Big decisions loom for growing MLS
After a week of largely upbeat build-up and nationwide publicity for a sport that so often struggles to get space, the league’s title deciding game, MLS Cup, was played out in front of over 46,000 fans here in Seattle – the city that is staking a strong claim to be the de facto home of U.S soccer.
“It was a memorable night for soccer in the United States,” said league commissioner Don Garber.
Strolling through the squares of downtown Seattle, packed with fans bedecked in team colours and chatting to the soccer-savvy locals, it was hard not to imagine how the sports scene in the U.S could change if the Seattle experience truly was replicated across the country.
David Beckham and L.A Galaxy didn’t get their title, losing on penalties to Real Salt Lake, but they did both earn some respect.
Beckham has surely put to bed the argument that he is not fully committed to his MLS project by playing through the pain barrier of a badly bruised ankle for 120 minutes and since Bruce Arena took over as head coach, the Galaxy feel like a real team rather than the circus act they were in danger of becoming.
Salt Lake won the league in just their fifth season of existence – a real boost for the trio of new teams about to enter MLS, Philadelphia in 2010, Vancouver and Portland a year later and encouraging also for other teams in the league without a big name foreign player.
But for all the very real advances the 14 year-old league had made, MLS now finds itself at the crossroads with some very difficult strategic issues to deal with, including some tough talks with the players’ union over a collective bargaining agreement on wages and conditions.
MLS has prided itself on avoiding the boom and bust associated with the first attempt at a nationwide professional league – the NASL which ran from 1968 to 1984 before collapsing as one debt-ridden club after another folded.
The MLS executives have led a conservative expansion and investment strategy designed for steady and intelligent growth and in many areas that approach has been justified.
The league is a ‘single entity’ which means that there is a strong central control over spending and a collective responsibility for debt. The salary cap and the restrictive rules on recruitment and squad development act as a brake on what is so often the biggest cause of debt in professional soccer — wages.
Like all the pro sports leagues in the U.S, the desire for parity – keeping as many teams as possible competitive with each other – leads to rules and regulations that are surprising for a country known as the home of modern capitalism.
There has been some loosening of the reins – the Designated Player exception, also known as the ‘Beckham rule’, allows clubs to have a player on their squad who is outside the salary cap restrictions and is paid for directly by the team and not the league.
Some clubs in MLS, such as the Seattle Sounders and the L.A Galaxy, would like to see an expansion of that exception and greater freedom for clubs to buy intheir own players and offer lucrative deals while less wealthy franchises fear that would create a small elite.
At the weekend Galaxy owner Tim Leiweke suggested a rule change was on the horizon which would allow for three designated players and that he expected to see more big name players head to the league.
However, Garber was quick to put the dampers on such talk.
“It is clear that the LA Galaxy are a big proponent of the designated player rule but I can assure you that no decisions have been taken on the designated player rule,” he told reporters at halftime in Seattle.
“Frankly no discussions will be held at the board level on that rule or our salary budgets or anything related to what we spend on our players until after we get through our CBA negotiations,” he said.
It is a tricky issue for Garber to address. He wants to keep the big money backers of the Sounders and the Galaxy happy; he wants to see more Beckham style big-name players in the league but he doesn’t want to make the mistake of leaving weaker franchises to fade if they can’t keep up with the big-spenders.
But with the current agreement with the players running out on Jan. 31 and the union pushing for higher wages, it is more basic matters that Garber must attend to.
Some of the salaries being paid to experienced and talented players in MLS are astonishingly low compared to the money that players of similar ability earn in Europe or South America.
Stuart Holden, a 24-year-old U.S international and one of the top midfielders in MLS this season with Houston, earns a salary of under $35,000 from the league while Salt Lake’s top scorer Robbie Findley with 18 goals in 27 regular season games and the equaliser in Sunday’s final, this year earned just $72,000.
A deal needs to be struck with the union to avoid the acutely embarrassing and potentially damaging scenario of threats of a strike and also to lessen the danger of the country’s best talent voting with their feet.
Not only is MLS unable to attract quality foreign players into the league, salaries well below the international level mean that it cannot hang on to a lot of American talent.
Holden’s contract runs out in January and he could well move abroad and while players of his quality will always be tempted by an offer from England or Spain, what should be worrying Garber is the exodus of more modest talent to smaller leagues.
It doesn’t look good for MLS’s credibility as a major league – among U.S sports or on the international soccer stage — when young American players choose, as a number have, to move to the relatively anonymous and modestly paying Danish and Norwegian leagues in order to earn a better living.
And while Leiweke talks of new names coming into the league, the fact is that his team and the league can’t control the top names they do have.
Next year’s MLS season starts two months before the World Cup finals in South Africa – an event which is being well promoted on television and which is increasingly on the radar of mainstream sports fans in North America.
MLS’s two highest profile foreign players – Beckham and Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco – will likely be featuring in that tournament and offer the perfect way to lead interested fans from the World Cup to the domestic competition.
Yet at the start of the MLS season in March, those two players will be playing in different leagues, Beckham with AC Milan in Italy and Blanco back home in Mexico – thanks to deals designed to keep them in shape for South Africa.
Blanco may not return while Beckham is being loaned out — a bizarre situation that is simply unthinkable for any major league sport in the United States or any serious soccer championship elsewhere.
The one area where MLS’s caution has been less evident of late is in the matter of expanding its size. The league will go to 16 teams next year and 18 by 2011. In the subsequent seasons Garber would like to add Montreal and then a 20th team, possibly one owned by Beckham or a consortium he would front.
Here again there is something of a quandary – expansion risks spreading the talent too thinly across the league and creates a need for more imported players and therefore a demand for higher salaries to attract those foreigners.
But with interest in the game as a whole growing – with rising television audiences for the English and Spanish leagues and Champions League football – not embedding MLS into key soccer markets risks allowing a generation of fans to get their fix elsewhere – probably from foreign television.
MLS’s prudent, intelligent and relatively cautious approach has been largely justified by the steady progress the league has made and Garber is perfectly right to celebrate the achievements in bringing the sport to a new level in North America.
But there is, at the heart of all these issues, the conflict between the tried and tested methods of North American major leagues – salary caps, drafts, the desire to keep the gaps between the best and the worst to a minimum, and the fact that, unlike American football and baseball, MLS faces strong competition from overseas leagues and a global labour market for talent.
Soccer, globally, is a ruthlessly free-market business where the rich usually get what they want.
Ultimately, if MLS wants to step up to a higher level, if it wants to be truly major league in the U.S. and in the world soccer scene, there will be some strains on the almost socialistic structures it currently operates in.
PHOTO: Los Angeles Galaxy’s David Beckham watches the celebration after losing to Real Salt Lake in a penalty shootout during their MLS Cup 2009 championship soccer match in Seattle November 22, 2009. REUTERS/Robert Sorbo