Eleven Issues Facing MLS
WASHINGTON, DC (Sept 24, 2008) USSoccerPlayers -- With Major League Soccer's season turning into more about what's not working than what is, we outline eleven issues facing the League. How important are any of them in isolation? Your call, but turning around all of them would stress bigger leagues with more money and personnel. It also runs counter to the story MLS would prefer to be telling, one centered around willing investor/operators and a model of sustainable growth.
1. Player Relations: The gap in salaries in Major League Soccer exists somewhere between working poor and solid middle class for the bulk of players. Unlike most recent college grads, in general MLS players aren't facing paying back student loans. However, they more than make up for that by no guaranteed contracts and normally trying to keep two households. All of this while existing in a professional setting where spending to excess is part of the job.
Major League Soccer has done nothing to right this, trying to squeeze players across their pay scale. Even the well off by MLS standards have a pretty good idea of what they'd be making from even obscure European clubs. Those stories of guys heading to the lesser lights of Europe and ending up well paid aren't just for gossip boards.
One of the early fights for the MLS Players Union was automatic deposit on paychecks and a 401k. MLS simply didn't bother doing even the little things that a front office worker would expect.
2. Expansion Time-line: Setting aside the quality of play issues, the push for continued expansion can be as much of a negative as a positive. The League would use it as an indicator of strength, that interested parties are willing to spend considerable money to join. That doesn't say much in terms of appropriateness or business models, and that's the part the League isn't answering.
Why is this good for all involved? How is the League prepared to deal with the basic issues around expansion that everybody remotely interested in the League is already discussing? Anything resembling a substantive answer is likely going to cost you $40 million, or wherever the expansion fee ends up.
3. Calendar: To put it as simply as possible, there are too many dates for MLS clubs carrying a relatively small roster. DC United and Houston are facing two or three games a week during the month of October, and the League failed to act before this became such an obvious issue. Add in the choice to ignore the international calendar, and the problem is compounded.
Yes, there are teams openly complaining about roster size who haven't used all their available spaces. Though MLS should take a moment to laugh while considering the source on those specific complaints, the general problem remains.
4. Officiating: It's not that the officials are at such a low standard that week in and week out they have more of an impact on results than the actual players. In fact, it's nowhere near that. However, the perception is that there is an officiating issue with Major League Soccer that needs to be addressed.
5. Player Development: Former LA Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit gave a very reasoned interview recently where he talked about a few MLS issues. One was the skewed player development system that, as he put it, meant he could use Galaxy resources to mold a talent only to lose him before he ever played a game for the senior side.
The response was typical, reciting MLS guidelines that are always subject to change. Though MLS has moved steadily with player development, it's still not 100% with the clubs. That's the model most countries are used too, and it would increase the pressure on the clubs to spend money and resources.
6. Soccer United Marketing: A marketing company created by Major League Soccer is also the single biggest promoter of soccer events in the United States not involving Major League Soccer. Though potentially a fiscal win for the investor/operators involved, it also creates an entity responsible for promoting MLS also promoting what should be the League's biggest rivals in a limited marketplace.
7. Kansas City: The Wizards are playing in an independent league baseball stadium while trying to make a project bigger than just a soccer-specific stadium a reality. Only San Jose is in the same situation where their regular attendance is physically capped at what would be a disappointment in most markets. They aren't likely to move out of the greater Kansas City region, taking away a bargaining position and they can look to Frisco, TX, Commerce City, CO, and Bridgeview, IL for lessons on building at the edges of metroplexes or in under serviced neighborhoods.
8. Canada: Jingoism aside, Major League Soccer was developed to help improve the US National Team program. Though it's obvious that motivation has changed to reflect a sports league for its own sake, the push north has to be considered an issue.
Let's start with an easily dismissed point: it violates the FIFA ideal of one league per country. The exceptions are countries that can't support their own domestic league. Though Canada has a history of joining US clubs in every major team sport, it's an issue that so many potential Canadian cities are now expansion targets. Simply put, if that many are willing to buy in, why isn't there a Canadian first division?
9. The US Soccer Federation: The USSF has a neat trick they play, deftly switching from pro sports front office to national governing body whenever it suits them. Unfortunately, with Major League Soccer they have a basic conflict of interest that has yet to be addressed. Namely, their president is also president of an MLS organization. Since the Federation remains the sanctioning body for MLS, there needs to be at the very least a conflict of interest statement concerning crossover personnel.
10. Europe: Though it can be taken as a backwards compliment that multiple teams across Europe have shown a willingness to pay for MLS squad players, the result is a feeling that even marginal American talent should be over there. The inherent criticism of the MLS system is that some of these players can make more money seeing out their MLS deal and then signing with just about anyone overseas. It doesn't take more than a handful to twist the appearance/reality distinction, and it's not flattering to Major League Soccer.
11. FIFA: MLS is on a dual course to finally get world soccer's governing body's unrequited attention. Lane one is expansion past 18 teams. There are much bigger leagues generating a lot more revenue that have been warned off that course. Lane two would be ignoring international matchdays. The initial impact is extreme both on the quality of the MLS schedule and the increased pressure on club vs. country. There's also the general disrespect, pleading self-serving hardship that only really exists when it's convenient.
What did we miss? What did we get right? How would you rank your eleven?