MLS continued poor play in CONCACAF continued this week. While DC United advanced, they added a record where in ten preliminary round matches against teams largely from poorer leagues, MLS is win less.
Those of us who watch football from around the globe do not rate MLS highly as a league. It’s not the quality of player that at question, but the quality of tactics and the continuity of squads from year to year thanks to MLS’ structure, that really doom the league. Coaches like Dom Kinnear and Sigi Schmid work well with young talent and tactically aware. But too many coaches in the league do not have the quality or awareness of a Kinner or a Schmid. But as I will argue in this piece, MLS needs to refocus, and a de-emphasis on results may prove to be a good thing.
As I have discussed before, USL-1 is a more tactically savvy league, but also a negative one because teams tactics are scripted and the sides becomes robotic to a certain extent. This has served USL-1 sides well in CONCACAF, but doesn’t make for compelling, attractive football. MLS is more watchable but the USL-1 approach has to this point proven more effective in CONCACAF competition.
Colin Clarke has proven over the past two Champions Leagues that he scouts the opposition well and has a game plan to succeed. It got the Puerto Rico Islanders within a hair of the finals last year. Additionally, key players like Jonny Steele and Christian Arrieta have European club experience and have been the glue on the Islanders team in rough patches during Champions League play.
MLS teams don’t scout well (as evidenced by their body of work in signing foreign players not over the age of 30 through the years) and generally have coaches who don’t adjust well on the fly. When things go bad for MLS teams, particularly against opposition they are unfamiliar with, they go miserably badly.
We keep hearing excuses for these performances year after year, but the bottom line is the league is not very good by any truly objective international standard. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is not looking at results or being objective. We all want our league (s) to be successful, but success is not always based entirely on results or even the bottom line. IFFHS ranked MLS the 77th best league in the world last year- while this may not be fair, because I hardly think the league in Singapore is better than MLS, the truth is the league is probably somewhere in the 40 to 50 range worldwide. But again, as I will argue below this should not matter to any of us.
MLS right now is not a success in terms of quality on the pitch. The league continues to emphasize cash cow friendlies with European clubs (which by the way MLS is showing worse than ever in, from a results standpoint) and league play over international competition. Again, that would be fine if the league were paying its American players, those whose sweat and hard work built this league a decent wage, instead of forcing them to go to Scandinavia or even USL-1 to be paid at market value.
Do I believe MLS is worse than the leagues from the Caribbean or USL-1? No. But is MLS good enough to simply go out and play against teams from these leagues without scouting or tactics? Again, no as that answer has been obvious based on the league’s consistently poor results from CONCACAF when Dom Kinnear coached sides are not involved.
MLS needs to get back to basics. Work on player development. Renew league mandated contacts with the lower tiers in the USL structure (not USL-1 which is not a “minor” league as Don Garber chided the other day, and which has less bearing on the overall USL structure than perhaps any other league within that structure), and most importantly show more value for the American player in this upcoming CBA. De-emphasizing results in CONCACAF while emphasizing internationals as learning experiences to grow players would also be helpful.
Don Garber and MLS fans that populate message boards need to stop the needless and silly comparisons with other leagues which quite frankly is done in my opinion to mask the insecurity they feel about the MLS product. MLS doesn’t measure up when compared to any decent foreign league. Any league that you can watch on TV, save the Australian A-League (which is an inferior product to MLS and learned in the Asian Champions League that they are nowhere near the K-League, J-League or even some Middle Eastern Leagues just yet) is superior to MLS, but that should not matter to our fans.
Making MLS a vital part of a thriving American soccer culture should. People have been angry at me in the past when I have written about comparisons between MLS and other leagues. I apologize for those comparisons as it was not necessary and probably a waste of space. But it is not I, who invited those comparisons but in fact many fans of MLS clubs as well as the commissioner himself.
Those comparisons have only served MLS poorly as the league’s structure and lack of depth would ever prevent the league from backing up some of these claims on the international stage. Short or cloning Dom Kinnear 15 times, the only answer is for MLS to retreat as it did in the 2002-2005 time period and rebuild its product in the way it did in that period: based on home grown talent and utilizing the now growing infrastructure of American Soccer via the USSF, USL and other entities.