A couple of days ago, I wrote a column describing the biggest problem in MLS. Not wanting to come off completely negative, I have analyzed the league’s biggest strengths. These have helped put MLS on more solid footing in the American sports world than its predecessor, the North American Soccer League (NASL).
Quality of play: The talent level in MLS might not be on par with the top European leagues, but it is far better than most people seem to give it credit for. It’s a physically demanding league with some established stars.
Chivas USA was an expansion team that began play in the 2005 season. The Mexican League team CD Gudalajara, which has a policy of only signing players with Mexican heritage, founded them. Chivas had planned on continuing this policy of signing only Mexican players, thinking that it would be enough to run through MLS with ease. Many followers of MLS saw this as an arrogant move.
How did they fare in that first season? 4 wins, 22 losses, 6 draws. They gave up 67 goals in 32 games, scoring only 31. Chivas wisely decided to drop their policy of signing only established Mexican players after their first season, and have been a playoff contender ever since. This move proved that MLS was more of a challenge than anybody in the Mexican leagues had predicted.
The MLS All-Star game has also featured an MLS XI versus a European-based team for the last few years. In 2006, the MLS team defeated English club Chelsea 1-0. In 2007, the MLS team beat Celtic 2-0. MLS is improving itself by pitting its best against the world’s best, and has been successful so far.
Community Outreach: A couple of summers ago, I made the drive down to Chicago with a few friends to participate in MLS Futbolit, a 4-on-4 soccer tournament that the MLS hosts in each MLS city. My team was unceremoniously destroyed in every game we played, but it was still a great experience.
We showed up expecting maybe 20 or 30 other teams. When we arrived, we saw well over 100, with more cars showing up every minute. There were six youth age groups and two different adult divisions. Back in 1996, it would have been hard to envision this many fans flocking to an MLS promotional event.
Futbolito would have been hugely successful had it stopped with just the competition, but it went further. Every participant was given a ticket to an upcoming MLS game in that city. The league had realized something very important: get a young fan, get a fan for life. This was a great grassroots effort to win over fans, and judging by the attendance at the Chicago-Chivas matchup the next week, it was working.
Salary cap: I think this is the single most important reason that MLS is staying afloat. The downfall of the NASL was uncontrolled spending by one team. The New York Cosmos had Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and the great Pele on their roster at one time. Their games were events as much athletic as they were social. Celebrities like Steven Tyler were regulars at Cosmos games.
With popularity like this, how could the NASL fail? Two reasons stand out above all others: Other teams could not match the spending of the Cosmos, and if Pele wasn’t in town, seats weren’t being filled. Cosmos games would routinely draw crowds in excess of 50,000. The rest of the league averaged below 10,000 fans. Financially, only New York was on stable footing, but even that changed once Pele retired. The unchecked spending by New York made the entire league unstable and it collapsed shortly after Pele’s retirement.
MLS has a salary cap in place to prevent such a thing. Each team is given two slots that are exempt from salary restrictions (the “David Beckham rule”), but the rest of the players must fit within a salary cap. This helps the league spread some star power around while maintaining a sense of parity. Los Angeles has David Beckham, New York has Juan Pablo Angel, Chicago has Cuahtemoc Blanco, etc.
The league pays each player’s salary, making it relatively easy to enforce a salary cap. The designated player slots, if used, come out of the team’s own pockets. Each team can throw a little cash around if they like, or they can trade their designated player slot to another team for players.
Under the NASL’s lack of salary restrictions, Los Angeles, New York, and to a lesser extent Chicago, would snap up all of the star power available. We would not have seen DC, New England, Houston, San Jose and Kansas City win as many MLS cups as they have.
Soccer-specific stadiums: By playing in 20-25,000 seat stadiums, MLS teams are filling seats while minimizing operating costs. Los Angeles and FC Dallas used this formula to turn a profit during their first season in their respective stadiums. Now the majority of MLS teams are either playing in soccer-specific stadiums or are in the process of building one.
Also, it looks bad to tune in to an MLS broadcast and see a mostly-empty NFL stadium being used to host a match. You can have 15,000 people in a stadium meant for 60,000, and it will feel empty. It’s much better to fill a more intimate stadium. It gives the fans and players a much better experience.
The fans: As with any professional sports league, the fans are the cornerstone of MLS. Toronto FC, an expansion club, sold over 14,000 season tickets before it had played a single game in its inaugural season. Soccer fans in Philadelphia were so vocal, that the league granted the city an expansion team, slated to begin play in 2010. Just to give an idea of how passionate the Philadelphia fans are, they would routinely show up to DC, New York, and New England games just to boo those teams. This means that some great rivalries will be in place already when the team begins play.
The first MLS game I ever went to was back in 2005. It was Chicago vs. Los Angeles at Soldier Field. A small portion of Los Angeles’ big fan group, the Riot Squad, had made the trip out to Chicago to cheer on the Galaxy. You expect this kind of dedication out of European fans, but not MLS fans. I have now come to find out that this is commonplace in MLS, and that is a very encouraging sign indeed.
Coming in a few days: how MLS can take itself to the next level and gain some international respect.