MLS Needs to Refocus on the Domestic Game

Two weeks ago Commissioner Don Garber made some very disturbing remarks to the Associated Press. He indicated that MLS has to sign more foreign players and resemble European football more than it does currently to win over masses of football fans in the United States. My sense is that this is absolutely the wrong course for the first division of American football to undertake.

In the 1996 to 2000 period MLS signed bigger name foreign players than it has since, had much higher TV ratings than currently, and yet drew poorly at the gate and teetered near the edge of bankruptcy. Paying expensive imports like Roberto Donadoni, Carlos Valderrama, and Walter Zenga may have wowed fans and helped MLS stature abroad but the league did not make money. MLS in the 1996 to 2000 period in my opinion produced better quality play (if you could ignore the strange clock rules and NASL style shootout) and better international results than the league has since. Yet, MLS almost closed up shop.

Don Garber smartly tightened the league’s finances and focused on the domestic player. The two Florida teams were contracted, while expensive foreign players were either jettisoned or not replaced when they left the league. What ensued was the most successful World Cup in US National Team history (coming on the heels of a huge struggle in CONCACAF qualifying during 2000 and 2001) and the deepest US player pool ever.

Between 2002 and 2005, MLS now focused on the domestic game and not signing over priced, unmotivated foreign players (with a few notable exceptions) made dramatic strides in player development, deepening its domestic player pool and forming teams that has continuity and thus better quality play.

The period was so successful that several franchises began to turn a profit, DC United was sold for a record amount, expansion fees were tripled and the league earned its first TV rights fee. Fans of the American game will support the American leagues regardless. Fans of European football will always look down on MLS, USL, College Soccer, local ethnic leagues, etc. That’s the nature of the best which Don Garber fails to understand.

We’d all like to see MLS quality of play improve. Personally the play at times is appalling, but that is not the point. I’ve been criticized in the past for pointing out how mightily MLS clubs have struggled when thrown into international competitions. This is true, but the comparison has come up not because of me but because of MLS fans and Commissioner Garber trying to sell the league as something it is not, and something quite frankly it never has to be to maintain the loyalty of those who have supported the league and the American player.

The truth is the quality of play in MLS is so far inferior to the top European leagues, it will still take years and years of almost uncontrolled spending to reach the level where TV money and viewership fuels the success of the league. MLS brass has shown a great deal of Hubris in over selling its product the past several years to try and hook European footy fans stateside. Over promising on certain players and claiming the league’s successes in contrived tournaments and pre season friendlies have made MLS look silly when it comes down to it. In a FIFA sanctioned tournament, an MLS side last reached the final in 2000. So basically, MLS isn’t a top league and didn’t need to be among the top leagues to watch many of its teams turn a profit, hook fans and develop top American talent.

MLS is a far inferior league from a playing standpoint to its nearest neighbor the Mexican League and continues to struggle in international competition. Too many American and Canadian players of quality have found their way to USL the last two seasons since MLS increased its foreign player limit and the USSF did nothing to stop this change. The Mexican League is superior to MLS not simply because of its lengthy head start time wise but because of its over reliance on importing players. So MLS should not aspire to eclipse the Mexican League but should learn the lessons from the failure of that league to adequately support its nation’s international ambitions.

The reliance of the FMF on importation of South American footballers has deeply wounded Mexican National pride and more importantly damaged the national team in the deepest possible fashion. While it can be argued that Mexican footballers are now surrounded at the club level by better players than 15 years ago, the truth is that the supporting roles most domestic players are thrust into means that they do not developed the leadership skills required to compete at a high level internationally.

The US National Team has become more dependent than ever before on European based players in the past two years. Even in the 1990 and 1994 World Cup qualifying cycles when the nation lacked a FIFA sanctioned first division, the USISL/APSL (now USL) and contracted players to the USSF formed a core of the national team.

Those players developed in MLS that now form the backbone of the national team, such as Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and DaMarcus Beasley may never have been given the pitch time to develop their games to an international caliber level in today’s MLS, obsessed with foreign players and fully developed parts. Adding more foreign players and burning any increase in the salary cap on expensive imports ultimately does not help the American game. Its sole purpose is to attempt to repay anxious investors: I understand MLS is a business, but it was also founded to develop and promote the American game. The league has an obligation above all to continue to focus on its mission.

Beginning with the signing of David Beckham in early 2007, MLS began representing itself as a big time player in world football and on the domestic sports scene with very little bite to back up this obnoxious bark. Beckham flopped in the US, and by extension damaged the credibility of the league’s pronouncements about the signing of the next great “savior” for a league so financially strong that it has not needed a savior in years. Again, the Hubris of Don Garber and his ilk get in the way of any clear perspective on reality.

Today, fewer and fewer regulars from the US National Team play in MLS. Also, more and more young American look to move abroad, not only because of the lure of European football, but because they likely would be treated with more respect financially by the league if they had a funny sounding last name or carried a different passport. Even if they do sign in MLS they quickly see their chance to develop taken by a foreign signing or over aged American player returning home to finish out his career.

Yet this year’s strong college draft proves what many like myself have believed for years. Player development in the United States is good enough to sustain a top flight professional league and to also support a second and third division. Foreign player slots should be limited with exemptions/exceptions for foreign players developed in the American college system or USL/PDL.

USL-1/A-League which for years resembled a minor league, a third or fourth division masquerading as a second division now has emerged since 2006 as a legitimate second division with some clubs that could compete at a first division level. This has happened largely because MLS has lost out on a number of quality college players to USL because of incentive laden salaries not possible in MLS.

Moreover, scouting and player development in MLS as well as tactical management has not kept up with the rapid development of the American game. This has by default helped USL-1 who has seen an increase in talent, even young talent in the league that used to get nothing but used leftovers.

MLS’ continued emphasis on foreign players has also allowed many domestic bred talents- both American and foreigners developed in the US College system to drop to the USL-1 or USL-2 levels. Then when MLS teams are desperate at season’s end for cover they sign players from USL and MLS oriented commentators express shock at how effective these players are. A good example was Greg Janicki with DC United last season. Janicki finally got a shot in MLS, but probably would never had slipped to the USL-2 level had it not been for the top flight league’s emphasis on star power and foreign players.

Yet for all this emphasis, MLS TV viewership has continued to drop, with last season’s MLS Cup Final featuring one of the most decorated players in Copa Libertadoras history garnering the worst rating in the 13 year history of the league.

Appealing to American based European Football fans by making the product resemble a Euro league on American soil is not the best course of action for the growth of the game at all levels in this country. I understand that MLS is an investment driven business, but believe after the novelty of foreign stars wears off, you better have a respectable Americanized product to survive. Nobody wants to see foreign players driven out of the league entirely, but when half your senior roster is made up of imports, most of whom make more money than the comparable American player with the same skill level, you have a problem.

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