MLS has established itself as a viable solution to the need for a strong soccer league in America. For the reasons outlined here, the league has gained firm footing and appears to be here to stay. If MLS wants to take the next step and gain credibility on the international stage, some changes still need to be made.
Relegation/Promotion: Try and name another top-flight soccer league in the world without a system of relegation and promotion. Please note that Luxembourg, San Marino, and the Faroe Islands do not count as top-flight leagues. Having a system of relegation and promotion in place means that important games are being played at both ends of the table all season.
Enacting this would be, in theory, simple. Join forces with the USL. This would result in three solid divisions for teams to move between, MLS, and the USL first and second divisions. MLS teams could even field reserve teams in the PDL (Chicago already does), a move that would mirror what many major European teams are already doing.
Hammering out the details might take a little while. How many teams would be moving each season? How would relegation affect a teams attendance figures? If those questions can be answered, this could be a very good move for both leagues.
Continue expanding: Seattle is getting a team next year, Philadelphia is getting a team in 2010. This will bring the total number of teams in the league to 16. Continue expanding to 20 teams.
MLS is already building some great regional rivalries, and further expansion would only add more. Buy the Cosmos name and put them in New York, and you have a rivalry like LA/Chivas in a large market. Add a team in Detroit, and it could create a regional rivalry involving Detroit, Toronto, Chicago and Columbus.
The league would also be well-served by expanding back into Florida. The Tampa Bay and Miami franchises failed, but those were in the early days of the league. With high immigrant populations and a more vibrant league, a Florida-based franchise could be very successful.
Ditch the playoffs: A playoff system does not make any sense if over half the league can make it. If a league is going to have playoffs, they need to be exclusive, like those in Major League Baseball. But MLS should ditch them entirely in favor of a league-wide cup competition.
American soccer already has the US Open Cup, which MLS teams can compete in. It’s somewhat similar to the English FA Cup, in that teams from lower leagues are also invited to participate. Give MLS its own cup competition in addition to the Open Cup. The playoffs are already very inclusive; why not just have a cup competition that is completely inclusive? It’s not a terribly long season, each team could handle playing these few extra games. I’d think that the added revenue these games could generate for the league would be a very positive thing.
Raise the salary cap: As the league continues to improve its financial footing, this will happen. MLS has a very unique salary structure, with the league paying the majority of its players’ wages (those signed under the “David Beckham Rule” are paid for by their clubs, at the clubs’ own expense.)
If MLS wants to become a more internationally competitive league, it needs to be able to offer more competitive salaries. For many European-based players, a move to MLS would mean a huge cut in wages. This is why most of the European stars that MLS can afford to pay are those who are past their prime (see: Djorkaeff, Youri.)
MLS is on its way to international respectability. Its clubs play in the CONCACAF Champions League (MLS teams have won the event twice in their brief history.) The league is beginning to attract better talent, but there is still some work to do if the rest of the world is to take MLS seriously.