The recent announcement that Vancouver, BC will be the home of an MLS franchise beginning in 2011 was a step forward for North American soccer.
"Our goal is to become one of the world's best football leagues," MLS commissioner Don Garber said at the news conference announcing the expansion. "The addition of Vancouver will help us get to that point."
Maybe it will in the long term, Mr. Garber, but what is the short-term plan?
Do you really believe what you are saying?
All things considered, the MLS is doing well. Adding franchises during a global recession and having teams get soccer-specific stadiums to cement their place in their communities is fantastic.
Its 14th season is ready to kick off and there appears to be an overall general financial health and well being across the board. For this, the MLS management is to be commended.
I am, of course, referring to their off-the-field accomplishments.
But to say that MLS has ambitions to compete on a global scale is farfetched indeed. There is so much left to be done on the field before even considering a dip into international comparisons.
Based on results in the CONCACAF competitions, one would have to say that MLS is far from the world’s top leagues. The recent failure of the MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champion’s League (which is an annual occurrence) should be a stark reminder of the shortfalls of the level of MLS’ play.
Excuses are thrown out to pacify the restless, with the primary one being the fact that the competition is in the MLS preseason, while the other leagues are running on all cylinders.
Besides this oft used "explanation" ruing the timing of the MLS season, there are other detractors of the March to October season.
Sepp Blatter agrees that one of the MLS’ shortcomings is the summer season. This pitfall is the result of the threat of competition from other sports and stadia issues.
He and MLS officials agree that a large roadblock for changing the season is the competition for viewers that will result with American crash helmet football.
Sharing stadiums with these same NFL teams is an issue as well, but MLS has said it hopes to eventually make the switch, but it can't for now because of the shared stadiums.
So, they have conceded that the change of schedule is needed, but have yet to see it through. Are they (again) just saying the right thing, or is MLS sincere that a change of seasons for the schedule is a priority?
Blatter went on to say, "This league was founded after the 1994 World Cup, but is still struggling to get the position they should have, according to the number of football players there are in the United States."
"It has the highest number of young players in any sport, but the league has not found yet its position. It can only find its position if the league has its own stadiums and plays at the same time as the rest of the world.”
He further points out that, "The best American players are playing in Europe, and this is a basic problem with the MLS."
While Blatter does come out with some questionable assessments (remember women players in more revealing uniforms?), he is definitely spot-on when it comes to the current position of the MLS and its needs.
The fact that MLS cannot compete in its own region (and a weak one at that) is reason enough to tell Garber that he better think about what he says before he says it.
And if the reason is due to timing of the season, then change it. The league has already conceded that it needs to be changed.
Play more games in the soccer-specific stadiums in the fall when football is in season and then have the teams which do share with an NFL team (Kansas City, Red Bulls, etc.) play a home-heavy fixture list at the end of the season.
And the last time I checked, the NFL schedules are available well in advance and, on average, teams only play at home once every two weeks. As a matter of fact, there is a six-to-eight-week period in the current season where they share the stadium already.
As for competition for viewing audiences, there is no doubt that the people who are willing to attend an MLS game are doing it for the desire to see the game. They are not attending because there is no other event at the time.
Soccer people are full-timers and will go to the game in November just as easily as they would in July.
While I commend Garber for the stability and steady growth of MLS, I am asking him to consider this before he publicly proclaims MLS ambitions: Make sure that the on-field product is putting forth a worthy and credible display of the beautiful game, and that the league is doing its all to facilitate it before uttering delusions of grandeur.
At the very least, please realize how far there is still to go and make the steps to fix it because, at the end of the day Mr. Garber, I share your ambitions.
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