BRENT LATHAM - Saturday, August 8, 2009
MLS has a big problem. The teams are living in a fantasy land.

Of course I could be talking about one hundred different issues, but in this case I'm referring to the consistently poor results in international tournaments. For evidence, look no further than the series of games in the CONCACAF Champions League this week.

First, Toronto was bounced from the competition when they failed to score a single goal against A-League team Puerto Rico. The next night, DC United survived a penalty kick shootout against a Salvadoran team. Then New York capped their embarrassing season with a humiliating home loss to a team from Trinidad and Tobago called W Connection.

In the meantime, MLS teams are lining up opponents Chelsea, Barcelona, and Real Madrid, and those in charge trumpet the legitimacy of the level of play in the league.

So in this, the "summer of American soccer," a troubling disconnect has emerged. While fans turned out in droves to see the best club teams in the world, and the national team – the Gold Cup notwithstanding - looks like finally becoming the competitive team supporters have always hoped for, America's professional teams continue to spin their wheels.

Like everyone who wants to see MLS do well because of its vital role in the development of the American game, I am still trying to avoid coming to the conclusion that the level of play in MLS is a total embarrassment, and I'm still not quite there. About half the time I tune in, I see what could be described as an entertaining match with decent tactics and play.

Still, while the national team continues to improve the consistency and quality of its performances and standing, and undeniably good American players are now making some headlines in the biggest leagues around the world, MLS teams continue to underperform almost every time they are given the chance on an international stage.

This has to stop.

The US can become a great soccer power – fielding a top level national team - without more help form the league. Producing the occasional Clint Dempsey or Carlos Bocanegra is probably enough to complement the American talent made in Europe, though obviously a league that cultivates more top level American talent will help things immeasurably. But the United States will never become a great soccer nation without a professional league on the level of country of 300 million in which the game is growing in popularity.

In terms of the national soccer spectrum, the national team is meant to be an occasional distraction that brings together fans from across the country, not the perpetual main attraction. The professional league is the lifeblood of soccer in any self-respecting soccer nation.

And international tournaments are where those teams vie for national glory, for club and country. Yet it has been years since an MLS team has won any sort of international crown, or really even come close.

MLS teams used to be able to posit the excuse that they were out of season for most CONCACAF tournaments, but that doesn't work any more when you're losing midseason to teams that are actually in their own preseasons or just starting out the year.

So why the continued terrible results against mediocre opposition, without simply concluding that MLS teams are pathetic (something to avoid until all other explanations are ruled out)? There seem to be several plausible explanations.

An obvious problem is the parity which the salary cap and single entity structure thrust upon the league. Whether parity – instead of a few dominant teams that create a strong, winning tradition – is a good thing for the league is a discussion for another day. But the parity design makes the MLS' best teams less good than they otherwise would be, which is not a problem for the best clubs elsewhere around region or the world.

The insistence on having relatively even teams, along with an anomalous playoff system that rewards teams for short term success in October, results in the MLS being represented year after year on the international level by other than its strongest teams. Look only as far New York, by far the worst team in the league this year, and only the eighth best last year, who took one of MLS' Champions League spots.

Giving teams going into international competition some sort of roster exemption would be one idea, which would also motivate teams to qualify for these competitions in the first place, and raise their importance to the MLS.

An extra roster space or two would help MLS teams that continue to be handicapped by their extremely limited rosters. Some form of roster expansion to include more youth prospects has been on the docket for a long time, but such a move would especially help when the fixture schedule gets congested at tournament time. Imagine the value of a NY Red Bull prospect like U-20 star Dilly Duka (of the Red Bull youth academy) earning some experience in a Champions League or MLS game right now, instead of sitting around at home waiting for the U-20 World Cup.

The final and most exasperating piece of the puzzle is that MLS teams, their fans, and the US soccer community in general, still don't seem to take the international club tournaments as seriously as MLS games, even the regular season ones.

This is the same mentality that led the US to field a less than optimal team at the Gold Cup. Some line of thinking more obtuse than I am capable of understanding has led important people around American soccer to place a high value on seemingly meaningless MLS regular season games, over most everything else. Instead, teams should be fielding their top teams in international competition, and be pleased to use midseason MLS games to explore the depth of their roster, and improve the quality sitting at the end of their benches.

No matter the solution, the results need to improve. Even the soccer-illiterate marketing men at MLS headquarters must understand how much regularly fielding a team in the FIFA Club World Cup will improve MLS' image and brand value internationally. In not allowing its teams to arm themselves adequately to get results in international competition, the league is penny wise and pound foolish.

As long as that's the case, the US will struggle to be respected internationally as a soccer nation.

Yes, MLS' best are yet to take the field in this competition, but it's hard to call a country a soccer power when teams from its league are losing to the likes of W Connection and Puerto Rico Islanders.
Tuesday August 11, 2009 9:11 pm
Raise the cap 500K every year for a number of years and you will see things improve. Outside of the starting 11, most MLS teams have a pretty poor bench. I can name 3 teams with any depth at all. Why? The cap is too low... You basically pay 11 players good money, and pay pennies for the rest. Add a few injuries, some midseason tiredness, and a lack of priority in most clubs for these international tourneys and you get exactly what you'd expect. Add to that the MLS's total disinterest on CL success, and again, its just not important to the teams--even though more of the teams this year played their top players in the CL games--yet they still lost.
Monday August 10, 2009 12:05 pm
U.S. Soccer will never have relegation/promotion because again it isn't financially viable. Am surprised MLS went for expansion of clubs in a sport that ranks 5th, and knowing full well that the first decade was very hard and without profit.

Only way to change from "even Steven" is to raise the salary cap AND stop expansion. Sorry, Vancouver, Portland, Philadelphia.
Monday August 10, 2009 3:19 am
I don't get everyone complaining about raising the salary cap because mls teams have been losing to teams with much lower budgets. The main problem with MLS is the distribution of salaries rather the maximum cap figure. Poor tactics have also been the downfall of mls teams in this tournament especially in attacking. Unfortunately in mls, teams do not value possession, coaches allow players to just pump corners aimlessly into the box all game long. Of all styles why are we emulating the english style. Until the decision making and off the ball movement in the league improves teams will always struggle in international tournaments.
Sunday August 9, 2009 12:00 pm
Nice piece. But what's often lost in commentaries on MLS is the fact that it is trying to survive as a business by attracting investors, investors who aren't always soccer fans. These international tournaments might be important to way MLS is perceived globally, but MLS is more concerned with putting butts in the seats in order to attract domestic investment. If you are a potential investor in the league, what are you going to be more impressed with a win in the CCL or a packed stadium to see MLS take on Barcelona? That's why the league doesn't even promote the CCL. How much cash will the CCL winner receive, anyway?
Sunday August 9, 2009 10:15 am
come on fellas, how can you post on this site if the responses are being so scrutinized that you can not write anything that contradicts the writers. what the heck is going on here? please explain it to me as i am a soccer fan and am being made to feel like i cant speak my mind on the sport.
Saturday August 8, 2009 8:20 pm
I think the MLS is done. It is almost pointless. The rest of the world hardly consider it worth the expense of playing against.

I would like to see capitalism take over and flush the franchise system. Re-create the league, but allow membership to be based on winning and losing. Create a premier league system where you stay because are the best, not because you've bought a seat at the table. Do this my merging existing leagues together and rank them by results. Then bring on the relegations and promotions. Maybe then we can have good club soccer in the USA.
Saturday August 8, 2009 3:28 pm
While I agree with the premise of this essay, it is my contention that the divide between the decent player and the not so decent player in MLS is too wide. Then we send out teams who don't want to risk injury to the studs and play the "not so decent" players against teams itching to stick it to the MLS team.

What do you expect?

It has long bothered me that MLS teams don't take these competitions seriously enough. Look at European competitions. The top squads BUILD their teams to be able to compete in those big tourneys from PRIDE and competitive spirit. Those teams play to win EVERY game... not just the league games.

Until MLS teams take that approach we'll never be respected internationally.
Saturday August 8, 2009 2:41 pm
MLS's problems on the field stem from poor coaching, the same problem that the league has always had.

Athletically, Toronto could outsprint Real Madrid and Seattle kept up with Barcelona and Chelsea.

But MLS teams are tactically and technically awful and the only reason for that is coaching (of course, some players would never learn but they'd be weeded out of the league by those with the higher skill, as it happens all over the world).

Ruud Gullit, with all his faults, kept the Galaxy scoring in bunches and that was because he taught the players a reasonable quality movement on and off the ball.

Peter Nowak and Sigi Schmid came the closest to Gullit in teaching their teams these game aspects.

Most others are only capable of teaching kick&run, with the kicking being inaccurate and the running clueless.

That's why MLS's quality of play is usually pathetic compared to even the second tier European and South American leagues and the quality of the US team has improved only as its members have ventured overseas.

Stock the national team largely with the MLS'ers and you're begging for another 5:0 rout at the hands of El Tri.

Like that was a surprise also.

DLD, Miami
Clayton Adams
Saturday August 8, 2009 1:49 pm
I watch the local team (the Rochester Rhinos), Beckham when he's here, the women's league, and the Prem.
The MLS is just not that good: the play is slow, the skills aren't there, and the announcers are terrible.
I loved seeing Beckham, fresh from AC MILAN (!), playing a game in a minor league baseball park. That was really classic.
Saturday August 8, 2009 12:30 pm
Matt - you're a moron.
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