America’s attempts to create a soccer league that can compete with Europe’s have been good in intention, but not so good in results. Don’t get me wrong; the MLS is getting better, but there’s still a long way to go. And while I think some of their unique characteristics are actually ahead of the pack (such as their all-star weekend), I still think there are many aspects that can be tweaked. Here are the 8 steps the MLS should take in order to create a dynamic soccer league.
1. Ditch the Salary Cap
The reason the MLS has salary caps is simple: many of the other American sports have them. But when you look at soccer, it just doesn’t make sense to have one. The pool of players to pick from is just so big that it would be impossible for one team to gain an unfair advantage from the cap (the cap is put in place to ensure that no team is able to unfairly bring in more talent than others). The solution is simple: allow teams to spend what their board allocates to the managers, based on how much they bring in. A clear illustration of this is the fact that no player can make more than $500,000 a year; a quality player would probably earn that much in a month.
2. Reformat the Draft
One of the aspects of the MLS that makes it unique is the Superdraft. This is the event where MLS teams can select players leaving colleges to join their team. And while I understand giving the first picks to expansion teams (the MLS is still growing, and the new teams need a source of key players to grow around), I absolutely hate the rest of the ordering. This is going to be a common theme throughout this article: stop rewarding teams for being bad! I simply just do not understand why the MLS gives teams a higher pick for having fewer points. What I would do instead would be to auction off the picks. Teams have to bid on each pick, and the highest bidder wins. This would also make it much easier for teams to rebuild, as they could literally focus their funds on youth.
3. Youth Academies
I think that the MLS teams should develop really good youth academies. This would lead to better development of players, as they are exposed to higher competitions and better coaches. It would also help boost the USMNT down the line. Now, this is the one point where I could easily understand someone objecting to this – players go through the club and college system, where they are still able to play year-round. However, when you look at what a team like Tottenham Hotspur has been able to achieve with their youth prospects, it could be a smart idea down the road.
Remember when I said to stop rewarding teams for being bad? Well, here it is again. Tanking is so bad for any sport – teams give up on seasons when they know there’s nothing in it for them, and there just is a lack of motivation when you watch them play. Because in their mind, finishing last just means a higher draft pick. The MLS needs relegation. Every season, the bottom team from each conference in the league should be moved down to the NASL, America’s second division. It’s already been made clear that some of the NASL teams could compete at the MLS level (as many of the expansion teams are going to be coming directly from it), so it’s not even like the promoted teams would be unable to match up against the top teams. The relegation battle will also provide an added storyline at the end of the season, which could boost viewers significantly.
5. Restructure the Playoffs
In my opinion, the MLS puts way too much emphasis on their tournament, and not enough on their regular season. Part of this may be trying to make it more like other American sports, and make the end of the season more entertaining, but some things are just untransferrable – soccer can be such a luck-based sport sometimes, as a team can dominate a match yet still lose. This is why it is more accurate to judge teams based on their form over an entire season, rather than what could’ve been a string of lucky matches. They can still keep the MLS Cup, but I would have it mirror the FA Cup; still an entertaining competition, but by no means a title decider.
6. Better Stadiums
This suggestion may not seem that significant to you, but it actually is very important. I can’t tell you how much of a difference the pitch can make in the quality of passing, dribbling, and overall play. There’s a reason Premier League clubs spend so much money on groundskeepers. Just last season, in fact, Athletico Madrid made sure they didn’t cut their grass in order to make it harder for FC Bayern to pass (and ultimately, it worked). The MLS needs soccer-specific stadiums – they should not be playing on baseball or American football fields. The match should be played on tailored grass, not artificial turf. It’s not just the pitch though – the stands should be really close to the stadium to create the intense atmosphere found in Europe.
7. Wider Broadcast Reach
Part of the reason the EPL is so appealable to Americans is because NBC makes almost all of the matches available on TV. Viewers get to pick which match they watch, meaning they never miss out on their favorite team. If the MLS wants to build a fan base, they need to put more of their games on television. They also need to find times that work – there’s no point of ESPN’s Soccer Sunday – most of their viewers are going to be watching football instead. This is something the MLS has to recognize. They need to capitalize on weeknight primetime games, for example “Tuesday Night Soccer” or “Saturday Night Soccer” (I know Saturday’s not a weekday, but there are no major events going on anyways).
8. Embrace the Atmosphere
One of the areas in which the MLS is already starting to make strides in is their atmosphere. Of course, it’s nowhere near that of Liverpool or Dortmund, but it’s a start. The constant chants may be met with confusion from non-soccer fans (as it is an unfamiliar ground for Americans), but if the MLS embraces all of it, it will just add to the excitement. Part of what makes the EPL and Bundesliga so entertaining to watch is the involvement of the fans. They live and breath every moment of every match. I think each team should adopt a pre-match anthem (“You’ll Never Walk Alone” for example). If the MLS continues to boost chants and songs, a breakthrough will be made eventually, and soon it will be shown why it is called “the beautiful game”. The MLS is growing, so the worst thing that can be done is giving up.
I really think the MLS has a bright future, and one day will become a powerful league with powerful teams. There are still many steps to be taken, but they are definitely doable. These 8 steps could be the spark to what takes the MLS over the hump.
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