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Transforming Major League Soccer into a Super League

pele21 300x198 Transforming Major League Soccer into a Super League

One of the lessons learned in this “Summer of Soccer” is that there is a sizable group of Americans who enjoy high level soccer and are willing to pay top dollar for the opportunity to see clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Barcelona play live, even if the matches are only friendlies or exhibitions. While I am not aware of any official surveys on this matter, I suspect that a sizable portion of these soccer fans do not watch or follow Major League Soccer, viewing it as a lesser league: less talented, less entertaining, etc. While MLS has gone out of its way to avoid the financial missteps that sunk NASL, has it been too cautious? Is there an alternative means for MLS to become a Super League without the financial crash and burn?

Now that the League and the Players Union are embarking on negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, maybe now is the time to throw the old MLS business model out the door and adopt a new one that does away with salary caps and transfer fee concerns. If done right, the next MLS season could see an influx of well known players that will fill our giant stadiums with soccer hungry Americans.

Since the inception of MLS, it has had a complicated relationship with the ghost of the NASL. The old league that featured names such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia, was a star that burned brightly during the Carter Administration and the early days of the Reagan Administration, died in 1984 with the Chicago Sting as its champions.

Founded in 1968, NASL struggled for several years until the Cosmos, which was controlled by the Ertegun Brothers and Steve Ross, the president of Warner Bros., signed an aging Pele in 1975. The Cosmos went on to sign more aging, foreign superstars, while several other NASL teams spent top dollar to sign at least one foreign superstar. While the presence of players like Pele, Rodney Marsh, Alan Ball, George Best, and Johan Cruyff brought the NASL attention throughout the country, the revenue streams did not keep up with the spending and when a financially strapped Warner Communications sold the Cosmos to Chinaglia, NASL began to fall in upon itself.

The founders of MLS, as well as its current executives, have gone out of their way to avoid the fate of NASL, relying on its single entity structure and its strict salary cap. While MLS has managed to survive and create a league for American players to enhance their skills, MLS has not earned much attention or respect from a large segment of soccer fans who prefer the leagues in Mexico, South America, and Europe – the audience that has arguably filled the giant NFL arenas this summer to watch Chelsea, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Club America, etc.

In January 2007, MLS dipped its big toe into the NASL waters when it signed David Beckham, one of the biggest names in the world of international football. While this summer has seen an in depth examination of the Beckham Experiment and what it means for soccer in the US, what is clear is that Beckham’s presence brought MLS more attention then it had received in years and it resulted in rare sell outs at some MLS venues. It is not a stretch to argue that the signing of more big names from Europe would result in even more interest from media and soccer fans.

MLS can become a Super League without suffering the fate of the NASL, which spent money like a drunken sailor on shore leave after 6 months at sea. Instead of bringing in big name football players and then waiting for the money to roll in, MLS needs to partner with corporate America to help fund big salaries for these players. While the general sports fan in the US might not get soccer and its international appeal, the marketing departments in corporate America know the advertising power of the beautiful game, and shell out big money to have their name associated with clubs like Manchester United and events like the World Cup finals and the European Championship. Imagine how many companies would like to enter a deal where a player like Cristiano Ronaldo played in the US and was the face of their corporation or product around the world. In fact, by relying on corporate money to help finance these deals, MLS will not be limited to signing stars that are past their prime. If MLS wants to take this approach and take advantage of the global marketing powers of this sport, now is the time to do so before locking in to another long, restrictive CBA.

While converting MLS into a Super League would enhance the popularity of soccer in the US, it could negatively impact the development of the US National Team. To alleviate this impact, MLS will still need to have rules concerning the number of American players on squads, while it will fall upon the USL’s system to focus on developing America’s youth.

With some imagination and creativity, MLS can work with corporate America, USL, and USSF to develop a Super League in America, while continuing to ensure the growth of American soccer talent.

This entry was posted in Leagues: Major League Soccer, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Transforming Major League Soccer into a Super League

  1. Rob says:

    People just have to give it more time. The league isn’t even 20 years young yet. The fact that these issues are being discussed around the country is actually a good thing because it raises awareness of the league and in turn the league will also begin to think about what they can do.

    Personally, I would love to see the MLS gain some quality. The MLS will never be on the levels of the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga in the foreseeable future (10-20 years IMO); but I think it can get to a level where MLS clubs really have a great grip on CONCACAF competitions and stadiums are consistently over 80% full per season.

    It is sometimes annoying how Garber & Co. run the league sometimes, but I (and everyone else, I assume) only want the league to grow and succeed. That being said, I am confident that they can slowly raise the quality of play all while starting a new and efficient scheme to develop this nations football talent.

    Time people; give it time.

    • Rob says:

      One more thing… I just wanted to say that Montreal in 2012 or 2013 is a great choice for the league. The city is probably the most “European” in all of North America and it should really help football in Canada on the national scale as well.

  2. ERT 145 says:

    DCU drew Real Madrid the last time they played them 1-1.

    So the excuse that MLS is young and constantly getting better is ridiculous. DCU won AT TOTTENHAM not long ago. Now any MLS team would get slaughtered on the road by any PL team.

    The outflow of americans from the league has been disgusting.

    MLS teams coped much better when they were deeper a few years back.

    The NASL had far more big stars and when it comes down to it far more media and TV interest than MLS does. Part of that was timing and that isn’t MLS’ fault. But they have to loosen the purse strings.

  3. Roger says:

    I was an NASL fanatic and have yet to find the same passion for MLS.

    HOWEVER………………

    The ultimate downfall of the NASL though was that a few teams, namely New York, Vancouver, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay hoarded all the talent.

    So MLS while needing to raise the salary cap, must keep a cap in place so that a few teams do not dominate and the other teams don’t keep going out of business every year like the NASL.

  4. Adam Edg says:

    Keep in mind that the failure of the NASL is one of the things holding MLS back. People invested a lot in that league (I’m talking emotions more than money) only to have their hopes for professional soccer in the US shattered. Despite MLS being a teenager now, it is still younger than NASL when it collapsed. If you factor in the most recent foldings were only 7 seasons ago, you can really see how some of the older generation of soccer fans might be afraid of investing (again, I’m talking emotions) in MLS.
    The league has to increase its presence, talent, and stability. I believe that this summer has proven the stability of MLS, but their next step is critical. Raising the salary cap, bringing in more big name players, and (most importantly) keeping stellar American players in the league should be the top priorities. I believe the league needs a firm salary structure to keep teams competitive and maintain parity. The league needs to ensure that any team could win any match at any time. The Cosmos are the exact opposite of what we need right now.

  5. Neal says:

    MLS brought in an American football guy, Don Garber, who is trying to create MLS like the NFL. MLS, Mr. Garber, needs to follow tradition that shows success as the EPL. Get rid of the playoffs, cup, draft and pahtetic All Star game. Single table, winner take championship, very simple, oh yeah, get rid of the salary cap, bring in those world class stars and OUR league will be one of he best. I am tired of watching journeymen. Bring in some real footballers. Thank you

    • Rob says:

      Why assimilate OUR league to be just like others. There is nothing wrong with having the playoffs, cup (I’m assuming you’re talking about the US Open Cup, which is the equivalent to the F.A. Cup and all other domestic cups; and I don’t know why you would want to eliminate that), draft, and all star game. Sure, they present different challenges, but they can be solved.

      Get rid of the salary cap? Have you heard of the NASL? Making our league “one of the best” will hurt the development of American soccer talent for the USMNT. If MLS didn’t grow or shrink from this point on it would be better than having one of the best leagues in the world because American Soccer talent could still be developed. Slow and steady wins the race, my friend, and over time (meaning 5,10,15, or 20 years) MLS will evolve into a better league as small tweaks are made.

      • Lars says:

        I’m not against playoffs, nor am I against the US Open Cup/Voyageurs Cup. These formats are not exactly problems. The cap and squad restrictions are problematic, as well as the lack of a reserve league…

    • Cavan says:

      Neal, that is a very self-loathing comment, unless you are from England. Then it would make sense.

      The league’s detractors from overseas will always be detractors. DC United could win the Club World Cup and our national team could win the World Cup and those sycophants and know-nothings (when it comes to American soccer) that make up the foreign sporting press would still talk about how much America hates soccer and how our league is “Mickey Mouse.”

      Like many others have said, the MLS has been around for 14 years. That’s a lot of hard work and underlying foundation that has already been laid. It would be far harder to rip everything out and start over as you recommend than it would be to improve and tweak what we already have. Some stuff works. Some stuff could be improved. Let’s leave what works and improve what needs to be improved.

      Imitating the EPL would just be foolish. They’re having severe debt issues because of competitive consumption and an arms race on player transfer fees. They also have a ridiculous situation where 4/5 of the league has no legitimate chance of winning the league. In the EPL, it’s not about who can build a better team and use better tactics, it’s just about who can be bought by some oil magnate and go one a spending spree. Just like the NASL. The only difference is that it’s the main pro sports league in that county so it has longer to go before it collapses. The NASL took much less time to collapse because it was a distant 4th (5th?) in the American pro sports scene during its day and it didn’t have the foundational infrastructure. If MLS tried to imitate the EPL, it would become the NASL in a hearbeat. As I said before, judging by the financial health of the EPL today, I doubt that’s currently something to aspire to.

  6. Diane says:

    It doesn’t even have to be that extreme. It just has to be better, and more consistently throughout. The level of the salary cap, and the organizations of its distribution, causes a lot of problems. There’s the problem of mediocre play in general, and there’s the problem of the disparity of both talent and income within teams–they don’t always match up, but often enough they do. The current budget also creates a serious lack of depth, especially for a league that doesn’t recognize the FIFA calendar and so loses much of its top talent to international duty right in the middle of its season. All in all:
    - spend a bit more to improve the level and depth of talent and to retain it once you’ve got it
    - get on the same calendar as the rest of the world

    We don’t need to see Barcelona or Liverpool every weekend (much as we would all like to of course) but Betis and Portsmouth are great fun.

    • Lars says:

      You don’t need to get on the same calendar as the rest of the world, especially when there are plenty of leagues that play over summer. It’s a myth created by the extremely anglophobe FIFA organization.

      The spending can easily be reassessed. I suggest bringing in a situation where domestic players only count half to two thirds of their salaries against the cap.

  7. s.y.l.c. says:

    This league has shown through it’s tight financial regulation that it is here for the long term. It does not have to be a “super league”. I would be happy with a quality league, but we don’t need to be the best in the world. For MLS to survive, it needs:

    1. Continued financial regulation. A salary cap can work, but not where it is now (I’d be happy with a $4.5 million cap next season). Maybe even a soft cap with a luxury tax, although I’d prefer the hard cap. And have a decent minimum player salary.

    2. Continue with a foreign player limit. MLS was created to help the American player develop (and it has done this to a certain extent). Even when the league grows, we don’t want to see something like Arsenal develop where there are only 3 Americans on a 24 man squad.

    3. Depth. This has to do with the salary cap somewhat, but bring back the reserve league. Allow an unlimited amount of signed players as long as the team stays under the cap. And these academy signing limits (which I think were lessened) are silly. Let teams sign anyone from their academy, but continue to set standards that must be followed.

    These are what is most keeping MLS behind most. Heck, NASL gave 6 points for a win and had an offside line and shootouts from 35 yards away (although I prefer those to the current PK system when deciding games). No one complained of it’s silly rule back then. A single table and no playoffs will not improve MLS quality-wise. Opening up wallets cautiously will help in the long run.

    2.

  8. Rick1977 says:

    How many Real Madrids are in La Liga? How many ManUs are in the EPL? How many people regularly go to mid-table and bottom dwelling teams in both of those leagues? Indeed, how many people go to see Real Madrid for some meaningless early-round CL match?

    In other words comparing the attendance of an entire league like MLS to the attendance of some once-in-a-few-years friendlies with a Superclub is a strictly apples to oranges comparison. Nothing enlightening is to be found in such a comparison. Sure the league should expand overall salaries, but not to attract the star-worshiping fan who comes out to once catch a glimpse of a Ronaldo or a Beckham, but to cultivate the American equivalent of a fan who appreciates good team soccer and who would buy a season ticket to a Portsmouth or an Atletico Madrid. That’s the next logical step for MLS, not going down the failed path of the NASL.

  9. Lisa says:

    Good article.

    “MLS needs to partner with corporate America to help fund big salaries for these players,” or MLS clubs could partner with overseas clubs that own players’ rights and would still contribute to salaries.

    This way, MLS teams also would acquire more distinctive identity in the eyes of the general public through brand and nationalism.

  10. vic says:

    good article and good response s.y.l.c…. the NASL is an albatross around American soccer like the vietnam war was for a long time on US foreign policy. I like a salary cap of around 4mil, but with strong encouragement from MLS to push teams in large cosmopolitan cities to secure a very marketable DP. Like Beckham,
    it would be more then just what this “marketable player” could contribute on the field. Sure, you’ll have problems since he may have the same reaction as beckham and believe his role is greater then a player. I say MLS HQ should essentially “trade” (give away) small market DPs or financially-losing teams DPs to bigger markets…put Omar Bravo in Hou and you’re gonna get low 20k per game…maybe 2 Mexican DPs there. Ditto for NY, NE, DC, Bay area.

  11. Kevin says:

    It’s very interesting to read this from a European perspective. I admit that I don’t get to see much MLS and bow to your knowledge on the quality of the football, but I have been interested to read about its development and the evolution of the game in the US since the early 1990s, and particularly since 1996. What most intrigues Europeans, I would hesitate to venture, is the salary-cap, draft, collective ownership, etc, idea in itself, and the amount of power held by the major leagues in American sport. I was glad to read Rick1977 point out the lack of competition in the major leagues in Europe, to which he might have added the swathes of empty seats visible on tv for matches like Blackburn v Middlesborough.
    What strikes me as important in piquing fans’ interests is the idea of competitiveness, the sense that any team can win against any other on (to borrow a phrase) ‘any given Sunday’. Indeed, the most popular league in Europe remains the Bundesliga, where six clubs were in the title hunt right up to the last. It’s certainly not uncommon (if still in a minority) among football fans in Ireland and England to silently pray for some implosion of the bloated EPL system that makes the rich get richer and the rest struggling to keep up. In that respect the collective bargaining power of the league and the manner in which American sports are run is very appealing, allowing as it does for a much fairer distribution of resources and hindering the development of a lob-sided playing field.

    So what is the solution to the problems you raise? To my eyes – and again I am aware that this is an outsider’s view – the steady progress that you have made in the US, most visible to us in the growing strength of the national side (Gold Cup apart), is a testament to good and far-sighted management. I admit that it looks like they have been a little too cautious in places (not embracing Latin American communities quick enough, relying too much on mediocre British-style coaches initially, like Mo Johnston), but better that than too much too soon. Now might indeed be the time to ratchet that up a notch, to look for more funding and gain ground by bringing in better players to improve the overall standard of the league. But again, that takes time. Just ask Man City fans whether bringing in Robinho made them any better immediately or whether it will be the arrival of Kolo Touré and Shay Given’s steadiness at the back that will bring the real change. It might be necessary to ratchet up the salaries a little bit, but the problem with bringing in major backers for one team or another might be to create an imbalance in the league’s structure and to make some clubs fold due to disinterest and uncompetitiveness. The very structure of your league, with the play-off system, etc, means that there are a lot of games in the regular league season that would become completely meaningless if teams were getting hammered week-in, week-out. Plus there’s that thing called recession, which must place a question mark against companies’ willingness to get involved on the necessary large scale, and their long-term commitment to the game.

    So many questions, and difficult choices. I’ll watch from across the Atlantic with interest.

    • Cavan says:

      Thank you for the perspective.

      It is nice to hear feedback from soccer fans in other countries, especially when it comes to having a competitive league. Even though I’m not a football fan, I do admire the NFL for creating a salary capped environment that stresses team chemistry, tactics, and small intangibles over conspicuous consumption. It keeps fans of all teams excited since their team has a chance and if they don’t then they can reasonably hope for next year.

      The MLS has done a good job of creating a similar environment. This year, there is an increase in meaningful games since with more teams, more teams will miss the playoffs. The meaningless games that occurred back when the league had 10 teams had more to do with a young league with few teams than anything fundamental to the playoff system.

      Keep watching. It’s a fun league and is unpredictable on any given day. I really hope that the EPL can get some sort of salary cap and a competitive environment. (probably not during my lifetime) I would then be happy to watch it along with MLS.

  12. the NASL is an albatross around American soccer like the vietnam war was for a long time on US foreign policy.

    One of the best analogies by a reader of this site in a long time. NASL syndrome = Vietnam syndrome. When you come down to it is very much the same thing.

    I agree with sylc also about the shootouts. Johan Cryuff actually stated on Once in a Lifetime, he preferred those shootouts to PK shootouts. The NASL shootout (which was used in MLS for the first four seasons) required more skill from kick takers, and gave the keeper a real shot of making a game winning or saving play. If we must break ties, why not the NASL styled shootout instead of a PK shootout?

  13. gmonsoon43 says:

    Lars, you are dead on. All the Scandinavian leagues play during the summer. If the MLS would just take small breaks for FIFA dates they would be fine. To all the people calling for a fall-spring season, is an MLS game in January at Chicago when its -10 degrees better for the game?

    IMO its a great idea to have American/Canadian players count like 75% against the cap. Then if it is a homegrown player you have developed they could count only 50%.

    Part of what has hurt the quality of play is expansion. It is painful to wait, but in 5 or so years after expansion has been done for a few years the quality should stabilize and hopefully start improving again. 8 teams joining over the course of 6 years really dilutes the talent.

  14. I had proposed a year ago that MLS drop down to 2 non CONCACAF based players per team. But the cap idea sounds better truthfully. I’d make it 85% of all cap money must be used on CONCACAF region based players.

    • Lars says:

      I agree that the domestic talent pool will be diluted, moreso for Canada than the US. HOWEVER, there’s a lot to be said for it giving more opportunities. Basic Sports Economic theory would have us lead to the conclusion that more opportunity for pro level jobs will lead to more investment from the “labour force” in “training” for these positions. This would be what is best for the sport and the domestic players.

      Kartik, I disagree with allocating any set amount of cap money to teams. I think if you exempted half of the salaries from the cap for domestic players, you’d actually see more of them in the big markets, and usually the highest quality ones. Get rid of the roster restrictions, bring in a system where only a fraction of domestic salaries count, and have international salaries hit 100%. You’ll see more domestics will stay at home as the big market teams snap them up for high salaries.

  15. Hal says:

    I’d love for MLS to eventually reach an Eredivisie-caliber level. Not a top four league, but one with good quality, relatively modest spending with the ability for a team to thrive internationally like an Ajax or PSV, good Dutch method coaching and an attacking style.

  16. Rex says:

    Cheers to all the commenters! Probably the most insightful comments for an article i have ever read.
    I think MLS needs to:
    -Raise the salary cap
    -Significantly raise the roster size restrictions (or eliminate). If you have a salary cap why do you need these?
    -Create a better relationship with USL in dealing with transfer of players and loans.
    -Continue to attract stars (even old ones) just for ticket sales.
    -Give better effort to keep developing North American stars (cap exception is great idea).
    -Pressure on teams to switch to natural grass.
    -Pressure teams to value entertainment as much as winning (more aggressive road tactics).

    One additional thing the league needs right now is a flag bearer. A team like DC of old or even the old Galaxy. A team a step above in quality with some notable names on the roster. A team that gets the lots of pub because of its players and backs it up with the hardware(BTW MLS needs a concacaf champion bad). Houston has has some of the formula the last few years, but needs the high profile player or players. Perhaps signing Stuart Holden to a long term deal and bringing in someone like Omar Bravo could aid them in this role. A Beckham aided deep playoff run by the Galaxy could restore their flag bearer status.

  17. jimsakeeper says:

    I went to Barsa v Chivas, my notes are posted on facebook. $70 for two tickets + $25 for parking. 30 m to get into the stadium from the offramp, an hour to get out. Not sustainable.

    I’ll do it once a year but I would never do it as a season ticket holder. If we had a public transit system that was quick, clean and reliable it might be a different story.

  18. Rafael says:

    MLS needs to raise the salary cap and finally put the death nail to single entity.
    MlS should abolish the playoffs and crown the season winner the champ.
    After the regular season is over, U.S. Soccer should hype up and stage the U.S. Open Cup.

    Having the U.S. Open Cup after the season, would satisfy those who like playoffs and there would be a cup championship to play for. It also gives all the other MLS teams something to play for and fight over with a full first team taking the pitch against the rest of MLS and USL.

  19. AVR says:

    Good ideas Rafael, but Garber and Co. will never do it. They are making money hand over fist and do not want to share it with the hard working American players this league was built on. Maybe if Stuart Holden was Stewart Holzein or if Cory Ashe was Carlos Acuna, they’d get a nice wage from MLS.

    Andy Williams? Aaron Rodriguez would get him paid more.

    This league with its pay scale discriminates against American players or those also from the Caribbean who have anglicized names. That’s the bottom line.

  20. Lee says:

    My vision of what I would like to see in regards to MLS…

    - 70 man rosters. 25 of whom must be between 14-18 years of age. 18 (if not more) must be Americans (or Canadian). All of the ‘youths’ receive their schooling, board, travel & meals for free. Upon their 18th birthday, they would either be released by the team, or ‘graduated’, where they receive a regular contract as well as a signing ‘bonus’. Any player who ever graduated the teams youth system would NEVER count against the team salary cap. (If he leaves the team, his salary would count for whichever team he goes to)

    - Game day: 3 matches, a youth game, a reserve game and a MLS league match.

    -Salary cap: who knows, but more than it is now. Say $4 million (easy for me!)

    - 3 DP players, none count against cap. DP.1= unlimited, DP.2= $1 million, DP.3= $800,000 (obviously these numbers could be re-worked, but the idea is more important)

    - That means the other 42 players (don’t count the 25 youth players or 3 DPs) will average $95,200+. Have the cap have a floor & ceiling. Maybe like $45000/$140000. All of these numbers would fluctuate based on the numbers of graduated players.

    it probably sounds crazy, and maybe it is…

    Lee

  21. Doug says:

    You’re going way too far – but a step away from the ultra-conservative model MLS is currently on is probably a good idea.

    The bottleneck in all this is the average US player, and that is just going to take time. On the other hand, you could raise the salary cap enough to bring back the players not currently in MLS who play in smaller European leagues or in the USL1 that are better than the guys currently making $30k in MLS. But going to the point of throwing out the salary cap, etc., just won’t work as there aren’t revenues streams established enough yet to support that kind of expenditure.

    Don’t think it can happen? Argentina is shutting down its domestic league for a time because it hasn’t sold enough players to Europe……

  22. soccer goals says:

    Great article. I believe that they should raise the salary cap substantially. Add a domestic DP slot as well.

  23. Angel says:

    Well I like what I’m reading from all the respond and comment from everybody here. I will probably raised the Salary Cap at least up to 5-10mil. for 5yrs contract with CBA. Raise more players to at least 30 so MLS team can compete at the CONCACAF Champion & Open Cup. Let each MLS Team do their own contract (free agency)hire and fired and have the MLS be the Administration so call (Human Resources).

  24. VeRo T says:

    England have a great level of soccer, but true, en England (and in all Europe) soccer it’s about money… the teams expect to spend a lot of money and in that way achieve something… and is sad that only a few teams have real opportunities to win the tournament… in MLS all teams have real opportunities, and, at least for me, it would be very sad if this change, if only a couple of teams could win and the others only play for nothing

    the playoffs at least add some emotion like only the finals can… imagine the NFL without Super Bowl…

    I wouldnt get worry… USA is a country that have good plans for the soccer, and they are growing… the good things take time, and in this case let give it some time… in 10-15 years american football will be much better than right now… give it some time, the MLS is just gettin started

  25. COSMOS says:

    AVEC LE NEW-YORK COSMOS AU SUPER LEAGUE C EST TRES IMPORTANT CAR LES AUTERS CLUBS ONT BESOIN CONCURENCES DES AUTRES CLUBS L.A GALAXY ETC…. SERONT BEAUCOUP MIEUX ALORS MLS DOIVENT FUSIONNER AVEC NASL

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