not a reflection of two clubs uniting together!), Red Bulls (sponsorship gone amok), Union (sounds like a children’s team), Rapids (just dumb), Dynamo (another misinterpretation of a genuinely cool team name), Real Salt Lake (see United and Dynamo), Chivas USA (cool in Mexico, but with the USA on the end sounds like a Discovery Zone-style kids franchise). Does anyone like these names?

A few decent ones: Fire, Galaxy, Wizards.

And the only good ones: FC Dallas, Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders FC and, to a lesser extent, San Jose Earthquakes. These are good because they are one of two things: (1) Simple, not silly and totally unpretentious; or (2) Reflections of the regions they represent.

3. Silly league name. Is there an affiliated minor league?

4. Silly league rules. The league negotiates all contracts with players and retains contracts with them (how is this legal?). Also, the previously mentioned Designated Player Rule.

5. Silly attempts at Americanization. Why does the MLS have East and West Conferences? Why are there playoffs? In soccer, winning the league means winning the league – not winning the league and then going to the playoffs to do it again. That’s why you have a cup competition, bro.

And in the past, MLS also experimented with a shootout and a clock that counted down and sometimes stopped.

6. Silly schedule. The MLS season started March 25 and will end with the  MLS Cup (not really a true cup competition, but instead the final game of the playoffs) on Nov. 21. Every other respectable league in the world plays from August or September until May or June. MLS should too.

It’s a silly setup for what’s still a silly soccer league.

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4 Responses to The State of MLS

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  3. fennsk says:

    Megdal, I appreciate the balanced, brief analysis of MLS’ current position

    Cummings, where do you expect a league to be with only 15 years under it’s belt? Would you rather another NASL had been a short-term success and failed in that timeframe. There’s a reason MLS took a conservative approach that led to some of your issues. They want to survive.
    Let’s take your comments point by point:
    1. Talent level. – You say that talent is improving, “but that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere close to good enough.” What’s good enough? It’s good enough to have groomed the greatest American player ever. Landon Donovan would not be the player he is without MLS. Good enough to have attracting endorsement and expansion, funding youth academies and greater talent influx. It’s good enough to draw decent-to-large crowds to many of the games. Seattle is averaging over 31,000 in attendance. Very few would be silly enough to argue that MLS is world class. There’s no reason to believe that MLS won’t continue improving, as they have been steadily for a few years now.
    Also, not all of the good players coming to the league are old. Take a look at Montero, Fernandez, and Alonso in Seattle, Juninho and Leonardo in LA, and Marvin Chavez and Jackson in Dallas. Latin and South Americans in their low 20s are seeing MLS as league in which they can gain recognition, which is a great step.

    2 & 3. Silly team & league names. – You’re right, it’s an easy target, my objection’s are that I dislike some that you like and vice versa. Not worth wasting time on (why did you waste time on it?).

    4. Silly league rules. – As I stated earlier, MLS had to take a conservative approach when setting up this league to guard against a NASL-like flame-out. Best way to control spending and guard against the failure of individual clubs was greater league control. Judging by recent news of the financial difficulties of many European clubs in the last couple years, this approach may be admired by a few over there. The only side effect of this system that bugs me is both the league and the team have to sign off on player transfers.
    I’d agree that some of the rules are a little on the silly side, notably the allocation process and the lack of free agency within the league.

    5. Silly attempts at Americanization. – No sillier than assuming that the way things are done in Europe is unequivicably the right way. Playoffs add drama, and don’t detract from the game. Would I like to see the Supporter’s Shield (best reg season record) better respected and rewarded? Sure, but playoffs are a perfectly valid means of crowning a champion, and resonate with the fans.
    The conferences were put in place while MLS was too small to have a balanced schedule, and were a structure through which local rivals could play more games against each other. In practice, they’re pretty irrelevant today, with the best 8 making the playoffs regardless on conference.
    Speaking of irrelevant, in an article about the current state of MLS, why bring up shootouts and backwards clocks?

    6. Silly schedule. – Ever try to spend 2 hours sitting outdoors in Toronto, Columbus, Chicago, NY, etc. in December, January or February? Ever seen the TV rating and media coverage for the NFL, NBA, and college sports during your Sept – June season? The summer schedule provides less competition for attention, and a more comfortable environment for fans to come to games.

    In summary, all of your points are either over-simplified and ill informed or just flat-out irrelevant. Silly.

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