One month of MLS’ most important season is in the books and some very disturbing trends are already developing. Goal scoring, attendance and TV ratings are all down from last year at this time. The obvious retort to that statement is that 2006 was a World Cup year where the US team was being unfairly burdened with high expectations by the media and thus MLS received a surge of interest prior to Germany 2006 beginning. In addition, the league’s ratings and attendance will most definitely increase when David Beckham arrives. However, when two of the best teams in the league (Kansas City and New England) cannot even get 10,000 people to attend a weekend game early in the season when neither city has a team in the NBA playoffs and NFL season is far off in the horizon, that spells trouble for the long term viability of the league.
I was mildly amused as I found an old copy of MLS’ very own propaganda, I mean media guide put out during the 2000 season. In the first pages of the booklet, MLS attempted to refute preconceived “myths” about MLS related to the standard of play, the decline of the US Men’s National Team because of MLS based players, the failure to sign top young American stars and the league being a “retirement home” to over the hill European and South American players. Through the pages of the media guide I found only four players who had come to MLS directly from major European clubs. Lothar Matthaeus who was 38 at the time, Jaime Moreno who had come to MLS four years prior, Khobabad Azzizi who flopped in the league, and Miklos Molnar who was admitidly an outstanding signing, who opted to return to Europe after one championship year with Kansas City. (A partial season I would add as Molnar played for Denmark at Euro 2000 and missed most of the summer.) Only Moreno continued in MLS past the 2000 season. In addition only four players at the time, Luis Hernandez, Mike Sorber, Marcelo Balboa and Ariel Graziani came directly to the league from upper tier Mexican clubs. Sorber and Balboa played in Mexico prior to the formation of MLS.
Yet, 2000 was probably the best MLS season to date in my humble opinion. That season I saw hope for the league as attendance which had fallen each of the first four seasons stabilized (in fact in 1999 Columbus led the league in attendance, a pathetic statistic for any “major” American sports league), and the quality of play improved dramatically thanks to signings such as Graziani and Molnar. However the league failed to follow up on the quality of 2000 and eventually lost the interest of many soccer fans through contraction and a declining standard of play. After claiming three international trophies between 1998 and 2000, MLS clubs have not returned to the final of a major international competition since.
Now seven years later MLS is dogged by the very same questions the league seemed so concerned about that they spent space in the media guide refuting in 2000. While two former Columbus Crew alumni, Brian McBride and Stern John continue to make a major impact in England, fewer and fewer former MLS players seem to be making the grade overseas. Even the best and brightest to come out of MLS the past few seasons such as Carlos Bocanegra, Bobby Convey, Simon Elliot and DeMarcus Beasley have shown major deficiencies in their games when overseas. Of the recent crop of MLS exports only Ryan Nelson is what I would call an untouchable player for his club.
While everything I have stated thus far is an honest critique of MLS, that doesn’t mean fans like myself should stop watching. Ultimately if soccer is to be successful in this country it is going to have to happen through MLS. As much I love European Football, I hold no illusions that the EPL or La Liga can change the mindset of Americans towards the beautiful game- that must come from MLS. For better or for worse the league kept its costs down in order to reach this point where it could begin take chances of top foreign stars. And unlike the NASL days, MLS is in an environment where the USA qualifies for the World Cup regularly and produces more than enough talented players to fill out rosters. (A major myth about the failure of the NASL was that Pele, Best and Cryuff, etc bankrupted the league. This is not true. It was paying the supporting players all of whom were foreigners that broke the bank and put the league under. These days MLS has more than enough supporting American players to keep costs in check.) Now as the league prepares for the arrival of David Beckham, MLS must address the other issues discussed above so that the league can survive the eventual retirement of Beckham and not feel compelled to spend equally on a replacement player at that time.