Why the English Find MLS a Strange Experience
As our owner and head honcho The Gaffer highlighted last week, The Guardian podcast snubbed MLS deeming it not a ‘Major league’. Quite ironic for the satirist’s amongst you given it’s name but that’s irrelevant.
Now before I reel of a list of reasons, let me state this as de facto. I like Major League Soccer. A lot in fact. The following article is in no way a justification for their comments. It’s merely an explanation for why those in England (since I’m British) and maybe Europe find the concept of MLS so perplexing.
First off, the salary cap. A staple of American sports that stops the likes of Portsmouth and, lower down, Plymouth Argyle ever becoming a reality in the US. To some, though, it removes the excitement. For certain purists it’s brilliant. Imagine Manchester United having the same budget as Blackpool and forced to cut their cloth accordingly. It evens the divide and makes sure that no one stretches out. It keeps the league competitive.
In turn though it means you won’t see a team establish true dominance because they can’t just go out and sign all the best players. The situation at Man City would never happen. Nor Chelsea for that matter. To an English journalist used to seeing both ends of the financial spectrum in a league table, the concept of money boundaries is alien.
Then of course there are the playoffs. Now while the Football League does adopt a playoff for the third promotion slot, it does not give it to those in first and second so that is ignored. In some instances I do see their point. After all the team that finishes highest doesn’t always win the MLS Cup.
It almost spits in the face of the league season if all you need to do is qualify and then perform in the knockout rounds. A bit like a World Cup in some senses. To an American audience, this is fine. However, they’ve grown up with it. Yet to European football/soccer fans (delete where applicable), it can seem almost like cheating.
The distinct lack of relegation. Just as much as the English media likes to revel in champions, they love to pan the cameras, to the tearful fans of those unlucky relegated trio. Be it children or grown men balling their eyes out, the worst teams are deemed not fit to eat at the top table and must earn that right by fighting it out with the other peasants in the Football League.
The fact MLS doesn’t have a tiered league structure with promotion and relegation makes it unique in soccer. Even South America uses it, albeit on the most confusing and slightly irrational three season add-points-divide-by-three-pull name-from-hat method they use.
The best analogy I can come up with is two boxers. The loser is carried away and then a new contender is brought in. If the same two boxers just fought, it would end up the same result, in theory. I say in theory to protect myself from a barrage of abusive responses.
Personally I don’t think they take too kindly to the idea of ‘Designated Players’ either. One star per team? What about Real Madrid? I think they almost perceive it as one good player alongside 9 cloggers. And the best DP wins. Of course, the designated player is really an attempt by MLS to diversfy and bring in quality without losing teams in a financial fireball of destruction.
Of course, cynics of the league would also say that any league in which Juan Pablo Angel can score a flurry of goals in can’t be special. Now I will admit JPA wasn’t always clinical in England but that could be down to the pace of the league more than his personal quality as a player. The flurry of lower league Englishmen joining won’t strengthen my case, but Andriy Shevchenko scored for fun in Italy yet couldn’t in Italy. Does that mean Serie A is a tin pot league? No because we accept it’s a slower league with a different tactical mantra.
MLS is less than twenty years old. While the Premier League was birthed in 1992, professional soccer in England has been around for well over 100 years. It’s future is guaranteed because it has a market and a secure fan base. I’d bet in the early years of the Football League in the 1800’s, it wasn’t the streamline behemoth it is today. It probably had flaws. After all, it took over half a century to outlaw the backpass rule, and longer to decide on three points for a win and one for a draw. These things take time.
America is still trying to grow the game and from my recent trip to Northern Virginia I’d say it’s gaining popularity. Those in charge are walking the tightrope of producing a legitimate league that appeals to an American market.
With so many European leagues, I appreciate it’s difficult for the likes of The Guardian to devote time to every league, but cut MLS some slack. It’s still in its infancy and it requires an embrace from those in Europe, not a patronizing shun. After all, last summer proved quite clearly those American’s can kick a ball quite well. Plus I’m pretty sure Tim Howard wouldn’t have spilled that shot over the line.