Thursday, October 8, 2009
What is MLS? The Top of a Pyramid that Doesn't Exist
The first few comments I received when I kicked off this little experiment immediately went into the relegation/promotion question. It goes without saying that structurally, R/P is a non-starter for Major League Soccer; private investors spent a lot of time and money insuring the necessary infrastructure had been put in place before securing their MLS club, with the agreement said club would always play at the highest professional level. It's hard for that reason alone to imagine club owners would ever agree to a R/P system, never mind MLS' fragile average attendances and the nature of the salary cap system.
There is MLS, and there is USL, and never the twain shall meet. Or as Fakesigi put it, commenting on Wikipedia's entry on MLS: "there's no such thing as the North American soccer pyramid." And it will likely stay that way for some time; witness the turmoil currently surrounding everyone's great hope for a true MLS second tier, USL-1.
But R/P is not really the point; the point is how do you grow a league like MLS? Everything in this series thus far has touched on it; packed stadiums with passionate fans, greater media involvement, creating a unique, and competitive, North American league. What should MLS do to foster growth in a responsible way? Your answer to this question will depend on whether you think North America will embrace soccer if the product on offer is on par with the best leagues in the world. For some a soft salary cap approach coupled with a second designated player allocation, while hardly ideal, represents a good first step in improving on field quality, and therefore drawing in some of the more middle of the road, Champions League watching half-footie fans.
For others, this approach is unproven (or perhaps even disproven if one considers the financially irresponsible growth of the NASL). Better to maintain an equitable single-entity league, take a more conservative approach to league expansion, and hope that slow and steady will eventually lodge MLS into the mainstream sporting psyche. The league, after all, is only thirteen years old. Why try to emulate Europe by risking player inflation, possibly putting smaller clubs out of business and wrecking everything the league has helped build in the past decade?
For some, MLS will always be a tepid cauldron, a mickey mouse league where Premier League stars come to die. For others it's all we have and all we might ever have, and worth protecting at all costs in its present form. In both case I think this issue of growth is central to the discussion, and tomorrow I will tie it in to the underlying question of this two-week series: What is MLS?