Ever since its inception, Major League Soccer’s primary goal has been growth, trying to cultivate an untapped sports fan group in this country. They’ve been relatively successful in that venture if you look at a variety of metrics, from number of teams to revenue to attendance.
A large part of that success can be attributed to the Designated Player rule. While people like myself often criticize MLS for their administration of a salary cap system, they have offered enough flexibility through the rule for teams to acquire players they couldn’t otherwise afford. This not only introduced further quality within the team, but a higher level of marketability, especially given the enhanced stature of European soccer on North American television.
In the effort to maximize the effect of Designated Players on growth, MLS teams have embraced a long-held perception: Americans love scoring. The big four sports have all adapted their rules at times to cater to this notion — that the excitement of the big play is what hooks the fan — so more of that ought to be better, right?
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Designated Player rule has been used almost exclusively on signing attack-minded players. Sure, there are a few exceptions to that rule, but for every Liam Ridgewell there is a David Villa, and a Steven Gerrard, and a Robbie Keane, and … well, you get the drift.
SEE MORE: My love-hate relationship with Robbie Keane.
But is this perception flawed? Is the more frequent occurrence of exciting attacking plays the way to grow popularity in America? Or have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the nature of the sport of soccer?
MLS is well-known to be a physical league, but it’s not known as a league filled with great defending. The lack of talent caused by the salary cap system forces less-skilled players to be more cynical and physical in order to control the opposition attack. It leads to sloppy play, and while goals do abound, they are often met with derision because the defending is so weak.
When you read Jonathan Wilson’s tactical classic Inverting the Pyramid, you experience the idea of call-and-answer. Every attacking revolution was eventually solved through the evolution of defense.
To me, it would actually be historical — and logical — for an MLS team to approach their roster from the exact opposite point as most MLS teams. If you really want to beat all-star attacks like the Galaxy, you have to build an all-star defense.
SEE MORE: U.S. vs. Peru – match preview.
I’m not sure that Don Garber and MLS would allow it, though. This is where the inner workings of the Single Entity are unknown to the public. There are the stories of Toronto getting nixed in the past in their pursuit of Swedish defender Olof Mellberg. It’s tough to know whether that was because of the Reds’ past mismanagement of funds, or whether the league tends to frown upon defensive DP signings.
But let’s assume they would be perfectly fine with that, and a team went out and brought in two world-class central defenders and a staunch central midfielder as well. How would they fare in this league? What if they were successful?
It’s the type of development that might change the league for the better. A mighty triangle holding the fort might allow the attacking part of the squad (presumably a younger, less-expensive group) more freedom going forward.
Or maybe not. Perhaps people enjoy watching Gio dos Santos and Robbie Keane shredding mediocre backlines on a routine basis. It may be fun, but without balance, it seems awfully artificial.
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