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 www.mls.com 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.