MLS: Lack Of Big Names, Wild Parity Cause League Not to be Taken Seriously
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Last week I watched the Major League Soccer SuperDraft on ESPN2. Like with any draft in its respective sport, it copied the same format—a table full of front-office executives. (although theirs was significantly smaller with no "war rooms").
There was the draft "ticker" at the bottom of the screen telling viewers the draft order and the team needs.
Of course thee was the, (token it seemed at times), commentary from a couple of analysts who really could have benefited from more playing-off of one another instead of just talking to the camera.
I did like a few things.
The venue, the Baltimore Convention Center, was small and intimate enough to make the hundreds of fans that were there really a part of the action and excitement. Apparently, its customary to have this draft annually at this venue.
Perhaps a future just-get-it-over-already expansion to the city?
Next, whereas in the NFL draft the prospect receives a replica jersey to hold up, here instead receives his respective scarf, which is draped over him before he reaches the stage. (Note, in the soccer world, the scarf is king, so it was appropriate).
Finally, with just 18 teams, the two hour format did go fast and had little time for worthless filler.
Now with that said, there are two major reasons why this sport continues to climb an uphill battle.
1. Too much parity,(lack of dynasties)
We all love our sport to have parity because we all want to believe that our team, or any team for that matter, has a chance to win every year.
But what happens when a turnaround of the talent level in your entire league is open to interpretation?
People love the National Football League model because, in theory, we could see a Detroit Lions—Cleveland Brown Super Bowl every season.
What's more, a team can go from 3-13 one year to 10-6 and into the playoffs the very next season.
But unlike MLS, what also makes it special is it has a mix of the dynastic power resemblance of the 1980's, when many of us either became fans or remember it for some of the best football dynasties of any time.
MLS has no such dynasties.
The league attempted to hype up DC United and the "LA Lakers"-lite Galaxy as the league's glamour teams, but after some intial success it has blown over.
On top of that, by these markets winning, we question whether it was aided by some WNBA like territorial draft help in order to kick start the league with successful bigger markets on which to build.
Kind of takes away from the accomplishment.
The league desperately wants the Los Angeles Galaxy to be relevant again, and while they are a playoff team, they are being overtaken by upstarts such as the Columbus Crew, who won the entire MLS Cup in 2008 after finishing 6th in their division and not even qualifying for the postseason the year before.
That's the equivalent of the New Jersey Nets winning the 2010 NBA title after winning 12 games and finishing the 2009-10 season in 5th place in the Atlantic.
At least to the Crews credit, they have been able to maintain a good roster and stay competitive, finishing no lower than 2nd since that time.
But it doesn't stop with the Crew.
The very next year, in 2009, after failing to qualify for the playoffs in their first three seasons and only breaking through in 2008, Real Salt Lake went from 3rd place in the West and missing the playoffs entirely to winning the MLS Cup the next year.
Finally, in the most recent example, this past year the Colorado Rapids, after not even making the playoffs the previous three seasons, (notice a trend?), were able to win the entire MLS tournament and their first championship. Forget the fact that their franchise's average attendance is just 14,195 or that it had actually been going down prior to 2007.
To the outside observer, and potential fan, it appears any team can win it all.
Parity is awesome if its done right with a proper mix of dynastic power. Fans like to see the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox lose every October, but they also appreciate teams like the Minnesota Twins or Oakland A's making things interesting.
What they would not like is if the Kansas City Royals made the playoffs one year and won the whole thing after doing nothing for the previous three. If they were unable to back up this fluke by making the playoffs the next season and defending their crown, the outcry would be even worse.
They would not like it if the Washington Nationals suddenly came out of nowhere and won the 2011 World Series when we didn't even have a chance to prepare for, or appreciate, the buildup storyline.
When teams come out of nowhere like the Crew, Salt Lake, or Rapids did, in consecutive years no less, it makes your league look weak.
Maybe it's just that people can't emotionally handle or accept these volatile momentum swings, but more likely they look at the fact that seven different franchises have won it all in the past nine years and they question the talent level.
How would it look if the Portland Timbers won it all their very first year as an expansion club?
The Timbers, as evident by their bold and refreshing billboard ad campaign featuring local "lumberjacks" with logging saws, is clearly run by a passionate group who knows what they are doing and appreciate the sport.
Mix that in with a solid draft, which they had, and there is no reason to think they won't qualify for the playoffs in their first season.
Anything more would severely damage the credibility of the brand and the league.
My personal choice is the Seattle Sounders, who have a similar passionate fan base with some of the best attended matches. They've paid their dues working their way up in a very short time,(first year was 2009), and given the rocky swings this league has with no apparent power, why not them?
The league is doing some good things with its smart expansion into the Northwest, which will no doubt revive historical rivalries to the league.
But it must hope one of these recent winners, (Houston Dynamo, Colordo Rapids, Real Salt Lake or Columbus Crew), have some real staying power for the good of their league and so the league is able to promote itself.
2. Lack of big names to push the league
MLS has an identity problem. They have no real stars on which to build. The David Beckham to LA experiment failed miserably a few years ago.
Freddy Adu also failed. The only problem is, had either succeeded it would have again looked bad for the league in a damned-if-you-do scenario.
If a 15 year old sensation like Adu was able to dominate and beat grown men on the pitch like he was expected to do, how can we take that seriously?
If an elder Beckham, whose dominant days were clearly long behind him, came in and took MLS by storm, critics would say he was doing it against inferior talent to that of international competition.
How many know who Thierry Henry is or who he plays for in MLS? How many people know this man has literally done it all on the international stage with France and Arsenal of the English Premier League, but can't make a headline in the New York Post for the New York Red Bulls?
People see moves like Beckham and Henry as little more than aging stars in it for one last paycheck.
I'm a fan of the German Bundieslia, Polish Ekstraklassa and Barclay's Premier League.
We all know MLS can't hold a candle to that talent level.
If we know it, Henry and Beckham do, too, which is why you don't see more transfers or loans.
In a league that can't market its stars because it lacks them, at least they were smart placing franchises in the right markets on which to grow. MLS will have to continue to survive and thrive this way, despite what they may have preferred.
Information from ESPN.com, Wikipedia, and Portland Timbers.com directly contributed to the content of this article.
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