Formed in 1996, Major League Soccer is the new kid on the block in world football. I caught up with my fellow contributors at Post2Post Football to gauge the global view of Major League Soccer. We discussed Relegation, Transfer Policy, and MLS Supporters.
Major League Soccer will never be the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, or the Bundesliga. Those are five of the most popular and successful leagues on the planet. The MLS must find its own identity and carve out its own history as the top flight of American Soccer. From a global point of view, the MLS needs to make some fundamental changes to attract both players and viewers to every match.
Perception of Major League Soccer
As an American I have a slightly unfavorable perception of the MLS. The league has grown leaps and bound from the first match played between D.C. United and San Jose Clash in 1996. The quality of play has improved steadily with each season but the players are nowhere near as skilled as their European counterparts. Too often the MLS seems to be a “retirement” league where mega stars from Europe (Beckham, Kaka, Gerrard, etc.) come to soak up the sun and collect a paycheck. The MLS must stop purchasing “names” that are in the twilight of their careers and instead look to bringing in young, exciting players that are hungry to succeed.
My colleagues had a wide range of opinions of the perception of Major League Soccer. Opinions ranged from total apathy to semi-favorable and even optimism and intrigue. The way the MLS is marketed is a major issue:
“The way the league markets itself both in its original form as a novelty entertainment for soccer moms and its current middle-class hipster demographic leaves me cold…It’s the best league playing on it’s calendar.”
I couldn’t agree more with Janssen McCormick; the failure of Major League Soccer to stop playing league matches during International breaks must be stopped. The lack of promotion and relegation caused Mike Jones to scoff at the MLS:
“No relegation is absolutely ridiculous”
The perception of Major League Soccer is swayed mainly due to how the league is marketed and the lack of Pro/Rel.
While Major League Soccer has massive room for improvement there are some positives about the fledgling league. The opportunities available for young talent are improving each season according to McCormick:
“The playing time afforded to young players and academies in MLS have significantly improved the quality of CONCACAF as a whole.”
Conor Dunford notes that the foreign players that have come to MLS have been exciting to watch whether they are performing well or falling flat on their faces:
“Watching average PL and Serie A players absolutely tear it up there (Sebastian Giovinco) and watching some completely fail (Guly Do Prado).”
Odhran Fox also cites the “good variety of American players” such as Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Jozy Altidore, and others as a reason to be positive about Major League Soccer. The quality on the pitch may be lacking but the passion of the supporters exceeds expectations according to Mike Jones:
“Good, loyal fans, and great attendance.”
The MLS can be proud of their massive fan support; Atlanta United continues to set attendance records for home matches. The Georgia club broke their own attendance record on March 11th when United defeated D.C. United 3-1 behind a crowd of 72,035. The match was the third in the club’s brief history to exceed 70,000 in attendance.
The perception of MLS teams is a major detractor for the league. Odhran Fox makes an excellent observation about the manufactured nature of MLS clubs:
“Footballing clubs historically are built from the ground up, MLS are mere franchises looking to be money-making machines.”
The issue of clubs ownership is another strike against Major League Soccer, as indicated by Janssen McCormick:
“Ownership of the league as a whole; whether it’s the single entity how they handle their transfers or Garber’s support of the Crew’s abortive move to Austin.”
Instead of operating as an association of independently owned clubs, the MLS is owned by a single entity of investors. MLS Transfer policy is quite confounding as well. American players can find the allocation ranking part of the transfer process especially frustrating. The Allocation ranking consists of a list of USMNT players, youth US internationals, and former MLS players returning to the MLS, typically from a European league. The Allocation Ranking order rewards the clubs that finish at the bottom of the league table. Clearly the MLS followed the model of the National Football League. In the NFL, the team that finished last gets first pick in the NFL Draft and the order continues along those lines, with the champion picking last.
The Crew’s proposed move from Columbus, Ohio to Austin, Texas is a hot button topic for MLS supporters. The move would see the MLS lose one of its founding clubs. The Crew have competed in the MLS since the league began play in 1996.
I am dumbfounded that the MLS refuses to entertain the idea of relegation to the league. Every significant league has some form of Pro/Rel. Conor Dunford found Major League Soccer’s failure to include relegation quite odd:
“No fear of failure will ever cause the worst teams to improve.”
The fear of being relegated is what sets soccer apart from other American sports. If relegation were introduced in the NFL the Cleveland Browns would find themselves 3 leagues below their fellow NFL franchises. The Browns consistently finish in the bottom of the NFL standings and have only won 4 out of their last 32 games, including only one win this past season.
Even MLS players are fed up with the failure of the league to entertain the inclusion of relegation. When a club is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention the remaining matches become unexciting to players and supporters:
“Those games are dumb at the end of the year where we haven’t made the playoffs…People tune out…Fans tune out.”
The above quote obtained from the MLS anonymous player survey is quite damning for Major League Soccer. Failing to introduce Pro/Rel will cause the MLS to lose valuable fan support.
The MLS strives to be a top league and have made significant steps during the 22 years of existence. Fan support for clubs like Atlanta United should be the goal for Major League Soccer. However, if the MLS does not include Pro/Rel in the near future the league will take a significant step backwards in its development.