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.