MLS is now a league of have and have nots; By Steve Davis

mls

For those you who wanted Major League Soccer to be more of a free-spending, big-money, champagne room kind of league, congratulations!

Some of you have long coveted big names. The bigger the better – and more them! Another ballyhooed Euro wants his swipe at the suddenly flush MLS ATM? Sign ‘em up!

For those of you who have turned your nose up at Major League Soccer because it didn’t have enough of that intoxicating affluence of leagues from lands afar, congrats! You got your wish.

Because today MLS looks a lot more like EPL, La Liga, Serie A and other money leagues of note in one important way:

Today MLS is a two-tiered league. There really is no other way to see it. Whether that’s a good thing … well, we’ll see.

I’m not saying this is necessarily a terrible thing. Personally, I cannot wait for another chance to watch Andrea Pirlo do his majestic work from inside Yankee Stadium. And I won’t miss a chance right now to see Toronto’s outrageously in-form Sebastian Giovinco flummox yet another MLS defense; he is almost everybody’s no-brainer mid-season choice as MVP.

They are among the Designated Player money men of MLS, and I’m on board. So, yes, shooting money into the player pool like souvenir T-shirts into the stands has its advantages.

Still, growth means change, and MLS has just altered its essential DNA.  It’s worth asking if league leaders have paid enough attention to the prickly laws of unintended consequence? Did they properly consider this lurking danger: what happens to a brand when you significantly change it?

For those who always advocated a policy of “remove the training wheels and go, go, go!” … well, let’s just hope this doesn’t become a lesson in “be careful what you ask for.”

As the league prepares to celebrate its 2015 All-Star event outside of Denver, it is a different league than today. The latest salary machination, one that paves ways for clubs to sign a fourth Designated Player, pushed it past the tipping point to this new, two-tier status of Big Spenders and Hard Triers.

MLS has long been a league of parity. Since Eric Wynalda curled in the league’s first goal 20 years ago, the operation was built on the foundation of equal footing. Ostensibly, anyway. We all know a couple of teams were given a leg up in player signings back in the day, but the pretense of parity served as guidewires, at least.

Now it’s like all the other leagues of haves and have nots. We will now march predictably into every season essentially choosing among a handful of big brand clubs as the real title contenders. Everyone else will fight for the scraps.

It will be like the celebrated Premier League that way.  The EPL is known as a collection of haves and have-nots. It is a place where a handful of globally branded heavyweights, with their billionaire conglomerate owners, compete at one level. Then comes the yawning gap. Then come the rest.

So who is your EPL favorite this year? Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United? Or is this one of the years where the junior varsity of big spenders, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, might just sneak away with the title.

By the way, it’ll look the same at this time next year. And every year hence, unless another club strikes ownership oil and buys into the exclusive cigar room. Such is the way in a lightly regulated free market system, one rife with financial inequality. Does that sound a little bit like MLS now?

Two weeks ago league leaders engineered the Targeted Allocation Money initiative, adding yet another layer of complex salary legalese.

Thus, yet another rule was created essentially so that the Galaxy could sign its next big player, Mexican star Giovani dos Santos in this case. Every time the league bends a player acquisition rule or just outright makes one up (yes, that happens), it’s because the Galaxy, Seattle or Toronto needed it fixed in order to sign so-and-so. If certainly looks that way, at least.

Today, 15 MLS clubs spend roughly in the $4-6 million range in player salary. (Specifically, it’s $3.8 million on the low end, up to $6.5 on the highest end.) There’s your gaggle of bus riders, so to speak. And here are the league’s limo riders:

According to figures recently released in the annual Players Union salary dump – a.k.a. the most interesting non-game day all year in MLS – Seattle and Orlando are paying north of $11 million each.

Orlando is the market for a big ol’ fist-bumping summer signing, so the Lions may soon climb the salary hierarchy. Maybe they’ll get as high as NYCFC, backed by the bucks of Manchester City and the parent company Abu Dhabi United Group, with its current payroll of $17.8 million. The L.A. Galaxy, already with three of the last four MLS Cup crowns, is at $19.4 million. And Toronto FC will ride its league-high $22.7 million payroll to the club’s debut playoff appearance this year. (Or, if TFC still cannot get there, with those big bags full of cash and an extra playoff spot in MLS this year, then seriously, we need to pull a Chivas USA and disband that club.)

These teams have stars that plenty of people will pay to see. That part works. Here’s what might not:

But being bullish on a greater, league-wide practice of paying big bucks for big stars always wrongly presupposed one important element: that every MLS club would buy in.

That was never going to be the case. To believe that all comers would enthusiastically pile into the spending spree ignores reams of case studies, here and abroad.

Again, look at the European Leagues. Take La Liga, where each year is generally a contest between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In Italy, the financial heavies are generally Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan. They have won 68 league titles; all other clubs combined have won 44.

Back over to England: Anybody like West Brom’s chances this year? How about Leicester? Anybody wanna wager a paycheck on Sunderland? Of course you don’t – because you’re not stupid that way.

This isn’t just a soccer thing. I don’t know Major League Baseball or the NBA very well, but I can still (more or less) tell you which teams have historically spent on free agents and which teams have generally been more frugal.

Back to MLS. Again, in fairness, the league needs some of this; Dos Santos, Clint Dempsey, David Villa, Steven Gerrard et al, these marque signings boost TV contracts and sponsor revenue and nourish league growth in a big way. But there was always going to be a tipping point, and here we are. A league that has always sold itself on parity simply can no longer make that claim. Not with a straight face.

Oh, the playoff system does create opportunity for a team like Sporting Kansas City to sneak away with a title every once in a while. But generally speaking, when we talk about MLS Cup favorites, Supporters Shield favorites and the mostly likely claimers of CONCACAF Champions League spots, you’ll be choosing from a short list MLS elite level spenders.

Welcome to the new MLS. Try it on. See how it fits.

Just don’t be surprised if you look in the mirror after a while and don’t exactly like everything that you see.

Photo credit: Athronos.

Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk 

 

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12 Comments

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