Monday, September 12, 2005
About a month ago, in the wake of the Gold Cup and the series of matches between MLS clubs and some famous European clubs (and Fulham), I wrote an article likening America to teenagers in our footballing development. I argued that, like most teenagers, we have aspirations of reaching adulthood immediately, if not sooner, because in most other sporting endeavors we are among the world's powers even if the mass market doesn't give a crap about that sport on a day-to-day basis.

At the end of that article, I promised that it would not just be empty criticism of the state of American soccer, I would follow-up with a second article about what we might be able to do to supplement the most important factor - time.

Time for the development of the generations that were inspired by seeing a World Cup on our own soil; by the development of MLS; by the availability of more matches on TV via ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel, and GolTV; and by the presence of compelling American role models like Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda, Eddie Pope. At long last, here is that article.

One note before I start; the majority of this article has been written for the better part of a month, but due to a number of other things, including the start of European domestic leagues, it got temporarily moved down the order here at YA.

In the meantime I had the good fortune to have an excellent e-mail conversation with Jamie Trecker of FoxSoccerChannel about a article[endlink] that he wrote about what MLS should do to take a next step forward. Rather than inundate you with the specifics of that conversation, I will summarize it for you and encourage you to click on the link above and read his article as well.

You'll find that he and I don't necessarily agree on specific tactics that might improve things on the MLS level. I think we both agreed that there's plenty of work to be done and that some new thinking on the part of US Soccer, MLS and the soccer press here in the US needs to come to the fore. Before moving on, I'd like to thank him for both the time he spent going back and forth with me over some of the issues as well as his permission to use the contents and spirit of that discussion as part of this article - thanks, Jamie.

So, without further ado, here is what I would suggest to US Soccer and MLS if they came to me for advice.


Let's face it... CONCACAF isn't very good. The US Men's National Team are a big fish in a little pond. The USMNT is Landon Donovan and CONCACAF is MLS - able to dominate, but unlikely to improve in a watered down environment.

Obviously, the World Cup gives us an opportunity to test ourselves against better competition every four years, but if that is "the real thing", what opportunities are we giving our players to prepare for the real thing? Friendlies against England's third choice squad? Gold Cup matches against Cuba?

Not good enough.

Noted business author Michael Porter has a theory related to international development that states that world class companies generally develop out of extremely competitive environments. Technology companies in Silicon Valley, automobile manufacturers in Detroit and Germany, and consumer electronics makers in Japan and now Korea are merely a few examples of this phenomenon.

One of the major factors he attributes this to is the presence of a "high bar" to aim at when looking at how one is doing. The Red Sox look inside their own division and realize that they will be forced to compete with the Yankees and they push themselves harder. Google, when it formed, looked down the road and saw the large lead that Yahoo had in search technology and realized that it has to do something extra special if they were to attract talented employees and compete for investment dollars.
CONCACAF clearly isn't going to force us to improve into dominaters. No, if we want to get to the next level of global competition, we need to look further south for better competition.

In the Americas, we have the best team in the world in Brazil. Throw in CONMEBOL standouts Argentina, Columbia, Uruguay, and Paraguay and the fixture list looks very impressive indeed. Now, given the bureaucratic nature of FIFA, I have no doubt that combining the two federations would take longer than Social Security Reform so I'm not really willing to count that as a reachable goal.

On the other hand, a regular commitment by US Soccer to play in and occasionally host the Copa America would be a giant step forward. Why? I can think of three reasons off the top of my head.

1. Competition - there would be more of it and that's a good thing.

2. Continuity - a bi-annual schedule of major competitions would give USMNT candidates more chances to shine in legitimately big situations. For instance, I'd feel a lot better about World Cup 2010 if Freddy Adu, Jon Spector, Santino Quaranta, Zak Whitbread, Marvel Wynne, et al. had major tournament experience playing together in the 2008 Copa America.

3. Coverage - it is admittedly hard to get mainstream US media outlets to cover soccer, but you have to think that it would be more compelling if the highlights from the game included the flair and skill of the Brazilians or Argentineans more often. As a country, we get excited about two things - incredible skill and slaying giants. We do not get excited about beating up on minnows like Panama and Costa Rica.

Why would the powers of South America agree to this? Certainly, the possibility of losing out to the big, bad Americans in yet another sport isn't a pleasant thought for them, but two things would probably motivate them. In the short term, the Brazils and Argentinas of the world would have a chance to beat up on us on a regular basis, and I'm guessing that your average Brazilian or Argentinean would enjoy that.

The second one is simple: money. Even though soccer isn't that popular here in the US, the opportunity to sell the rights to English language media outlets and having US Soccer bidding to host the event from time to time would mean more money all the way around.

Now that we've given US Soccer a major task to help accelerate the evolutionary process that is already in full-swing, let's turn our attention to MLS.

First, I'd like to say that I think MLS has done a good job - if I were a professor, I'd give them a solid B for their first 10 years. They capitalized on World Cup '94 and have created a viable sports league in a country with endless entertainment options.

If you think this is easy, just ask the nice people at who ran the NASL, WUSA or XFL. The WNBA isn't doing nearly as well as MLS despite being completely bankrolled by the NBA. Heck, ask the people at the NHL who nearly destroyed their league despite the fact that they had a pretty good TV contract.

My point is that starting up a sports league is hard work and they've done well to settle for incremental gains, attract new investors and sponsors and spend based on current revenues, not crazy projections of future revenues or conditions.

In his article, Trecker pointed out that one of the issues with MLS is that they are unwilling to pay their players more money - thereby limiting the quality of players available now and the perception of the opportunity available via MLS for young athletes. While neither point is incorrect, I think the notion of spending more money without the benefit of more revenue first would start MLS heading the way of the NASL.

At the same time, I agree with his thesis that the quality of play needs to go up before anyone should expect attendance and revenues to increase significantly. My suggestion...

Loan Relationships

One of the major complaints that constantly comes up related to MLS is the low level of technical skill that is displayed across the board. American players are regularly praised for their fitness and tenacity but rarely for their skill. More often than not, MLS is a league of Frankie Hejduks as opposed to Zidanes, Ronaldinhos, or Henrys.

Since MLS is not in the financial position to acquire world class players at the peak of their careers, they tend to find major stars on the downside of their careers. There is nothing wrong with this tactic, but why not try it from the other side as well? Major League Baseball franchises send promising players to winter leagues in Latin America and Arizona all the time.

I was interviewing John Harkes recently for our YA Ketchup feature and he specifically identified MLS being a summer league - with all the heat and humidity that brings with it - as one of the reasons behind the up and down quality of play in the league. As someone who just finished playing in a summer league in Washington, DC, I appreciate the argument.

However, since MLS seems unlikely to improve its lot in life by asking fans to watch matches in the cold or by competing against the NFL, college football, the NBA, and college basketball, why not turn the fact that MLS is a summer league into a virtue? Go to some of the big clubs in Europe and propose development deals.

My proposal would be that each MLS team create three "developmental" playing slots and one coaching slot for their European partner and those clubs would loan out promising players from their youth and reserve ranks. The European clubs would get a testing ground for young players and coaches. Reserve and youth matches are fine and dandy, but pitting these young guys against well-conditioned adult players playing for a meaningful championship in front of (occasionally) large crowds would certainly be a better developmental experience for them.

Perhaps more importantly, these MLS partner clubs would gain another avenue as they try to crack the ever-illusive American market.

For the past few summers, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Manchester United, Chelsea and others have come to the States on preseason tours in an effort to build their base of American supporters interested in buying scarves, replica jerseys, posters and pay-per-view matches. The next stage in this strategy should be to give the American audience a deeper relationship with some of the players who will eventually make it to the San Siro, Bernebeu, or the Theatre of Dreams.

MLS, for their part, might have to suck up their pride and admit that they're not really a first tier league on the world stage yet (but if they haven't admitted that to themselves yet then they've been drinking way too much of their own Kool-Aid). What they would get would be an infusion of technical skill and talent.

Not only would it be good for fans to leave more MLS games saying "do you believe that shot?" or "I wonder if that defender has found his jock yet" - but it would also raise the bar for American players. We would essentially be importing some part of the experience of playing abroad.

Imagine a summer of watching Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Quincy Owusu-Abeiyie (Arsenal), Jon Obi Mikel (Lyn, at least for now), Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham) and Florent Sinama Pongolle (Liverpool). I know I'd get myself to RFK even more often if I knew those guys were going to be on display.

By including coaches in this scheme, we would also add to the number of coaches exposed to soccer in the States. MLS seems to recycle the same few coaching candidates when head coaching jobs become available. Increasing the pool of up and coming coaches who have been exposed to MLS would yield nothing but positives. These would include a wider variety of techniques, a deeper pool of candidates who realize that the US isn't the footballing boonies, and more relationships between US players and coaches hooked into the European scene.

I have one final comment on why MLS should create developmental partnerships with European clubs - expansion. If MLS intends to expand to 18 or 20 teams, and the powers-that-be at MLS have referred to this goal before, then they need to bring in more talent from anywhere they can find it. The talent is already spread pretty thin. If the league increases another 50% things will go downhill quickly if we don't find new sources of talent.

So there you have them, one major recommendation for MLS and one for US Soccer.

I'm sure that there are many other things that both organizations could do to accelerate their evolutions, but as a veteran of trying to drive change and innovation within companies, I think that one major project at a time is about all that either of these organizations can handle right now.

If they were so ambitious as to undertake another improvement each, it would be nice if they got together and work out a way to schedule things so that MLS teams don't play half their games without their best players. The fixture list in Europe is much more crowded and they seem to find ways to accommodate everyone. Is it really that hard, guys?

Now that you've heard what I have to say on the topic, I'd like to hear what ideas you have to improve either MLS or US Soccer. If you have something you'd like to share with the class, feel free to§ion=generaldrop us a line[endlink].

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