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Has MLS Unwittingly Installed An Impenetrable Glass Ceiling?

Friday 24th February 2017
From a political perspective, Americans try to set the program rather than get with it. Quite often you'll hear some politician claim America doesn't want to be the world's policeman. This, of course, is a lie. We so want to not only enforce the law but write it. Plus, we love uniforms.

Take a look at Superman. Here's an American literary figure, to use the term loosely. Kal-El is an alien from another planet who assumes responsibility as Earth's protector. Operative word being Earth. And how did Hollywood choose to describe that role? "Fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way."

If the rest of the world wants to survive, it's our way or the highway. For all our boasting regarding democracy and freedom, the powerful elite in the US are as desperate to be in control as Communist China or the formerly Soviet, now oligarchic, Russian Federation. If the world doesn't want to play by American rules, we Yanks will pick up their ball and go home.

You read that right, not America's ball, but the world's. We'll take what's yours, make it ours, and leave you standing there, scratching your head, wondering what's just happened.

The sentiment even applies literally to football. When the original North American Soccer League briefly rivaled top European and South American leagues in the mid-to-late 1970s, it did so by poaching all the best players in their prime: Pelé, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Johan Cruyff, Georgie Best, Vladislav Bogićević, et cetera. The NASL took those players, their game, and did its best to Americanize them. Cosmos stars made gossip columns in New York dailies, albeit not for their exploits on the pitch, rather their nightly debauchery at the notorious Studio 54 discotheque.

Playing rules were changed to suit an American audience. For instance, draws were outlawed. Level scores were decided by timed one v ones between outfield players and keepers rather than through penalties. But you know that one if you've been paying attention to Marco van Basten recently.

Here's one you may not have heard. The points system for the NASL table awarded six for a win and one for each of the first three goals made to encourage more scoring. Because the original saying was "as American as hot dogs, apple pie, and really big numbers." Most telling, however, the black pentagons on the era's traditional ball became red white and blue stars.
Major League Soccer originally traveled down a similar road when it debuted following the 1994 US World Cup. It signed big stars such as Barcelona's great Bulgarian, Hristo Stoichkov, and Italian Roberto Donadoni, albeit when they were further along their careers' downhill side than NASL imports. The new league even revived the weird tie-break rule. To further complicate MLS' tiebreaker, an outfield player fouled by the goalkeeper during the one v one would be awarded, in that great American Bob Bradley's alleged words, a PK (see this video's 2.32 mark).

Thankfully, however, the beautiful game is more resilient than some nations caught between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping may turn out to be. MLS eventually agreed to adopt identical match rules to every other  FIFA-sanctioned league in order to (hopefully) attract foreign players still sufficiently talented to have World Cup dreams.

Nonetheless, Commissioner Don Garber and MLS club owners continue to chart an independent path in certain other respects, namely the league's summer-based calendar, refusal to implement promotion and relegation, its imbalanced wage structure, and single-entity business model. Critics repeatedly point to these differences as self-inflicted barriers to the league's stated desire to be among the world's best. Their proponents deem them necessary to compete in the crowded American sporting market.

Are these policies really holding MLS back? One by one, let's take a look.

The Summer Based Calendar

Heat and humidity are admittedly less than ideal conditions for a 10K endurance run. That's why the Boston and New York marathons are held in spring and autumn respectively. Some footballers run as far as ten kilometers in a match, usually twice a week. Doing so while a blazing sun rapidly dehydrates their bodies risks injury and therefore returns from money invested in players. It also slows play, delivering an inferior product.

Unfortunately, playing in sub-zero temperatures and frequent blizzards places players at further risk for injury and reduces match quality to a far greater degree than summer weather. Winter matches are also far less comfortable for fans, affecting gate receipts. This is why American football's college bowls and the NFL's Super Bowl, all held in January and February, are played in warm-weather or indoor venues. North American winters are far more severe than conditions in western Europe. Unless the North American game moves entirely to domed stadia with artificial turf, it is necessary for MLS to play a summer calendar.
Summer scheduling does complicate transfers to and from Europe but MLS is not alone in staging an uncoordinated calendar. Brazil's Campeonato runs from May (just as European leagues are winding down) to December. There is no winter in Brazil but the southern hemisphere's summer, January to March, is far more taxing than North America's. Even though their schedule also disagrees with UEFA, Brazilian clubs have never suffered logistically in doing business with European clubs. Why should MLS?

Verdict: The calendar is a non-issue.

Promotion and Relegation

American sports fans are not as tribal as their South American and European football cousins. New Jersey governor and noted Trump acolyte Chris Christie is an avowed Dallas Cowboys fan despite his voting bloc being geographically situated between and equally divided among New York Giant and Philadelphia Eagles supporters. Miami-based teams typically find as many fans wearing visiting teams' colors when clubs from the Northeast are in town. Many locals are New York, Boston, Philly, Toronto, and Montreal natives.

With rare exception, fans wearing enemy jerseys are tolerated. There is no need for cordoned traveling sections. In dividing their loyalties like non-league supporters who also root for a Football League side, most American fans see no need for promotion or relegation. They will go to local minor league hockey or baseball games but also support a major league franchise. There is room for both, with no need for either to change leagues.

This suits club owners to a tee. Let's face it. The issue here is financial ramifications for going down, not any lost opportunity to climb higher. Without relegation's threat, owners are virtually guaranteed to make money. Wealthy people don't stay rich by taking huge risks.

Relegation is next to inevitable, even for the biggest clubs. In Europe, only Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Hamburg SV, and Internazionale have avoided relegation from the continent's elite competitions. Giants like Manchester United, Bayern, Juventus, and Milan have all suffered the drop. Arsenal are the longest surviving top flight English club, having not been relegated since 1913. But they have been relegated. Celtic and Aberdeen have never gone down, although it can be argued Scottish football on the whole has.

Even when their American club is in a small market, suffers from poor attendance, and has a bad television deal, the limited availability of top flight franchises means owners will realize a profit on their investment when they sell, whereas an owner who buys a struggling Premier League club may quickly find his investment yielding limited returns in a smaller market.
Similarly, relegation's absence offers a measure of job security for talented players. Look at Christian Benteke, Jermain Defoe, and Jamie Vardy. All three are facing relegation at season's end. Do they accept reduced wages to compete in the Championship or seek out a new top flight club? In Defoe and Vardy's case, will there be suitors? If so, are those suitors likely to be other bottom-half or newly promoted sides probably facing relegation battles themselves in the next campaign? Coming to an MLS club (again in Defoe's case) would afford all three the rare but comforting knowledge they will be able to see out their contract without having to continually relocate or separate from their families.

Competitively speaking, promotion and relegation's chaos adds some interest for fans. Its absence offers much greater stability for players, owners, and sponsors looking to invest in MLS. Active interests will always supersede passive. Reward will always be favored over risk. Promotion and relegation is simply against MLS' best interest and will therefore never be implemented.

Verdict:  This is the second non-issue in Major League Soccer's growth.

Major League Soccer's (not so) hard salary cap

As with everything else, money is the deal breaker.

Imagine going into a Vegas casino. A hostess seats you at a table with, say, a $1,000 maximum buy-in. Sizing up the competition, you see five players wearing name tags reading Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, La Liga and EPL. They already have several times your paltry thousand in their stacks. The player just to your right, Liga MX, has a comparatively limited two grand or so. Now, if you aren't already, imagine you're a tight player. You've promised yourself you're going to try to keep pots small. You won't go all-in willy-nilly. Instead, you plan to build your stack slowly without ever risking it all. You'll make some big bets now and then, but only on monster hands, and you won't be too aggressive with the big stacks if you can help it. Rather, you'll focus on the short stacks, and, for now, only play serious hands with your nearest neighbor, Liga MX. If you can put yourself in that scenario, you, my friend, are Major League Soccer, especially when it comes to salary structure.

Soon after inception, the league quickly learned the bankrupted original NASL's free-spending ways were not going to provide a foothold in the game, much less make up ground on the established European leagues. During its first eight years, MLS' clubs collectively lost an estimated $300 million. Even more so than the projects in Chicago and Detroit, a third of a billion dollars is a neighborhood to avoid. To survive, MLS set a hard salary cap on players. I'm not talking Welsh coal miner hard, but most players needed off-season jobs to make ends meet.
When the situation stabilized, the league decided against raising wages across the board, instead allowing each team to sign three "designated players" whose salary above the first $335,000 is not counted against the wage cap. Sometimes called the Beckham rule, the result is you have an honest, hardworking grafter, making less in a year than his average counterpart in the Premier League realizes in a week, passing the ball to a well-past-his-prime-legend whose celebrity rather than performance commands an annual salary in the millions.

"Give me the ball, piss boy."

"Yessir, Mr Pirlo, sir!"

Especially in a blatantly capitalist society, it's difficult to develop team unity when there is such disparity among equals. While the players union has fought to raise wages and establish free agency in the only American competition without it in the contemporary era, some clubs have learned their lessons with regard to signing over-the-hill stars no longer able to play in Europe. Toronto FC came within penalty kicks of their first MLS Cup by signing two American national team players, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, and diminutive Italian dynamo Sebastian Giovinco as their DPs. All three are in their prime, yet to turn thirty. Toronto lost the title to Seattle Sounders, a club struggling for much of the year. After losing their fading star Clint Dempsey to a heart ailment, Sounders replaced him with twenty-seven-year-old Uruguayan number ten Nicholas Lodeiro. The young guns are delivering better results than the old farts. Who knew?

While the new DP doesn't always offer David Villa or Didier Drogba's marketing power, their younger legs yield better results on the pitch for more equitable wages. As more clubs in the league adopt a youthful DP strategy, it should raise the quality of play and allow younger American footballers to close the gap on other countries.
The $64 million question is whether owners will be willing to pay more comparable wages to prevent domestic talent from crossing the Atlantic? League Commissioner Don Garber repeatedly says MLS wishes to someday rival Europe's best competitions. Yet, none American (or Canadian) clubs will ever become Man Uniteds or Real Madrids when their best players require a year to make what Ashley Young and Marco Asensio collect in a week. Like it or not, American sides will eventually have to pay to play.

Verdict: MLS salary structure is holding it back.

Doing business as a single entity

Originally, MLS' most vested owners, notably Philip Anschutz and the late Lamar Hunt, held interests in more than one club. Especially after the NASL's spectacular failure, there simply wasn't sufficient confidence the game could be a profitable venture in the US to attract individual owners for each club in the fledgling league.

Today, there is. Still, Major League Soccer remains the only competition whose owners are a collective in the full business sense. While NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB owners all share profits to some degree, none are liable for another's losses. In fact, the notion one could be financially responsible for a competitor's incompetence is offensive to most American business owners.

MLS' business model is a strange blend between capitalism and communism. On the one hand, players' salaries are assigned to their club and may be traded to other MLS clubs for "allocation" money. On the other, players are contracted to the league, not individual clubs. When a player is loaned or sold to a foreign club, the entire league shares in the proceeds. Obviously, this promotes a healthy, balanced league.

Eventually, though, MLS will no longer wish to be a selling league, and there are issues with incoming players. When former Bundesliga star Jermaine Jones came to MLS from Beşiktaş in 2014, Chicago Fire negotiated his contract and believed they had a deal. Only, the league was obliged by its rules to offer every club an opportunity to bid. New England Revolution came in at the last minute, forcing the league to basically flip a coin. Despite having done no heavy lifting and being an undesired destination for the player, the Revs won. Even though Jones preferred to play for Chicago, his only option was New England if he wanted to play in the US. MLS has since revised its allocation rules regarding elite players from foreign clubs but the process remains less than transparent.
While MLS is an attractive option for players like Kaká, Andrea Pirlo, and Steven Gerrard, looking for one last payday, or Sebastian Giovinco, an immensely talented but undersized star seeking to be taken seriously, as the league grows, there will come a time when more stars will find it a desirable destination. Used to free movement, such players will seek to join specific clubs, to live in preferred cities. MLS' current set-up does not allow that. In order to take the next evolutionary step to elite global status, to be on a par with the Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga, competing equally for the same players, MLS may one day need to change its business model.

Verdict: To compete with top UEFA leagues, MLS must grant its clubs independence.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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