Major League Soccer’s Battle For Relevance
The capture of Hill 937 during the Vietnam War was made famous in the movie Hamburger Hill. Hollywood glorified the struggle of American forces as they spent 10 days laying siege to a heavily fortified hill of dubious strategic value. Like the assault on Hill 937, Major League Soccer faces an uphill battle to capture the hearts and minds of the American people.
With 19 teams currently competing in Major League Soccer, it is true that a great deal of positive progress has been made since 1996. However, that still begs the question; will they ever be able to truly compete with the other American sports institutions?
On July 31, 2013 during the halftime show of the MLS All-Star game, MLS Commissioner Don Garber excited the U.S. soccer faithful by announcing a plan to expand the league to 24 teams by 2020. However, is expansion really the answer to becoming a relevant sports entity in America?
As I sit and watch the reports of Clint Dempsey’s move from the Premier League to MLS, and listen to the sound bites of sportscasters debating the importance of his move for U.S. soccer, I’m afraid our narrow focus has caused us to lose sight of the big picture. For some reason we have developed the belief that one big name will lift soccer out of the darkness and into the light, a belief we had when David Beckham came to MLS. It’s time we accept the fact that one player does not a successful sports brand make.
If we want to attract star talent, we will eventually have to start paying top dollar. According to the 2013 salary breakdown by the MLS Players Union, only eight current players in MLS make over a million dollars per annum. In an article published in the May 2013 issue of Forbes magazine that highlighted the 20 highest paid soccer players in the world, none of them currently play in the MLS. How can owners, general managers, and coaches attract top-flight talent from around the world when financially they can’t compete with Spanish La Liga, Barclay’s Premier League, or countless other soccer leagues vying for tomorrow’s up and coming talent?
Having said all that, I must add that the real problem isn’t the money, players, cable network deals, or the lack of facilities dedicated to soccer. It’s the lack of an appropriate mindset by the American people. There will always be the cadre of diehard fans who will paint themselves head to toe, cheer their team rain or shine, and support the league no matter what its condition. What we lack is a strong support system from the parents of up and coming youth that will help to foster a love of the beautiful game. This, coupled with an ability to attract top talent from both abroad as well as our own youth ranks, will help to grow the sport.
Unfortunately, soccer in America may just have to accept its status as the redheaded sports brand, and continue its uphill battle with a firm understanding that like Hill 937, the outcome may hold little value. As a huge supporter of all things soccer, I want to believe that relevance is an achievable goal for MLS, but, given our current situation getting there promises to be an uphill battle for years to come.