In Limbo: Raising the Quality of Play
|By Tim Froh|
If one were to read the MLS forums on infamous soccer message board Bigsoccer.com, one would certainly leave with the impression that American soccer was doomed. The quality of play of MLS, many say, has stagnated. What then is the solution? Here is where fan consensus fades. Some say that the proposed "Beckham exception" rule will attract international stars and hence, raise the quality of play as well as attract thousands of new fans, which in turn will bring in more money. Others suggest that raising the salaries of MLS players across the board, while also providing cash incentives for wins will increase motivation, and thus also the standard of soccer. These solutions are not without their merits, but they are solutions fraught with problems that alone will do little to raise the quality of play in Major League Soccer.
The question at hand, that is, whether the quality of play in MLS has indeed stagnated, is a point of contention among MLS fans. While there are many who chastize the league for what they think is an apparent lack of concern for raising the standard of play, there are others, like myself, who feel that MLS is moving in the right direction and that the league has seen small, but steady improvement since 2002, when I began watching. In that time, MLS has raised the salary cap, created reserve teams, and improved the quality of its coaching (the current crop of working coaches is perhaps the best such group in MLS' short history). If the level of play hasn't improved as much as many fans would like, it's likely the consequence of expansion, which undoubtedly spreads the talent pool a little thin.
While MLS has seen slow improvement (which is far too slow for some), it still has much to do before we see drastic results on the field. How though, can MLS really raise the standard of play without breaking the bank? And furthermore, do the problems on the field go much, much deeper than issues that MLS' money can solve?
The first solution, and the most obvious, is allowing MLS teams exclusive rights to sign the players that they've developed through their own youth systems. The New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire are two teams I'm aware of, that run youth academies. However, because of MLS' byzantine player acquisition rules, they aren't able to sign them. I e-mailed MLS, asking for clarification of the player acquisition rules, specifically as they concern the acquisition of youth players, but my e-mail has yet to elicit a response. Regardless, this seems the most obvious step MLS could take, since these clubs have had the foresight to open their own youth academies, yet they're unable to reap the benefits. Perhaps MLS thinks that allowing these teams exclusive access to these youth players that it creates an unfair advantage. But isn't that just a little stupid? Why punish teams for simply setting up academies? Shouldn't MLS be encouraging such intelligent soccer planning?
The second solution, and the more contentious of the two, is raising the salary cap. Aside from the obvious advantage of keeping quality talent in the league (the likes of a Carlos Ruiz or Christian Gomez, not the Peugeros and the Califfs), raising the cap does one significant thing that I've seen very few people mention before, and that is it makes the league a viable career path for young soccer players. Currently, pro soccer in this country is a gamble, especially if one skips college to go pro. Many developmental players have to work one or two jobs in addition to their soccer-playing duties with their club. If the minimum salary (even for developmental players) could be raised to between thirty and fifty thousand dollars, more young players would be willing to enter MLS without going the college route, which currently is a good solution for some young players (Clint Dempsey and Ricardo Clark among others), but for the most part is detrimental to developing the kind of players MLS needs to take itself to the next level.
In the future, MLS should certainly look into creating team owned and operated youth academies, as well as allowing for the "Beckham exception," especially now that the league is making money from its television contracts. But the most important thing for the league to do is continue on youth development and talent scouting. Right now, the problems of U.S. soccer run very deep. We're continuously reminded that MLS still has much to learn about both talent spotting and player development as each previously unknown young player latches on with a top level club overseas (Kenny Cooper, now in MLS is one example, while Johann Smith of Bolton Wanderers is another). Raising the standard of play in this country will not happen overnight. Throwing money at teams and players for victories is not a good solution. Ties may be less frequent, but it's equally possible that cynical play would abound as teams try to grind out close victories week after week. Money for goals is a better solution, but still one that may not be worth the extra expenditure.
Whatever MLS' solution, it ought to be one that is still a part of MLS' long term goal of financial sustainability. Throwing money at its problems and at players destroyed the now-defunct NASL. MLS is aware of this, and is currently concentrating on balancing its finances. Soccer Specific Stadia are wonderful, as are the new television contracts, but these will be nothing without sustained excellence on the pitch. Without quality play, who will be there to fill all those new stadia and watch games on television? It's a balance that MLS needs to find in the next few years, before many potential fans tune out MLS for good.