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Commentary: Growth of the MLS

By JJ Duke
Tuesday 2nd August 2011
After watching last night's MLS All-Star game, it hit me that professional soccer in the USA (and Canada) is on a serious up-rise. Even though the All-Stars got beat by a much stronger Manchester United side (who has outscored opponents 18-2 in their four USA Tour matches and are looking really strong, even for pre-season), 16 years ago I could have never imagined this. Seeing fans that are knowledgeable about the beautiful game watching a game in a Soccer-specific stadium in America would have been a dream back in 1996, but it is in the here and now. So I decided that I want to write today about how professional soccer has evolved in USA (and Canada in a major club sense) and what it can do to grow and what it needs to watch out for.

How the MLS came to be

The beginnings of the league began in 1993 when the United States Soccer Federation agreed to work of the development of a top-level professional league, per terms of receiving and hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup. After the brief experiment of the NASL back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was never a top-level professional league in the country. Once America saw that the game had potential of being a hit in the nation after breaking the total attendance record in a FIFA World Cup before the expansion to the current 32-team format. The league was formed after the tournament and began play in 1996 in ten cities across the country. The players consisted of most USA-national team members, stars of the '94 World Cup and former college soccer greats. Attendance was fairly strong during the first season, but were overshadowed as all the teams played in mammoth NFL stadiums and after the first season, the next few years attendance dropped from 17,000+ to the low 14,000s. The league took another few hits as the USA were eliminated in the group stage of the 1998 World Cup in France and casual fans were dropped very easily. Things looked worse when the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny franchises folded in 2001. Things had to be done in order to keep the league afloat.

Enter the man who most of the league's success has come from his ideas. Don Garber, who was a former NFL-International executive, took over the Commissioner's reigns after original boss Doug Logan left after three seasons and left a lot of financial troubles behind him. Ownership was a major problem in the league as two people held the majority stake in the league teams, Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt. Gaining a strong fan base was a problem and developing young talent was scarce. Plus all the teams in MLS were not gaining profits. Garber had a few ideas in mind and went to work immediately with first getting teams out of big NFL stadiums, where 15,000 people watching a game made game atmosphere very quiet and it always looked like nobody was there. The construction of Columbus Crew stadium back in 1999 paved the way as now of next season, 15 teams will be playing in Soccer Specific Stadiums with capacities from 18,000 to 27,000. And another two teams play in stadiums that have capacities that are appropriate to the team's attendance (including Seattle Sounders who, while playing in an NFL stadium, average almost 40,000 fans per match).

Next was to gain investors trust in the league and the teams. He wanted to show that there was a positive product in MLS and that it was growing. With expansion of the league into different cities over the past few years, there will be 17 separate owners for the 19 league teams as of next season. He has made it mandatory for all the teams to have their own youth academy systems and since 2009, teams have been signing players from their academies, showing true development in the youth game. He instituted the Designated Player rule where each team has 3 slots to sign international stars to their roster, where only a certain amount of the players contract counts against the salary cap and the team pays the rest. This has brought in great international talent to the league including David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Juan Pablo Angel, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Freddie Ljungberg, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alvaro Fernandez.

But I think the best move he has made in total was signing with Adidas to market the league. This gave more boost to the youth development initiative where the best young collegiate and youth players going into the first year entry draft were given Generation Adidas status where the company would help them along the way in growing up as a professional. Other perks included outfitting the league with Adidas gear and have produced a fair amount of commercials with MLS players, giving the league great exposure.

What lies ahead for the MLS?

After the addition of teams into the soccer-crazed areas of Portland and Seattle, plus the addition of three Canadian teams in Montreal (2012 they begin play), Toronto and Vancouver, the league has surfaced to 19 teams. Garber has been keen on adding a 20th team into the league by 2013, while secretly hoping the New York Cosmos group can come through with a legitimate plan to enter the league. And the fact that San Jose and Houston are building soccer specific stadiums leaves only D.C. United and New England Revolution playing in NFL stadiums. Plus the Generation Adidas initiative has worked well in the past few seasons and teams are developing and signing their youth players is great (in addition to paying for the players education so they can take college courses when the season is not in session). People are starting to ask what is next for the league? We know that the league is fairly stable and teams are now making money so what does that go towards. I have been pondering this for awhile and here are some ideas that I have that could help the league become stronger.

Even though the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified before last season (good things too because it would be a bad thing for another American professional sports league in money issues), I think the salary cap should be raised a little. Obviously with the DP rule and the Homegrown player rule (signing an academy player to a professional contract) has done wonders for the league, but operating with a budget of about $2.6 for 30 players is a little low. Raising the budget can allow for a little better talent to come in and give players the contracts they deserve. I'm not saying make a drastic change but maybe a half-a-million more per year could help. Next thing is to get New England and D.C. ownership moving on getting a SSS. RFK stadium is a dump and I know that if the Kraft Family continues to own the Revs, they will always play in Foxboro but c'mon guys. Your team wants a new stadium, your supporters want a new stadium (Revs fans walked out of a match recently in protest of the delay), get on it or seriously consider your position in the league. Also I would have to say move Chivas USA to San Diego. I know the current owners are against it but every time the team plays an exhibition there, they get great results. The goats have been in the shadow of the Galaxy ever since the beginning of their existence in LA and if they truly want their So-Cal team, San Diego is begging for a team, give the people what they want.

Finally, I know this whole Cosmos for MLS2013 is beginning to be a big deal, if it happens, fine. But don't even think about having aleague of more than 20 teams. Show me one successful top-level league that has more than 20 teams and I will stop, but until then, it is crazy to think that. If all these other cities want an MLS franchise, I think there is a reasonable solution to it. And before you say it, the league is against a promotion-relegation system but there is a way around it. I think the MLS has the resources to unify all second level and third level USSF teams (in the current NASL and USL Pro) and make a MLS2. Then, you can make a 24 team league (modeling after the Football League system in England) and do what you want with it. Developing the lower leagues in America can only help us as a soccer nation in talent depth. And hey, who knows, give some cities a chance to host a team and get MLS benefits (Bridgeport, CT anyone...I would love a team there and with the soccer history in that city, why not). But unifying the lower leagues would be a benefit for us and maybe it would help Canada develop their amateur/semi-pro league system and everybody would be happy.

In the end, the league has been on the way up and even with a smashing of the league's All-Star team last night against Manchester United, the beautiful game has made an great impact on the nation and can only go up from here.
JJ Duke

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