In MLS 3.0, small spenders will get smaller margin for error; By Steve Davis


I’m not sure we are in MLS 3.0 just yet, but the contours of it are becoming easier to define.

MLS 1.0 was, well, that’s pretty much self-explanatory, eh? It wasn’t always pretty – heavens, some of the early grounds could only have been more ill-fitting if they were ice rinks – but things must begin somewhere.

Toronto FC ushered in MLS 2.0 around 2007, showing how urban-based, grass roots support was the optimal growth driver. Seattle, Portland and others helped codify the new MLS way.

Previous attempts to tell you we were high-stepping in the end zone of MLS 3.0 have been premature, optimistic reaches at best. We haven’t gotten there yet, although it draws inexorably nearer.

We still don’t know exactly what MLS 3.0 will look like, but the outlines of the hills ahead look clearer and clearer.

For instance, we know MLS 3.0 will spin around an axis of ample DP delight, now up to four per team.  We know TV contracts are now weighing equally with gate receipts when it comes to economic concerns, and that will affect every high-level choice going forward. Bigger stadiums, like the one being developed in Orlando (as 25k looks like the new 20k), could be the new standard.

And here is something else, perhaps less obvious but just as meaningful, that will quietly help shape MLS 3.0 in so many cities of lesser bright lights: Small markets will have a significantly smaller margin of error. The pressure to get it right will intensify.

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Teams that aren’t squeezing all the green off the dollar, the ones willing to spend for game changers and difference makers, will simply have greater margin for error on those big personnel decisions. For instance, if Seattle gets it wrong on a Designated Player choice, no problem! The Sounders just cut bait and go get another big name.

Same for the Galaxy, NYCFC and Toronto and anyone else that gets into the big spenders club. Heck, NYCFC has Frank Lampard, and he looks increasingly like the odd man out in the Yankee Stadium midfield. Of course it helps to get things right, but clubs that live in the champagne room can generally afford to get it wrong here and there.

Bruce Arena figured that out long ago. Through mid-summer, he can be as wrong as M. Night Shyamalan on most of his movies. So long as he’s getting the team right by August or so, the StubHub Center remains a happy place. A steady stream of league MVP candidates helps make it so.

In Toronto, the jury is out on whether Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore will fulfill expectations at Toronto, but Sebastian Giovinco has been such a smash-hit success that the U.S. internationals have time to find their best MLS selves. See the pattern? Spending as provider of room for error?

So for now, the pitchfork and lantern crowd aren’t at the front office gates around TFC or NYCFC or Seattle, even if things are less than swell.

But let’s look at Real Salt Lake.

The RSL front office dismantling is complete. First went manager Jason Kreis, who remains the youngest MLS Cup-winning coach. Then went Garth Lagerwey, who is now with Seattle. And on Tuesday, team president Bill Manning left.  That leaves owner Dell Loy Hansen with a more hands-on role, which has a lot of Rio Tinto Stadium faithful squirming, less assured.

Perhaps a more involved Hansen will prove to be a good thing; he says a growing club in a new-day MLS requires a different structure, apparently desirous of something more aggressive.  We’ll see. What we do know is that he had a good thing with Kreis and Lagerwey, but let them both get away. There seems to be a lot of fixin’ what ain’t broke in Hansen’s world.

Either way, Hansen had better be right, because he doesn’t have any wiggle room. If he doesn’t find the right people to fit the right structure, they will quickly become the Chicago Fire, where the fans have to stretch their memories back to 2009 to recall the most recent playoff win. The history of DP failure there is long and sad, evidence of how the frugal set of MLS clubs cannot afford to be wrong. The floundering will only get worse if owner Andrew Hauptman can’t make better choices.

Colorado is another place with an apparent force field that prevents good choices from penetrating the outer layer. Gary Smith may not have been “top man” in stylistic approach, but his English-style pragmatism worked at DSG Park, where the Rapids plane old vanilla approach captured a 2010 MLS Cup crown.

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He left a year later in a philosophical split with upper management. They had a good thing in Oscar Pareja, but let him get away. Now they have Pablo Mastroeni, who seems less and less likely to keep his job, now 14 games under .500 in a season and a half. What’s worse, Pareja was building around youth; his team of five rookie starters (well, they were all practically rookies) went to the 2013 playoffs. Now too many of those promising youngster are gone. Rather than building something for the future, Mastroeni looks like a coach hoping to build a better record for the here and now, straining to create greater job stability.

A real game-changer or two would help – but there isn’t an Andrea Pirlo or even a Didier Drogba coming through Denver International Airport anytime soon – not unless he’s wearing the uniform of NYCFC or Montreal, etc., anyway.  Irish international Kevin Doyle – who will never be confused for Kaka or even Robbie Keane – is as close as Rapids ownership will come to securing a difference maker, apparently.

The stars don’t just fill seats, see? They  cover up weaknesses, and they provide cover when management gets its wrong on coaching hires, or when coaches get it wrong on tactics.

In MLS 3.0, that will be especially true on game day, never mind the bigger picture. Clubs that don’t spend will have far less margin for error.  They’ll need to be picture perfect when the first whistle blows or they probably won’t get points.

We saw it just last weekend in Dallas. Bruce Arena’s Galaxy wasn’t exactly on top of its game, with Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos still learning how to play with one another.

But teams with so much individual talent, even if they aren’t in Swiss watch-level synch, can brutally punish mistakes.  Dallas’ makeshift back line, with three converted midfielders, dropped their focus and made a couple of second-half mistakes. That was enough … Galaxy 2, Dallas 1.

For all the great young talent Pareja has assembled – for the second year in a row, Dallas leads the league in minutes by homegrown players, including both of his holding midfield starters – they don’t have the talent to afford mistakes.

That will be a hallmark of MLS 3.0, whenever its completed version arrives.

Money buys a lot of things, as we know. In this case, it will buy a few “get out of jail free cards.”  It will buy the ability to get it wrong here and there.

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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