Consider the implications of Major League Soccer’s Disciplinary Committee – the league’s implicit acknowledgement that decisions on the field need not be sacrosanct. In the Information Age, the willingness to review the league’s most controversial plays shouldn’t be novel, but in the broader soccer culture, MLS is ahead of the curve.
Violent conduct need never go unpunished. Diving? Leg-breaking tackles? Or Chelsea-esque ‘mass confrontation’ of officials? For MLS, these are credibility issues – solvable problems that need not interfere with the league’s ability to make its case in a less tradition-driven landscape. When millions of dollars are being spent on skill players to improve the product, it would be paradoxical to ignore other less expensive, more accessible solutions.
It’s an example of one of MLS’s more intriguing virtues: A freedom from tradition that allows the league to distinguish itself on a number of fronts. If the league had 100 years of history, it would be difficult to overcome a “this is how it’s always been” mentality – the type of logic that’s left Major League Baseball to fester as an impotent anachronism. While critics laud the immutability of the game and point with derision to comical innovations like MLS’s early era shootouts, a new, more modest approach that acknowledges the game’s core sanctity see the league ask “why can’t we tweak at the edges?”
Take adopting vanishing spray – a relatively established tool that saw parts of the World Cup-watching world stare jaw slacken, as if watching through a cobwebbed room of vulcanized rubber balls. Throughout the Americas, the technology started to take hold six years ago, making it easy for MLS to adopt its use in 2011. But given the Anglicized nature of U.S. soccer culture, that decision could have backfired. For too many issues, the way England goes about its business serves as a de facto standard. When it comes to something as beneficial as vanishing spray, MLS has elected to walk a different road.
The approach is something league executives might call a point of differentiation, though they usually reserve that term for bigger issues. Fan culture, game day experience, the new venues MLS is working to put in place – these help distinguish the league in a competitive sports landscape, the thinking goes. With concepts like the Disciplinary Committee and vanishing spray, MLS also embraces an early adopter’s approach, one that differentiates it from much of the soccer world.