Thursday, July 19, 2007

On the Growth of Soccer In America

What with David Beckham arriving like Cleopatra in Rome, I figure now is as good as any time to talk about where soccer is in America, and where it should go.

For the sake of most readers, I'll put the bulk of the post below the fold.

First, let me just deal with Beckham... He'll be one of the more talented players in the league, and he'll help the Galaxy a good bit. He'll bring some attention from people who aren't really interested in soccer. The attention will be swift and will fade quickly, domestically at least. But his presence will mean more foreign nations will pay some attention to MLS. And he'll make money for the league and its sponsors.

What about the level of play in MLS? Beckham's just one guy, so his arrival can't change the talent level or competitiveness. But he can change the way the league is perceived.

The league today isn't perceived very well. MLS supporters seem to overrate the league, and I suppose they feel they need to frame the debate in favor of the league. The foreign press probably underrates the league, and I suppose they feel the need to keep holding over our heads the one sporting thing the rest of the world has an advantage. Both aren't right.

It's difficult, if not impossible to compare domestic leagues. How does one compare? By taking the best of the teams? The worst? International competitions? Eventually, one simply has to make a subjective guess.

I'd say these leagues are certainly better than MLS, meaning that, in my mind, even the best MLS team would struggle to avoid relegation: La Liga Primera, the Barclays Premiership, Serie A, Bundesliga A.

I'd say these leagues have a few teams significantly better than the best MLS teams, but several MLS teams could hang with most teams in the league: Eredivisie, Ligue 1, La Liga Mexicana, Brasil's first division, Argentina's first division, Portugal's Superliga, Greek Super League, Turkish Super Lig, Russian Premier League, Ukraine Premier League.

I'd say that an MLS team could challenge for the title frequently in these leagues: Belgian Jupiler League, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Austrian leagues, J-League, UAE's league, all African leagues, most South American leagues other than Brazil and Argentina.

Considering that MLS is pretty young in the game, and considering where soccer stands in the national consciousness, I don't think that the current posture is a bad thing. The US league doesn't need to be the best in the world. But it also won't ever be the worst.

That said, I don't think that just because MLS isn't an international embarrassment, MLS shouldn't try to improve and get better. It most certainly should.

First, much has been made about how the league has gotten better since several franchises have built and opened soccer-specific stadia. I've got a lot of thoughts about this, and it'll make for its own post soon. In short, I think it's good that there are soccer-specific stadia, but they could also do even better.

Second, the refusal of MLS to even consider relegation and promotion I think is a bad idea. Relegation is, effectively, the marketplace for markets. For a young league, a host of experts might think they can place the best spots for franchises to be located, but they might be wrong. Miami and Tampa Bay were thought to be good locations initially, but both failed. Meanwhile, a smaller market like Rochester has thrived in the USL. And every league has something like this. If you were starting the NFL today, nobody would locate a team in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but not Los Angeles. But the best part of relegation is this: nobody has to guess. If certain cities are great spots for teams - and public support provides resources for the team to improve and compete - those cities will stay in the top flight. If particular cities don't support the team, it'll be harder to compete in the top flight. If the result is that a town like Rochester, or Charleston, almost organically, becomes a first division city, and cities with larger TV markets but which just don't care don't end up in the top flight... well, the league is healthier for it. And if over time, those larger markets develop support for teams, and they move up through promotion... well, isn't that better? Then we know the cities in the top flight want it, rather than a centralized league determining what's good for particular cities. Anyway, this should've been its own post too. And it might still be.

Third, importing talent. In an odd way, I kind of hope that Beckham's arrival gets some attention, but it's clear enough (hopefully because of already-decent talent in the league) that one or two imported players won't make a huge difference. MLS has shown a commitment to player development, and they've resisted quick fixes by throwing money at players before. Hopefully, they'll hold firm with that. Slow growth is best.

Finally, expansion. San Jose was awarded a franchise, which will be MLS's 14th. There've been announced plans for 2 more in the next few years. If MLS keeps the same, East-West divisional structure, I'd bet there will be one Eastern and one Western team added. Suggested locations are Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, Las Vegas, San Antonio, St. Louis, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Rochester, another in NYC, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Expansion gets its own post. Come back soon.

And now, because I feel like I'm writing like a 4th grader, here's a summary of all this:

  1. MLS isn't that bad, and it shouldn't have to be that good.
  2. Beckham won't be bad, and he'll serve his purpose, and hopefully nobody's really expecting him to be a true savior.
  3. MLS can get better, but needs to use more grass-roots methods.


Grandy said...

I think importing can be a good thing, and hope Beckham success will help pave the way for more of it. But I totally agree on the Grass Roots front. The league we want to be like - even if we never match the quality overall - is the Dutch League I think. Start our young players off here at a decent level of competition knowing that they'll head overseas for proper seasoning eventually.

As for the rest, I tend to agree. I've started watching more MLS of late and it feels superior to the product we had when it first came out (with minor exceptions here and there; the first couple of DC teams were really terrific).

I really wish we'd get a Soccer Stadium in the Atl, as I think we'd be a good market. That said, I think I like your idea of going to two divisions proper (absorbing some of the A-league, or whatever the equivlanet is now a days?).

Chg said...

I think MLS is missing the boat on relegation. Not only would it serve the economic purpose you mention, but it would also generate mor fan interest from non-soccer fans.

No matter what they think of soccer, any sports fan I've explained relegation to likes it, just like they usually like the Open Cup. Relegation would differentiate soccer in a good way, and attract some interest from general sports fans.

It might seem odd to the people that only watch playoff games, but they don't really matter. If a sport becomes an event, they will watch. Think of how many Super Bowl viewers don't know the difference between a 4-3 or 3-4.

The biggest hurdle is the ownership challenge. How can MLS attract new investors if they are worried their millions are going to be going to a USL-1 team a year down the line?

The best way I can see to overcome this is to merge relegation with expansion. Instead of traditional expansion, invite the top X number of USL-1's with an understanding that relegation will take place the following year. Ideally, you would relegate less than you invite.

This could potentially create a permanent underclass within MLS, but the European leagues are filled with teams that bounce back and forth from the top of 2nd to the bottom of 1st evry few years. It certainly wouldn't be any more severe than expecting the Devil Rays to comepete with the Red Sox and Yankees.

This would hurt the level of play in the short term (espcially since I'd prefer to invite 4 so you can relegate 2 each year), but it would be good for the league in the long haul.