Beginning play in 1996, Major League Soccer (MLS) was founded because FIFA made the US promise to establish a soccer league in exchange for the US hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The beginning of the MLS was rough, including losing an estimated $250 million over its first five years. The young league experimented frequently with rules and whether or not to “Americanize” the game with features such as penalty shootouts to break ties and a clock counting down instead of the standard up-counting clock featured in most of the world.
In recent years, the MLS has grown a lot, and there are many reasons for this. For one, the US Mens National Team has performed well on an international level, advancing past the group stage of the World Cup in three of their last four appearances. The “Americanized” rule changes I just mentioned were also eliminated from play in 1999. European players such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry have spent the tail end of their careers in the MLS, trying to help promote the “Beautiful Game” in the States. A huge change, in my opinion, has been the creation of soccer-specific stadiums instead of american football stadiums. This has also led to the addition of expansion franchises in cities that don’t have an NFL team.
However, despite all the growth that the MLS has gone through, which I admit is impressive for a sport that until recently had been more of an elementary school sport than a professional one, to this day there are still a variety of problems plaguing the MLS, that if fixed I believe would lead to a better received league with a stronger international reputation along with more domestic fans in the US.
As you will see with the majority of this list, I tend to believe that instead of “Americanizing” the MLS, the league should do everything it can to “Europe-ize.” Why? Because Europe has been using a proven system that has worked for a century. Through all this time the major european leagues have already done the trial and error and all big leagues have basically reached the same conclusion about how a league should be set up. Plus, a more familiar league system would draw more international fans, as well as American fans who currently prefer to watch more prestigious leagues, such as the Barclays Premier League, La Liga BBVA, and the Bundesliga.
Here are the six biggest problems with the MLS, along with what I believe are reasonable and effective solutions that would benefit the league.
1) Get Rid of Conferences: What I don’t really get is why a two conference system was implemented in the first place. The only real reason must be to create a system more similar to American sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA. However, conference systems work in these leagues because teams play rivals, division, and conference teams more often than other teams, leading these teams to be ranked separately from other teams. In soccer, each team plays every other team home and away, which means there is no real use for conferences but to complicate the process of ranking teams. For instance, Portland Timbers, who are seventh in the eastern conference, have just as many points as New York Red Bulls, fourth place in the western conference. Also, the conferences have an uneven number of teams since the league is still expanding and has 19 teams, unlike the even number used by most of the world.
2) No Playoffs: Again, soccer is just one of those sports where it is custom to not have a playoff. The best team during the regular season wins, and the spots that would be playoff spots go to spots in things such as the Champions League. The teams that finish in the bottom of the league get relegated. In most sports, teams don’t play home and away against every team which is why it is necessary to give the best teams a chance to prove their superiority over teams they don’t typically play. Just like the problems with conferences, the scheduling of soccer just doesn’t suit the idea of playoffs, as every team faces the same competition in the regular season, so the regular season standings should make it clear who the best teams are.
3) Transfer Window Problems: One big problem with American soccer in general is that while most leagues are truly are global leagues, with dozens of countries being represented, very few Americans play in Europe and very few non-North American players play in the MLS. One big reason behind is the transfer window. Every league that follows FIFA regulations has an up to 12 week window where players are eligible to be traded and loaned out to other teams, along with an up to four week window during the season which follows the same rules. The problem is that the MLS’ transfer window doesn’t line up with that of most major leagues, which makes it extremely difficult for MLS players to move to Europe and vice-versa. This could be switched by over the course of a few years slowly modifying the season start and end times so that over time the transfer window can match most big european leagues.
4) Include Promotion/Relegation and Create a Fixed League Size: MLS has been rapidly expanding since its creation, and have added four teams since 2010, growing the league size to 19 teams. Most leagues cap off at 18-20 teams worldwide. Some leagues have up to 24 teams, but these leagues such as the FL Championship, are not top tier leagues. The MLS is set to grow to 21 teams next season, and a 22nd team has been given to Atlanta to join in 2017. Miami seems to also be in the process of being awarded an expansion team which would grow the league to 23 teams. With so many teams joining, questions must be asked about the intentions of the league and where we will cap off. Is the MLS trying to create a 30-team league used by the likes of the NBA, MLB, and NHL? This system would create many problems with scheduling, and would jeopardize the reputation of the league, in my opinion. The smart move would be to grow to attempt to at some point in time, branch out into 2 tiers, and implement the promotion and relegation system that has worked so well worldwide. For one, it ends the practice of tanking, as such actions would lead to a demotion or relegation into a second tier league. This increases competition in the league, and allows for domestic cups such as the F.A. Cup system in England. England should be used as a guide for this expansion process, as the English Football League system is comprised of around 7000 teams and 24 levels, even including multiple leagues on many levels.
5) Establish Youth Academies: A main part of the player development in the world is through the process of youth academies, where kids, sometimes still elementary school aged that have potential are guided through their growth by professional clubs in hope of one day being good enough to be promoted to the professional team. Instead, the MLS opts for a draft where the best college players are drafted to MLS teams. This hurts player growth because by the time players begin playing professional soccer, they are 22 years old, many years are wasted that now have to be spent developing the players. By the time they are 25-26 years old, they don’t have as high a ceiling and are less valuable. In international leagues, top players are promoted between the ages of 16 and 19, and are typically loaned out to lower level teams to get valuable professional experience so that they can become ready to play top level soccer for some of the best teams in the world. MLS players drafted out of college don’t get the experience of being groomed into the systems of top teams or gaining professional experience at a young age.
6) The Lack of Big Name Teams and Rivalries: Much of this has to do with the fact that the MLS as a league is very young and simply hasn’t had the time to develop real big name teams such as European greats like FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich and Manchester United. The rivalries such as FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid, and Manchester United vs Manchester City do not exist. In american football terms, there is no New York Giants vs Philadelphia Eagles, or Chicago Bears vs Green Bay Packers. MLS doesn’t have a legacy where when a fan goes to a game they know the teams have bad blood and even if the teams are struggling, this game is valued more than any other. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to fixing this besides time. Rivalries have to be created by players, such as the Magic Johnson’s Lakers vs. Larry Bird’s Celtics rivalries, and are sustained over time. The MLS will see its popularity rise if it can create a rivalry anywhere near some of the greatest rivalries in sports.
Overall, I’m proud of what the MLS has done, as it is slowly but surely becoming a more recognizable league. I just want it to keep improving so that more people will become interested in the league so that over time the MLS and North American soccer will grow to rival that of the biggest soccer nations in the world. And that will only happen if the MLS makes some much needed changes.
What do you think? Should the MLS moving to a more European system or should it continue to experiment with new ways of organizing a professional soccer league? Any comments and opinions are welcome.
Thanks for reading,