In terms of quality of play, MLS, the top American professional soccer league, has come a long way since it's inception in 1996.
Today there is still a long way to go until teams from our league can compete with the best from England, Spain, Italy, or heck even Portugal. Below are some ways that the league can attract more fans, earn more money, and ultimately become the NBA of soccer.
1. Invest in young talent
Right now the MLS relies on a draft of college players to invigorate the league with fresh faces. This isn't really the best way to find young players. Most college seniors are 21 or 22. "Rookies" in the best leagues of Europe are routinely brought into the first team at 17 or 18, a difference of four valuable, formative years. NCAA regulations limit practice time, and thus growth of college players.
Instead of drafting players from college, MLS should develop a youth team system. Give a youth team to every current team and train them with the best high school (or even college) coaches from around the country.
By picking up talented youngsters (think 15-18), MLS teams will bring out fans to see the new talent play. Freddy Adu anyone?
2. Re-invent or ditch the playoff system
The current system takes the top three teams from each conference and then two other teams (eight total) to the playoffs where they play a first round home-and-home series after being seeded.
The second round pits the two remaining teams in an elimination game hosted by the higher seeded team for the conference championship. The MLS Cup is then played at a predetermined site (which may end up being a home game for one team) for the championship.
Today's playoff system has a few faults, including the bizarre possibility of a Western conference team winning the Eastern conference. To fix these problems, I propose a single table for the regular season.
Divisions don't work. Anyone remember why the Civil War started? Divisions. Having a single table will simplify seeding for playoffs, and it also makes the league seem like it has more teams than it has. (Who remembers a few years ago when the standings of the league were two pitiful lists of six?)
Stick the home-and-home series all the way until the championship game. This gives each team a chance to win in front of their home fans, and adds drama to the second game of the playoff match-up.
Give the team with the best record in the regular season the MLS Cup game at home, even if they don't make it that far. Having the MLS Cup at home is a good reward for a first place finish in the regular season, as well as a good consolation for the fans if the team happens to lose in the playoffs.
3. Hit the road!
If it works for rock bands, why not soccer teams? If every team in the league gave up one home game to play at a nearby soccer-less city, the league would expose fourteen cities to some great cleated entertainment. San Jose could play in Sacramento, L.A. could play in Vegas, etc. The teams wouldn't lose any advantage as it would still be a quasi-home game and every team has to do it.
An additional bonus to the league is that these tour games could serve as an audition for possible expansion cities.
4. Improve TV coverage
MLS already has a contract with ESPN to show a prime-time game on Thursday, but other than Spanish network television (any chance we could get these guys to speak Spanglish?) there isn't much more to see.
NBA TV, NFL Network, even the Yankees have their own stations. If MLS could start its own TV network and (in the beginning) sell some games to national TV stations, it would well be on it's way to becoming a top league in the USA.
MLSnet.com used to offer free streaming and archived video of all the matches, but it now charges $9.95 for a season, which isn't outrageous, but isn't free either.
5. Get every team their own stadium
It's really unsightly and embarrassing to see soccer played with football lines on the field. The league should pay for each team to have their own home. It doesn't have to be fancy, but fans should be able to see the whole field from the seats (Spartan Stadium).
If the MLS follows these guidelines, there is no reason why it can't rival the best leagues in Europe within the next 15 years.
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