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BRENT LATHAM - Tuesday, April 13, 2010
With the new collective bargaining agreement signed, sealed, and delivered, and the teams on the field for the opening kick, you can't help but be a little optimistic about America's soccer league.

The play seems to be getting better each year, more and more interesting young stars are emerging both from abroad and nationally, and the league has nearly reached a full complement of teams. Not to mention the crowds, though still paltry in many places, are simply breathtaking in others, and clearly indicative of the sport's ever-growing popularity in certain regions of the country.

Throw in the growing list of European stars anxious to try their hand in America, and you have what can only be described, after years of angst and growing pains, as for all intents and purposes the finished product: A respectable soccer league with decent quality of play and an overall enjoyable product.

The MLS-bashers among us, and there are still plenty, will continue to rant and rave about how bad domestic soccer is in the U.S. compared to their beloved European leagues.

But these MLS-haters will become all the rarer as the majority begins to realize what most already have -- the MLS is not, and will not anytime soon be, the best league in the world. But that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed from the right perspective.

Welcome to the world of international soccer, America. There are professional soccer leagues in most countries in the world. All but four or five of them are not at the absolute top echelon, but that hasn't stopped them from providing entertainment to their fans, and some pretty good soccer in the process.

Once American fans universally get that, and it seems more and more of them do, the league will continue to grow in popularity.

I wonder, though, when such a tack will be fully embraced by MLS owners.

This isn't a piece about MLS' unusual single-entity system, lack of relegation and promotion, or even limited roster size, though. It's MLS' end-game with its personnel, now that it is undeniably and more than ever a part of the world soccer scene.

This is about transfers: good or bad for the league? It's still not clear MLS is in line on this one. The league has spoiled the career of more than one potential European star by refusing to sell when economic reality suggested otherwise.

Shalrie Joseph and Taylor Twellman are two who come to mind, who the league would not let go despite offers topping a million dollars.

I've never been able to fully grasp such a policy in economic terms. In the last few years new MLS franchises have gone from anywhere from $10 million to, more recently, $40 million dollars. A cash injection to the league of something like 10-20 percent of that from the sale of one or two best-eleven performer seems like a good business deal.

The argument has often been that MLS does not want to become a feeder league, but that is nonsensical double talk.

Few leagues in the world are not "feeder leagues" in some regards, and unless MLS has the fan appeal and income to match to make it one of the top two or three leagues in the world, something that doesn't look to be on the horizon in the next decade at least, then selling a few players on can only spur opportunity by giving other players a chance to develop.

The success of former MLS players abroad also serves to increase the value and interest in more players, and creates a virtuous cycle.

Selling players also makes sense economically in just about any market. An MLS player's contract is an economic asset most likely to decrease in value as he nears the end of his contract, usually no more than four years in length.

To say that a player like Taylor Twellman, for example, will personally generate more than a million dollars in income for MLS over any period of years requires accounting from the Bernie Ebbers school of business.

Besides, the alternatives to selling are not particularly attractive. The league continues to lose good young players to free transfers, because budding stars are reluctant to trap themselves in with long term contracts knowing it may prevent them from realizing their dreams of playing in Europe.

Just this summer, Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden both preferred to trial -- successfully it should be said -- with European clubs, rather than renew with MLS. Now, being a feeder league has no shame to it, but having your best players in a position where they are forced to trial to get signed abroad does.

In the end, rather than any stigma of being a feeder league, I think what comes into play here are disincentives to selling players.

Currently, transfer fees are shared in a pretty socialist fashion among the league, and while a single player will seldom generate the millions in income required to deny a sale abroad, when the number is in fact a fraction of that for the selling team the economics of keeping that player change dramatically.

This year's addition of a pair of home grown player spots on each roster is a great benefit, then. Teams can now sign two home grown players each year. They won't take up a roster spots, and if they are sold on, the team keeps 75% of the transfer fee. That's a step in the right direction.

Now if allocation and transfer rules for other players would just… well, let's leave it for another time. MLS, it seems, is at least readier than ever to step firmly onto the global soccer stage. For American soccer fans, there could be few more welcome developments.
paul lorinczi
Thursday April 29, 2010 9:02 am
Tiger - 2 years ago US Soccer started a program nationally.

All the MLS Teams have academy teams in the program sponsored by the MLS teams - no fee to players.

Some of the other clubs in the program are still pay to play. And, I have to say I enjoy watching the Chicago Fire Academy team when they play here in Indiana.

Brent - with European Clubs, particularly EPL Teams running into financial trouble, MLS is poised to be the league of the future. The one contribution US Soccer will ultimately make is, how to run a sports league.

As more European Clubs run into financial trouble, MLS could be the league of the future. We know there are fans in this country because they show up for the summer tours. If the talent comes here, so will the fans.
Tuesday April 27, 2010 9:38 pm
The MLS is starting to open their eyes, but when you take away the youth academies or make it so that only the rich kids can afford to attend them. It makes it harder to find good talent, also many good talented players can't go to college. As the case with Hercules Gomez, he had to play in the dirt leagues before he was spotted by the L.A. Galaxy. They need to have more opportunities available to those who can't afford to pay for "The David Beckham Academy" or any other academy that has fees that would cost an arm and a leg. Isn't that the main reason why Beckham's academy is closed?

Thursday April 22, 2010 12:10 am
Good read. I have also noticed that the quality of play is much better this year.

One thing though - the most recent franchise fees were $35m (Portland & Vancouver) not $40m.
Wednesday April 21, 2010 5:22 pm
I think we are going to see MLS make big strides in player development soon, simply because of the rule changes in that department this off-season. Home-grown player slots that don't count against the salary cap, a larger cut of the transfer fee from any player sold is kept by the club rather than the league, and more of said fee can be spent on signing a replacement(s) than ever.

To me this is the league saying: "If you develop talent in your academies and sell the player on, we will make it worth your while," which is a BIG shift in their philosophy IMO.
Tuesday April 20, 2010 1:04 pm
Good article Brent. You touch on and make a number of good points.

As in all the great soccer playing nations and leagues, US soccer, and MLS would benefit from sponsoring youth academies with under U21, U20, U19, etc. developmental teams that are directly affiliated with MLS teams.

Competitive leagues for these developemental teams would serve as a feeder system directly to the MLS, and could also begin to provide players for adult feeder leagues for the currently single entity league the MLS currently is.

Such MLS affiliated academies inspire and motivate local players to develop their talents, skills and knowledge of the game from the earliest age, as well as helping identify and sort out the best players throughout their early development

These programs give all aspiring professional players the best avenues and channels to compete and develop within their home country, under the watchful eyes of MLS talent evaluators.

Relatively few USA players under the age of 18 are prepared or equipped to leave the USA to pursue such opportunities abroad.
Friday April 16, 2010 3:18 pm
Very good article. Just watching April matches really tells the story. Years ago, it was painful to watch. Passing was poor, no coordination and it would take until late summer when teams seemed to put things together. Now, the matches in April look like matches in August (mid-season form) used to look. The quality is up and the League does not need to keep its stars from moving on to greener financial pastures. I attend MLS matches and European matches and enjoy both. We are certainly building up a good domestic league. Expansion has helped, not hindered, the progress. The new markets have brought in excited fan bases and Portland and Vancouver will keep that trend up.
Thursday April 15, 2010 10:24 pm
Excellent article. I lived in Italy, England, and Spain for over 11 years. I love European football and watch it regularly but have the most fun supporting and following the Houston Dynamo and U.S. National Team. I like players from MLS playing in Europe. It helps keep my interest in these teams and leagues. I don't want MLS to be a "feeder league" long term. I want it to be one of the top leagues in the World. This will happen with time. It's rapidly heading in that direction.
Thursday April 15, 2010 3:13 pm
MLS: You've come a long way baby.. but you're no EPL.

Fine, and it may never be. But there is no doubt the MLS has and is gaining more respect. And on that note I'd like MLS to start really excelling in regional competetions such as the CONCACAF Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup, etc.... That will turn heads.. and I believe that is the next step in terms of the league gaining more respect internationally.
Thursday April 15, 2010 3:06 pm
Good article Brent. You touch on and make a number of good points.

As in all the great soccer playing nations and leagues, MLS and US soccer would benefit from having youth academies with under U21, U20, U19, etc. developmental teams.

Such academies inspire and motivate local players to develop their talents, skills and knowledge of the game from the earliest age, as well as helping identify and sort out the best players throughout their early development

These programs give all aspiring professional players the best avenues and channels to compete and develop within their home countries.

Relatively few USA players under the age of 18 are prepared or equipped to leave the USA to pursue such opportunities abroad.
Thursday April 15, 2010 12:27 pm
I agree with this. MLS ignored for too long, now finally growing, but will it have teenage problems like too many crazy people around? MLS and fans coming togtehr
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