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Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Since the '94 World Cup, it has been fantastic, as a European, to watch how the American public seems to be growing a taste for "our" kind of football.

MLS is drawing crowds that can easily compete with some European leagues, and with the additions of Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake in 2005, and Toronto in 2007, plus a line of cities hoping for further expansion opportunities, the future of the league looks bright enough.

Still, with the same European eyes, it is difficult not to look at MLS as a bit of an odd entity. Leaving alone the contract and transfer rules, the format of the tournament itself seems strange.

Of course, it's just a variation of the traditional US pro sports format; divide the league's teams into two conferences with some geographical logic to them and let the best of each conference play the big final against each other. But is this necessarily right for soccer?

Sure, it works in other sports, but the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB all represent the very best in their respective sports. They are the leagues you want to be in, and so their evolution is ensured by a steady influx of talent from around the world.

MLS cannot claim that kind of status. Neither can any other soccer league in the world, for that matter.

For now, an expansion from time to time keeps the league evolving, but these changes may also have a negative effect on the league. If you expand the league while the talent base, mainly college players, remains more or less the same, the effect could be like making a perfectly flavored snow cone and then adding more snow.

Even if league expansion doesn't water out the quality of the game, it will ultimately reach a size, probably at 20-24 teams, where there is just no more room for expansion. Then what? How can the league keep evolving with no further room for expansion?

The league is unlikely to attract any European talent with the present format. It's just too... well... American. Even if MLS salaries were attractive enough - and I believe that some day they will be - a closed one-league system just does not provide the same level of competition.

With the best US players crossing the Atlantic to try their luck in Europe, something will have to be done to get more European, Latin American and African talents to take their place and raise the standard of the league.

So, what exactly is wrong with MLS from a European point of view? I would divide the problem in two: the natural limitation on the number of teams and the tournament format, meaning regular season plus playoffs.

The main difference between US and European leagues is that the European leagues consist not only of the top division. The English league, for example, has four divisions with a total of no fewer than 92 teams, all of which, in theory, can compete for the championship or end up in a lower division depending on results.

Add to that the Conference League and a number of lower regional division whose teams can also qualify for the league, and then compare the number to the 13 teams that make up MLS as of 2007.

In the good old days, before big money ruled European soccer, this system of promotion and relegation was what let the leagues evolve and spared the fans of watching the same teams play the same games year after year after year, and to some extent it still does.

Who would have predicted Wigan's success in the Premiership last year, or Reading's this season?

A system of promotion and relegation in the US could raise the competitiveness within the league, as motivation is raised at all levels. Teams in lower leagues get the prospect of playing top flight soccer, and teams in the lower parts of the league have to fight to avoid relegation.

As it is, all you get for not making the playoffs is a higher spot in the draft order.

A higher level of competitiveness would in turn help make the league more attractive to foreign talent, which again helps the league evolve even further.

On top of that, there would actually be a point for US players in going to lower ranked teams and play there, rather than withering away in an MLS reserve squad or going to Europe to try their luck.

As it is, players who are ready to move on from MLS go to Europe for obvious reasons, while some players, who may not be quite good enough for MLS go to Europe because there really is no American alternative.

At present, there are five US players roaming the fields of the Swedish and Danish third flights. The standard here is certainly not much higher (if at all) than what the USL 1st and 2nd divisions can produce. Facilities are horrible, but the fact that any team from any level can be promoted ensures the relevance and competitiveness of the league.

It wouldn't even be a major change. If the top league is opened for promotion and relegation from and to the USL First and Second Divisions, I believe Major League Soccer could relatively soon be a strong tournament at level with some of the medium level European leagues like the Netherlands, Belgium or Portugal.

You might say that the standard of USL is too low to allow teams from there to qualify for MLS, and you might even be right, but you also have to ask why.

The simple answer is neglect. On a national level, no one really cares about those leagues. Even if a team wins the 1st division year after year, that is the end of the line, barring another MLS expansion, and it makes the USL largely irrelevant.

It's a shame, really, because the fans are actually there. The Montreal Impact and the Rochester Rhinos produced average home attendances for 2006 at 11,554 and 9,509, which is certainly enough to make most Scandinavian top flight clubs jealous.

Vancouver, Charleston, and Minnesota recorded somewhat more moderate numbers at 5,073, 3,168, and 2,886, which is still decent for lower division teams.

If relegation and promotion was introduced, it would be only a matter of time before the gap in quality would level out. Even if that level is slightly lower than today's MLS, the higher intensity would ultimately breed higher quality.

On to the playoff system; I know that I am moving into dangerous territory now, as the annual big final between the conference winners is a time-honored American tradition.

Don't get me wrong. I like a good final as much as the next guy. I haven't missed a Super Bowl since 1992, which is more than I can say for the Champions League final.

My problem with using a playoff system to find the league champion is that a team who has played a season at a consistent high level only has to play one bad game.

That one game will define their entire season, and even an undefeated regular season will be forgotten. As it is, the only reward the regular season winners get is a good playoff seeding.

On the other hand, a team who has had a mediocre season and finished eighth overall in regular season only has to play four good games to win the championship - to me that's a bit like taking a multiple choice test for a course you haven't studied for all semester and getting an A.

My final beef with the MLS playoffs is that it devalues the US Open Cup, which has the potential to be a great tournament.

With two big finals every year, one is bound to outshine the other as "the one that really counts". Looking at England again, the League Cup will never have the same status as the FA Cup. The FA Cup, however, is just as prestigious as the championship.

I believe that US league soccer has a lot of potential, but I also believe that the full potential cannot be reached with the present format.

"Americanization" has been a popular term in Europe over the last few decades for the influence American culture has had here. Maybe it's time to "Eurify" America a little.

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