First off let you the reader be aware of my bias in advance. I live in Toronto Canada and I am a die hard supporter of MLS side Toronto FC. I have been a day one season seat holder and I write a blog about all things TFC that you can check out at http://viewfromthesouthstands.com. I am a fan of football and a fan of this league.
There are a lot of misconceptions that football fans in the UK have about MLS that I wanted to try and dispel that I hope will open your eyes to a league that probably does not get the level of respect that it deserves. Here are a few points that might help you understand how MLS is slightly different than other leagues but is still a worthy product.
MLS was started in the early 1990’s as part of the promise the US Soccer Federation (USSF) made to FIFA in order to secure World Cup 1994 to set up a top flight domestic league. The North American Soccer League (NASL) had folded years previously because of a lack of interest from fans and owners spending like drunken sailors on high priced international talent like Pele, Beckenbauer, Valderamma and George Best to name but a few. With that in mind the MLS was set up as a “single entity” league that instituted a hard salary cap and cost controls at the outset to ensure that franchises were not able to spend themselves out of existence.
Teams were formed and paid expansion fees to join the league. Today there are eighteen clubs in the league from the USA and Canada with Montreal Quebec joining next year and talks of a twentieth franchise (perhaps the rebirth of the New York Cosmos) to join in the 2013 season. As there is no national league below MLS and due to the fact that an expansion team must pay a franchise fee to the league of up to $40 million there is no promotion or relegation currently contemplated.
MLS has a playoff system rather than awarding the league title to the first place finisher. I for one am not a huge fan of playoffs but they are definitely part of just about every other major North American sports league (for example gridiron, baseball, ice hockey & basketball all do it). The winner of the playoffs is crowned MLS Champion.
There are two (soon to be three) Canadian clubs in MLS as there is no possibility for there to be enough clubs emerging to support a Canadian domestic league. Therefore MLS is one of the few leagues in the world to have clubs from more than one nation within it.
The salary cap is set this season at $2.6 million (US dollars). Clubs can sign three “designated players” under the “Beckham rule” to contracts of whatever amount they wish to and only a relatively small amount of that salary counts against the cap. The entire 30 man roster must be paid within these salary cap guidelines.
Only recently have most clubs instituted academies and previously relied on the US college system to develop youth. There still is a draft of US college prospects annually.
The average attendance in the league is over 17,000 per game. Some franchises like LA, Toronto, Seattle, Vancouver and Portland average over 20,000 per game.
Only recently has MLS started paying transfer fees for players from overseas, as done recently to Tottenham for Robbie Keane. Previously they have only signed players from Europe for example who have been on a Bosman. My club Toronto FC for example just signed former German International Torsten Frings who was out of contract with Werder Bremen. Beckham, Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Kasey Keller and other designated player signings have all come to MLS on free transfers.
A few clubs (Seattle, New England, Houston, Vancouver to name a few) share their stadiums with American or Canadian football (gridiron) teams. Just about every other club plays in a dedicated football stadium. Toronto FC for example plays in BMO Field, a 22,000 seat ground that is also Canada’s “Wembley”… our national soccer stadium.
The standard of play is in my opinion comparable to the middle level of the English Championship. Some of the top clubs (LA Galaxy, Red Bulls, Salt Lake City and FC Dallas) could compete at the upper end of the Championship in my opinion. The level of play is sometimes spotty because for every David Beckham or Landon Donovan making millions you have youngsters on the end of the bench making $40,000. And that is not $40,000 per week that is $40,000 PER YEAR!
Four American and one Canadian side qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League every season whose winner plays in the annual World Club Championship versus among others the winner of the UEFA Champions League. The group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League started this week.
Is MLS perfect? Far from it in my opinion. The league still has a long ways to go and some of the more “unique” aspects of the league’s structure are I feel holding it back. But is MLS a football backwater where has been Europeans come to retire and play in a garbage football league? No way! There is some good football on display in this league and I urge you all to have an open mind to the league and to the level of football on offer.
Now I have to go. Toronto FC plays tonight in Panama against the Panamanian Champions in the first match of the Champions League group stages. COME ON YOU REDS!!!