As the league approaches its 30th year, it finds itself at a critical point to either become a dominant player in the US sports scene or fade into irrelevance
In every person's life, there is a moment when they decide what kind of person they want to be—a crossroads of sorts. The same applies to sports leagues, where a league has to determine the road that it decides to travel. In the NBA, for example, the league decided years ago that its decisions would be determined around the idea that the league was built around its star players. Baseball has routinely decided to value tradition and history above all else in the way it positions itself. But there is a league that is at a sort of crossroads at this very moment, and that league is Major League Soccer or the MLS. The American soccer league finds itself in a position of growth but is at a moment where it must decide what kind of league it wants to be.
The Farm System Option
There are ultimately two types of leagues that the MLS could decide to become. The first of those two is to be a farm system for larger leagues. In other words, the league would scout young, local talent that they would develop and then eventually sell off to a larger club once the player had developed more. The MLS has already seen this happen with the transfers of players like Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps to Bayern Munchen FC), Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig), and others that have made the jump across the pond.
If the league fully embraced youth development then it could be a feeder system to leagues like the Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga and make a fair share of money doing that through an incredibly volatile transfer market in Europe. There is a precedent for this throughout Europe. Leagues like France’s Ligue 1 and Portugal’s Primeira Liga have developed young talent and sold them off to the top clubs in Europe for sizable fees. A club like Olympique Lyonnais in the French league has made a reputation as a strong youth academy with the likes of Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, and Samuel Umtiti all getting their start for the club before going on to stardom elsewhere. Who is to say that the MLS couldn’t replicate this with North American talent?
There is a healthy number of kids in the United States that play soccer (around 10% of kids aged 6-12), and in Canada soccer is the most popular kids team activity. The game has always been huge in Mexico, which ranks sixth in the world in total registered soccer players. If the MLS committed to the development of young players from those three countries it could establish itself as a proving ground for young North American players that have aspirations to play on the biggest stage in the soccer world. Yet the league has not committed to this idea because it is too busy worried about marketability and the urge to sign big names.
The “Oh I’ve Heard of Him” Option
Among basketball fans, there is a running joke that a player that has overstayed his time in the NBA will eventually play in the Chinese league. It is a joke that is funny but also true. Stephon Marbury resurrected his career in China and had a statue built in his honor. The same is true for soccer stars that reach the end of their prime and are looking to cash in on one more big check. These players dominated the Premier League and La Liga in their prime but could no longer compete and earn top wages in Europe, so the decision is made to move to an inferior league that will pay them top dollar for their trouble.
The MLS has become a sort of landing spot for these players in recent years. Players such as Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Xherdan Shaqiri have all ventured stateside when it became clear that their talents were no longer valued in their former leagues. The results could be different. For David Beckham, it resulted in the ownership of a franchise (Inter Miami). Wayne Rooney turned his MLS stint into a coaching career, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic used the league as a way to remind European clubs that he still was a gifted scorer. The trend now has become to wonder how long it will be after a player turns 30 before the MLS comes knocking. These rumors happened with Zidane, Messi, and Neymar and they will surely continue to happen as long as the MLS craves the star appeal.
As a growing league, the MLS needs to find ways to bring people into its stadiums and watch its games. One way of doing this in the short term is by marketing these former European greats to build fandom. These players can easily do commercials and give a sense of legitimacy to a league that across many circles of soccer fandom is something of a punchline.
The Odd One Out
The MLS is an interesting league because it doesn’t quite fit in. It doesn’t align with the rest of the soccer world in terms of schedule as the MLS plays in the summer months whereas the other leagues play from the fall through the spring. The MLS also institutes a salary cap and playoff system to determine its champion, something that other leagues do not. The MLS does not have a relegation system, and as of now, it does not have an official developmental league.
These differences make the MLS feel a lot more in line with the other American professional sports league that it competes with for mind share and money as opposed to the titans of Europe. The MLS playing in the summer feels like a competition move since it is easier to compete with just baseball by playing in the summer as opposed to competing with the NFL, NBA, college football, and NHL in the fall. The salary cap model also falls in line with what is standard in American sports. The lack of a relegation system is yet another example of the American sports model at work, which is maddening because the grassroots levels of American soccer offer a potential solution to the problem.
Besides the MLS, there are a couple of smaller leagues that have started to develop increasing fan bases and rivalries across the nation. The USL Championship (United Soccer League) and NISA (National Independent Soccer Association) have shown that there is an appetite for soccer in this country even at the lower levels. The MLS could incorporate with these leagues to create a relegation and promotion system to reward overachieving independent clubs and punish lackluster MLS clubs. This would make player transfers among the leagues much easier to accomplish and create an incentive to perform at all three levels.
The MLS has also taken part in a continental championship, the CONCACAF Champions League. But unlike the UEFA Champions League, this is simply a 16-team knockout-style tournament without a group stage with the bulk of the representation coming from the US and Mexico. The format of this championship is ever evolving, making one wonder if adopting the tried and true method of the UEFA model would be the better option. Yet again, the MLS is acting as a league that knows it is inferior to its counterparts across the Atlantic.
The MLS must now decide what kind of league it wants to be. Does it want to be in line with the dominant leagues of Europe and offer a relegation system with a more structured continental competition? Or does it want to be another American sports league where the playoff system is designed to maximize revenue? Is it a league that will be predicated on developing young talent from Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean? Or will it be a de facto retirement home for over-the-hill European stars? The league is now at a moment where it must decide what is best for its future. As a large TV deal with Apple looms and the ever-declining popularity of the MLB, it has never been more important that the MLS get this right and become a legitimate contender for America’s third favorite sport. Time will tell if they will score a goal or simply graze the post.
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