Up in the Air: Is it Time to for MLS to Hit its Ceiling?
Since its inception in 1996, Major League Soccer (MLS) has become a league many thought would implode in its infancy. As the 2014 season approaches, the league’s vitality is increasing while the number of teams in MLS has more than doubled. For MLS, the reality is still up in the air. Literally.
The league’s proclivity to introduce soccer-specific stadiums and programming to a once soccer-ignorant country whose denizens once only gained their exposure to the sport through two main channels: first generation immigrants and recreational leagues geared toward children. Of course, the North American Soccer League (NASL) existed prior to MLS, from 1968 to 1984, and introduced North America to the world’s finest players on their way out.
The past decade has seen a resurgence of talent and interest in North America, but the league, which currently follows the NASL modus operandi of acquiring foreign talent as keynote signings, must heed the warnings of the past. The league’s most recent decision to add more teams to the league should be cause for concern. In many ways, the league is still in its embryonic stages of development and talent-based output. Sure, its growth has been exponentially beneficial for the latest generation of aficionados of the game in America and to a lesser extent, Canada, but Don Garber and the hierarchy of MLS and the USSF need to address two main issues.
The league is slated to include 21 teams when the 2015 campaign kicks off with the two newest teams being New York City FC and Orlando City Soccer Club respectively. At this point, the league’s growth must be culled before too many teams are introduced in areas that still lack interest in the league itself. Supporters’ groups are on the rise, but the cause for concern rests not with the passion of these supporters, but with the preference most educated fans and players of the game have to foreign leagues. The glitz and glamor of the Premier League is unrivalled. As American fans tuning-in to watch the Premier League religiously as the television rights being awarded to NBC and the influx of North American-based preseason tours, their preference still rests with one of the world’s power leagues.
For the league to fully hone its talent pool, structural changes need to occur in the lower tiers of the North American system. Relegation should be implemented seeing as many teams in the second tier of soccer can compete with MLS teams in club competitions and friendlies. Where they cannot compete is financially. The structure of MLS is designed to foster parity within the league via the Drafting process, trade allocations, designated player rulings and single-entity ownership. Each element has proven to work wonders to grow the league, but now, the powers at be would be well-advised to think about the sport in terms of “trickle-down economics”, whereby the vitality of the leagues is based on controlled expansion up top. One doesn’t build a house starting with the roof.
The quality of the game will continue to rise in North America — even if most of best young talents opt to ply their trade abroad. With an expanding league, certain necessities must take place such as: a simple relegation-promotion system, single table standings and with it, the elimination of the play-offs. Stability on par with the rest of the world’s leagues will come through drastic changes, but the fact remains that MLS is ironically still too foreign to its own purist fans who follow the top European leagues. The allure of bridging the gap between divisions benefits all participants in each league. The infusion of better talent, more sponsorship, bigger stadia (and with them, bigger crowds), more television money needs to trickle down the ranks of North American soccer. It may surprise many, but eliminating the “Americanized” aspects of the league will bring more continuity to a working formulaic design.
The sky is truly the limit for the sport on North American shores, but the best growth is controlled growth. By expanding the sport back to the state of Florida where the league’s only two defunct teams resided, MLS is taking a calculated risk. The American southeast may or may not be ready for professional soccer. Garnering support from the grassroots level in this area should increase with Orlando City FC’s inclusion to MLS. In recent weeks, David Beckham and LeBron James have both expressed interest in owning a team in Miami, which would increase interest, but what the league needs now is stability and reformatting. The American southwest could certainly benefit from a team in Arizona or New Mexico, where the number of latino players has always been high.
Explosive interest in the league’s growth is both dangerous and exciting and only time will tell how the ball rolls in the coming years for MLS and lower tiers of North American soccer.