It only took 15 years for the brain-trust at MLS to figure out that the Pacific Northwest is the pulse of soccer in North America. As I stated in a previous article, Portland, Vancouver and Seattle are putting an excitement into the MLS that it's never really experienced before.
It wasn't Freddie Adu, Landon Donovan, David Beckham or Thierry Henry that infused a surge of electricity throughout Major League Soccer—it's been done by rabid fans in the rainiest and grayest part of the country.
The question is, what does the MLS do from here?
Try as they might, Los Angeles and New York are not the answer to increasing revenue and fan attendance. Those are big-market cities, but the interest in both cities pales in comparison to interest in other sports.
So, for those interested, here is a primer for how MLS can continue to increase interest throughout North America and the world.
First, move the moribund franchises.
Sorry Chicago, Chivas and New England, but you've got to move. You've had your chance, and failed miserably. It's embarrassing for all involved to continually watch empty stadiums with the lonely echo of one guy blowing a vezuvela in the background.
Get into cities that will appreciate a professional soccer team. With Montreal and (probably) New York slated for the next franchises, there are probably a few cities that would do well with an MLS team to call their own.
Sacramento is the first one that comes to mind. With the Kings probably leaving town, the city is left with zero professional teams. They've got a huge Latino population and a natural rivalry with San Jose.
San Diego is another southern California possibility. They also have a massive Latino population and a natural rivalry with the Dodgers.
On the other side of the country, Miami and, yes, New Orleans would be ideal MLS candidates for a team.
Yes, Miami failed badly with their first MLS franchise, the Miami Fusion. But, MLS has come a long way since then. A diversified and international community makes it perfect for a soccer team.
New Orleans has no baseball team and, really, little competition during the MLS season. Again, they've got an international community and a very rabid fan base.
Next, start bringing in better players. This will only happen one way—with money! MLS stadiums are starting to fill up and TV ratings are improving.
Below is an average player salary for each team in MLS, as reported by the Associate Press, via AOL Sporting News. (New York and Los Angeles are higher due to the salaries of Thierry Henry and David Beckham, respectively.)
New York Red Bulls—$446,570
Los Angeles Galaxy—$428,265
Real Salt Lake—$135,306
New England Revolution—$118,367
Sporting Kansas City—$115,206
San Jose Earthquakes—$100,399
Here are some highlights of the new MLS rules and regulations for the 2011 season.
- A team's roster can be made up of 30 players. They are eligible to be selected to the 18-player team for each game.
- The salary cap will be $2,675,000 per team, not counting the extra salary of designated players. Players in the first 20 roster spots will count against the cap.
- The maximum budget charge for any one player is $335,000.
- A designated player counts $335,000 against a team's cap. However, if a player joins his team in the middle of the season, the charge against the budget will be $167,500.
- Players who are in the roster spots from 21-30 will not count against a team's cap. They will be known as off-budget players. Generation Adidas players are off-budget players and not counted against the cap.
Now, those of you following European football are probably wondering what the heck all of this means. What is a salary cap? What is a maximum budget charge per player?
It's sanity, that's what it is. It's a way for teams to play on level playing fields and ensure a highly competitive league.
It just needs to increase.
With the increased stadiums, television ratings and buzz that's heading MLS's way, they need to start allowing teams to spend. Keep the current structure in place, just increase the salary cap by about $3.5 million.
Will that extra money attract Steven Gerrard or Lionel Messi? Absolutely not.
But it will attract many first-division players from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Columbia and, outside of England, most of the European countries.
The simple fact is that the overall level of play in the MLS needs to go up, and teams need money to start to field entire teams of quality (not just a few players). If the quality of league play goes up, American players will be so inclined to stick around, rather than ply their trade in Europe.
I don't know about the strategy of signing up star players beyond their prime (see Thierry Henry and David Beckham). Yes, it gives the league some credibility and, I'll be honest, seeing Henry playing in the flesh was completely awesome. But, they cost too damn much. And, it perhaps gives the league the image of a retirement home for aging soccer players (not the kind of image it should promote).
MLS teams are starting to make money and they need to re-invest in their product. This should be aimed at increasing the overall play of MLS clubs, and that can't be accomplished by splashing all your salaries on one or two players. The teams must be 11 or 12 deep.
I'd love to see MLS teams entered in the Copa Libertadores—it would offer players a chance to compete with other extremely good clubs from the likes of Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.
In fact, this is a must for MLS.
It would also be a massive attraction for players that might otherwise stay in Europe, but resigned to play for middle-level clubs. Let's face it, Fulham or Sevilla are never going to make the Champions League, but players on those clubs might be stars in the MLS and have an opportunity to compete in the Copa Libertadores. It's an incentive.
I really am starting to wonder if we won't see a shift in the next five years to more and more competition in North and South America from Europe.
With the Brazilian economy shifting, it might be possible for the Brazilian clubs to keep more and more of their stars (such as Ganso and Neymar) while increasing the attraction of the domestic leagues.