clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ideas for Making “MLS 4.0” a Success

A long form post: Major League Soccer has established itself, but now it’s time to take the next step.

Soccerex - Manchester: Day Five
MLS Commissioner Don Garber
Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images

Major League Soccer (MLS) has been a huge project. Originally formed in 1993 by U.S. Soccer as a condition of hosting the 1994 World Cup, MLS began play in 1996 with ten teams. Of those original ten, eight are still playing. The Columbus Crew, D.C. United, the New England Revolution, the New York/New Jersey Metro-Stars (now the slightly more aesthetic sounding New York Red Bulls), the Colorado Rapids, the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), the Kansas City Wiz (now Sporting Kansas City), and the Los Angeles Galaxy all still play in the now twenty-two team version. The only teams of those original ten that didn't make it were the Tampa Bay Mutiny and San Jose Clash, who became defunct in 2001.

Since then, expansion teams have been added to MLS as part of the “third phase” (MLS 3.0), such as 2015 MLS Cup winners Portland Timbers, third-year clubs New York City FC and Orlando City SC, and Minnesota United and Atlanta United who will begin play in 2017. These teams have all become integral parts of soccer in the US. MLS is currently in the process of determining host cities for an additional six teams as it hopes to finalize the fourth phase.

The fan base for MLS started off virtually nonexistent. Most teams played in NFL stadiums, where the soccer pitches were not of great quality, and viewing was not always optimal. The average attendance at games in the inaugural 1996 season was just 17,000. The league struggled to stay afloat in a country where soccer was an alien sport. As expansion teams have been added more fans have become part of the growing number of soccer supporters in the United States.

In 2007, the league announced the designated player policy, an overly complicated strategy to bring in stars from Europe. The first designated player was certainly a name that made a splash, with David Beckham joining the LA Galaxy. Nine years later players such as Kaka, Didier Drogba, Sebastian Giovinco, and David Villa play in MLS. Average crowds now surpass 21,000, with 2016 MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders often getting 40,000+ to their games. Today's Major League Soccer is a far cry from what it once was.

Mark Davis Meets With Nevada Tourism Officials About Moving Raiders To Las Vegas
David Beckham was the league’s first ever Designated Player for the LA Galaxy
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

There is no doubt that soccer as a global game has established itself in the United States, and MLS has made a mark on it. While the domestic competition is entertaining, many fans and pundits alike have looked outside of Major League Soccer's reign for what is next. Can American teams compete at the international level? The best and closest gauge would be the CONCACAF Champion's League. Modeled after the extremely successful tournament UEFA puts on in Europe each year, the CONCACAF version features the top teams from MLS, Liga MX (Mexico), and the rest of Central America and the Caribbean. It comes as no surprise that group stage matches between American teams and smaller "minnow" teams can be lopsided in the MLS side's favor, but when it comes to facing teams just south of the border, MLS falls short. This past edition the tournament semifinals were made up of entirely Mexican clubs. No MLS team has ever won the competition.

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is an annual tournament that is open to all professional soccer teams in the United Sates. The Open Cup was established in 1913, making it the third-longest running soccer tournament in the world. Most teams put reserve players on the pitch for this competition, and media coverage is virtually nonexistent until the final stages of the competition.

Seattle Sounders FC v Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2012
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Both of these tournaments could and should be major sporting attractions in the United States. Sadly, both tournaments are poorly promoted, leading to a lack of quality competition. Many fans would like to see more emphasis placed on these competitions.

The fix is the simplest of all of the ideas proposed in this article; merely more marketing and coverage. Companies such as FOX and ESPN (who both televise MLS games nationally) should be covering high-profile matches in the Champion's League group stage and throughout the rest of both tournaments.

Major League Soccer doesn't have many international players, seeing as teams are limited in the number of international players they can sign. MLS allows only 160 foreign players each season, divided amongst the twenty-two teams. Because of this rule, MLS doesn't have very many players playing for their respective national teams, and when those players come along they tend to be stars. Instead of stopping matches at FIFA chosen international breaks for those players to avoid missing matches for their clubs, MLS continues on, missing many of its best players. In a player poll conducted by ESPN, 92% of players would like the league to stop during international breaks, as is the international convention.

Global soccer is unique when compared to the four major “American” sports; football, baseball, hockey, and basketball. International soccer has no equivalent of drafts, free agency, and trades between teams for players are rare. Instead players simply move up the ranks, hoping to sign for progressively better teams until they reach their prime. Players have a sort of free agency, but it is rare that top players make it that far. Deals between teams usually involve cash for a player, not another player in return. MLS never got that memo. Each year the MLS SuperDraft takes place, where clubs select college players hoping to break into the league. Teams take turns, with the worst teams picking first and the champions picking last. This follows the model used in other “American” sports.

This fix is relatively simple, and entails a little more than just the draft. The first step is to get rid of the draft entirely as part of the addition of promotion/relegation. The rules that restrict clubs from scouting young players at certain times would need to go, allowing clubs to sign any player during transfer windows for money or another player (much like the system in full swing in Europe). As an extension of concepts of "general allocation money" and "designated players" should be taken away and replaced with much simpler "money" and "players". Teams should be encouraged to have academies to glean youth players (which would help the U.S. National Team down the road).

The theory of the draft is that it promotes equality between the teams, and therefore stronger competition in each new season. The system helps weak teams strengthen and keeps strong teams from bringing in too much new talent. The idea seems great at first, because it lowers the chance of a situation similar to that of the French Ligue One, where Paris St. Germain had the title clinched in March. There is a rather nasty side-effect however, that teams are rewarded for poor performances. Instead of playing their hardest until the final whistle of the final match teams will coast through the end of the season, hoping for a top draft pick for the next season. Matches at that point are dull and hardly worth watching, which certainly can't be in Major League Soccer's master plan.

In global soccer, instead of bottom teams being rewarded with a early draft pick, the norm is a promotion/relegation system. Countries have a pyramid of leagues, ranked from highest to lowest in level of clubs and play. The English system is the simplest. The top is the twenty-team Premier League, where giants such as Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea play. Each team plays every other team twice, once at home and once away. At the end of the season, the three teams with the least points are relegated, or sent down to the next lowest league. This second-tier league is called the Championship, and has twenty-four teams. At the end of the season the top two teams are promoted up to the Premier League, and the third through sixth place teams face off in a small playoff to determine the third promoted team. The bottom four teams of the Championship are sent down to the confusingly named League One, and the system continues on down. There is no such system in MLS, not even a defined pyramid. To the fan it is clear how the three major soccer leagues of the United States and Canada shake out, but they can't agree on ranks. MLS is the clear first division, with the highest budgets, nicest stadiums, and top players. Second is the North American Soccer League, named after the old soccer league of the 1970's. The North American Soccer League refuses to admit they are a second-tier league, and may likely not remain a league for long due to recent financial struggles. Third is the United Soccer League, where many MLS clubs have their reserve sides compete, but the three leagues rarely inter-mix teams. A promotion/relegation system would light a fire under the bottom teams and, as it is in other soccer leagues; passionate relegation battles would take place each season.

Soccer: Carolina Railhawks at New York Cosmos
Minnesota United fans know a bit about lower-level soccer in the U.S.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The fix is slightly more complicated than it would seem. There are an uneven amount of teams amongst the existing leagues. Having three divisions would be the simplest, with 20 in each of the first two and 21 in the third tier. That seems easy in principle but a challenge to put into practice. It would first require cooperation between the rival leagues, and would require a fair way to spread teams in tiers. The easiest way to do this would be to announce that a pro/rel system will be put in place in say the 2019 season. The 2018 season will serve as a way to even things out, with all 20 MLS sides becoming first division clubs, all of the NASL teams staying in the second division, plus the top eight USL teams to even off the second tier. A report made by an independent group recently advised Major League Soccer that a promotion/relegation system is entirely possible and could be extremely profitable and beneficial to American soccer as a whole.

MLS clubs have had to be carefully monitored and controlled financially. The soccer market has not been historically large, and running a professional sports team is no easy work. Major League Soccer has been generally successful in keeping clubs in business with strict salary caps and player restrictions which utterly confuse the everyday fan. The time has now come for clubs to be sent off to school, where they will still learn valuable lessons, but with a looser grip. In order for MLS clubs to compete at the international level they must buy top players competing at that level and that requires larger budgets. The Chinese Super League is not a destination league for players like England or Spain, but their clubs have offered large salaries to top players who are happy to play there. Instead Major League Soccer acts as a retirement home for former European stars looking to play a couple more seasons. Though this may initially create a gap between big spenders and some smaller budget teams it would eventually bring more money into the league and all of its teams, benefiting everyone.

Like the other major American sports, Major League Soccer has an annual All-Star Game, with the 2016 edition played against Arsenal in San Jose. The MLS all-star team, made up of players voted on by fans, the coach, and Commissioner Don Garber, faces a major European team in their preseason tour. Past opponents have included Tottenham Hotspur, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United. The quality of play is never the greatest, as MLS players don't want to risk injury for their regular club games and they don't have the desire to fatigue themselves over an exhibition. Meanwhile the visiting team rarely plays their star players for similar reasons. Normal Arsenal stars include names such as Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, and Olivier Giroud, but those three needed a holiday after the European Championships and Copa America. This year's game failed to impress, with Arsenal getting their first goal on a penalty and going on to win 2-1. Major League Soccer's best XI couldn't manage a victory against an Arsenal side that wasn't playing or trying anywhere near its hardest.

2016 MLS All-Star Game: Arsenal v MLS All-Stars
Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders played in the 2016 MLS All-Star Game against Arsenal
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

There are two solutions (one slightly unique, the other the common solution among pundits) to this. The unique one involves keeping a similar structure, just at a different time. A fan and coach-voted (sorry Don) team would still play an exhibition match, but at the end of the MLS season. Their opponents would be another all-star team, but from Liga MX (Mexico). This would obviously require a partnership between the two leagues, and the game would need to fall within reasonable distance of both league schedules. In order to keep play semi-intense and avoid a half-hearted affair there would need to be an incentive. Some sort of silverware would need to be in order. Further incentive could be added with the winning side giving their federation an extra spot in the CONCACAF Champion's League. Regardless of incentives the game could alternate between being hosted in Mexico and the United States and could feed off of the rivalry between the two nations.

The second solution on how to improve the MLS All-Star event doesn't entail any sort of game. A skills competition, similar to what the National Basketball Association (NBA) puts on each year. Players would be voted into position specific contests, similar to those in the FIFA video game franchise; such as shot accuracy, shot speed, kick distance, penalty saves, and possibly even a freestyle (skills) competition. The aim would be to create a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere for the players, and a night of entertainment for fans. In a fan poll 67% of fans answered that they would watch a skills competition.

Currently the twenty teams are divided into two conferences, East and West, both with ten teams. This structure is helpful for playoff standings, and that's it. It makes the scheduling confusing as well as standings for the regular season championship, or Supporter's Shield.

The fix is extremely simple and entirely painless; do away with the conferences. The schedule should be formatted like it is in most other global soccer leagues. Teams play each other round-robin style, facing each team twice (once at either teams' stadiums). Standings would be measured in one table, with the top eight (see below) making the playoffs.

The playoffs are one of the few “Americanizations” of the sport that both work and have potential to work even better. The current system is that the top six teams of each conference are seeded and entered into a bracket. The top two teams of each conference are given first round byes and games are played over two legs, with the aggregate score determining who advances. The two conference champions meet in the final to compete in one game for the MLS Cup.

The Seattle Sounders hoisted the MLS Cup a couple of weeks ago.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The fix is easy and could be on the horizon. Instead of 12 teams making the playoffs (60% of the 2016 league size), 8 teams would. These eight would be seeded from one to eight (one faces eight, two faces seven, etc.) and would be placed into a knockout style bracket. The final two teams would still meet in the MLS Cup game at a rotating venue.

In short, Major League Soccer has done the dirty work of creating a stable, legitimate soccer league in the United States, but it's time to go to the next level, and that means Commissioner Don Garber and crew need to go hands-off and let their clubs compete. Emphasis on the CONCACAF Champion’s League and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup would breed international success. Adding a promotion/relegation system creates better competition across U.S. Soccer and less restrictive financial policies on clubs creates opportunities for big name players to ply their trade in the United States. The removal of the SuperDraft would boost competition and the formation of strong academies. A reformed All-Star event would boost player interest and entertainment value. These solutions range from simple to complex, but all can make Major League Soccer a globally respected and followed league.

These issues are hotly debated between soccer fans, and we want you to join in the conversation below. As always, be respectful in the comments section.