Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


MLS: OLD ENOUGH TO VOTE–AND GLOAT (BUT WON’T)

Major League Soccer will kick off its 18th season Saturday, March 2, with 12 of its 19 clubs in action.  Another six will play the following day.

Aside from the usual player moves and coaching changes, the league remains relatively unchanged from 2012, although the start date marks the earliest kickoff in MLS history.  A record 87 matches will be televised nationally on seven different channels, and the league will be out to top last season’s attendance figures as it drew 6,074,729 fans and averaged a record-18,807–ahead of the NBA and NHL and behind only the NFL and Major League Baseball at the turnstiles.  [February 28]

Comment:  MLS, wisely, has never been a league to look back; given the alphabet soup of leagues that have crashed and burned over the past century, there never was a reason to remind anyone that it has been trying to be the very first one to fly.

But if it did publicly point to the past, it might … discreetly … modestly … pop a very quiet champagne cork and take a quick sip.

Season 18 makes MLS the oldest professional soccer league in American history.  Eighteen is one year older than the North American Soccer League (1968-84), the league formed by the merger of a pair of one-year-old circuits, the long-forgotten United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League.  The NASL was down to five clubs in 1969, then rode the Pele-led New York Cosmos gravy train to 24 teams and a national TV contract in the late ’70s, only to over-spend itself into oblivion a handful of years later.   The only other notable pro league in the U.S. was the original American Soccer League, which was founded in 1921 and was out-drawing the NFL until battles with the USFA (forerunner to U.S. Soccer) and FIFA and the Great Depression killed it off in 1933, although it reorganized and limped along on a minor-league basis until 1983.

MLS, now just three years away from full adulthood, still faces many challenges, not the least of which are poor TV ratings in a sports landscape ruled by the tube, plus too many clubs operating in the red.  And there would not have been an 18th birthday were it not for the likes of Phil Anschutz, who at one point propped up half the clubs in the league. But while the NASL in its 17th season was in its death throes, hemorrhaging money as its number of franchises had dropped to nine and average attendance to a tepid 10,759, MLS is not far from adding its 20th club (a reconstituted New York Cosmos?  Orlando?), and the fan base in many of its cities is made up of young adults who are loyal, knowledgeable and loud.  While NASL clubs shoehorned themselves into all manner of baseball stadiums and pro, college and even high school football stadiums, 14 MLS clubs play in new or relatively new soccer-specific stadiums.  MLS has proven to be one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world–nine different clubs have lifted the MLS Cup and eight have claimed the Supporters Shield–and the quality on the field continues to improve (though some critics would ask, how could it not?).   And while the NASL tried to build itself on the backs of big-name, high-priced foreigners, the MLS this season loses the world’s most recognizable star in David Beckham but has attracted enough stars from abroad to make itself interesting.

With the MLS  now old enough to vote, should it gloat?  Nope.  Would Major League Soccer’s cautious, spendthrift approach, without a legion of Internet-driven 20-something hipsters in the stands, without its soccer-specific stadiums, without the explosion of television-exposure options, have survived back in 1968-84?  Of course not.  In short, after ASL I, ASL II, the International League, USA, NPSL, NASL, MISL, AISL, USL, WSA/WSL, ASL III, APSL and A-League, Major League Soccer can thank the soccer gods that it has proven itself to be the right league at the right time.

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THE BIG QUESTION AS MLS BEGINS ITS 16TH SEASON: WHO WILL FINISH 11TH?

Major League Soccer will kick off its 16th season–one shy of the old North American Soccer League’s 17–tonight with two new clubs, the scheduled mid-season opening of yet another soccer-specific stadium, and the introduction of an expanded playoff format.

The addition of the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps lifts league membership to a robust 18 clubs and creates a three-way rivalry in the Pacific Northwest among those two newcomers and the third-year Seattle Sounders.  A 19th team, what had been the second-division Montreal Impact, will join MLS next season, and a 20th–possibly a reincarnation of the New York Cosmos–will follow in 2013. 

In early summer, Sporting Kansas City (nee Wiz, Wizards) will leave its cozy but highly inadequate minor league baseball stadium for a sparkling new facility, and in the fall the biggest post-season field in league history will battle to lift the MLS Cup.  The first-, second- and third-place finishers from the Western and Eastern conferences qualify, along with the next four teams with the highest point totals, regardless of conference.  Those four wild card teams will be paired and play off for the right to join the top six in the quarterfinals.  [March 15]

Comment:  The 800-pound gorilla that has been seated on the floor at MLS headquarters, just to the right of the receptionist’s desk, since 1996 just gained another 200 pounds.

The expansion of playoff teams from eight to 10 allows MLS to claim that it continues to follow in the proud tradition of the NBA and NHL, where post-season berths are handed out like penny candy and fewer than half the teams go home early–or make that, on time.  However, it only compounds the challenge for a league that desperately wants to make more of its regular-season matches relevant, meaningful … exciting even. 

As always, MLS clubs will slog through what has grown to a regular-season campaign of some 250 games, and most–most–of them will then go into a bizarre sprint in which, too often, the very best team is knocked out before it can prove its mettle in the title game.   Nothing is really proven, except who performed best under knockout circumstances.  The team with the best regular-season record has nothing to show for its efforts but something called the “Supporters Shield” and a hearty handshake from Commissioner Don Garber.

Soccer traditionalists in this country have long pushed MLS to adopt the traditional European model in which 18 or 20 clubs fight it out over a 34- or 38-game, home-and-home schedule to determine who’s No. 1.  The bottom two or three are relegated to the division below to be replaced by that division’s top finishers.  Simple.  There’s pressure at the top to win and at the bottom there’s the pressure not to slip quietly under the waves.   And MLS’s response has been simple as well:  “We’re a single-entity enterprise; it’s an exclusive club not open to newcomers from below.”  And with the splintering and near-demise of the USL’s top division last year, that’s more true than ever.

But what’s to say that MLS can’t become its own first and second division?  Once it reaches a bloated, unwieldy 20 clubs,  it’s high time for the league to split into a 12-team top tier and eight-team second tier.    Promotion/relegation would involve the bottom/top three teams in the two divisions, and the best of the best would scramble for first place and berths in the CONCACAF Champions League.  If there absolutely must be a climactic match at the end of all this, have MLS “host” the Lamar Hunt/U.S. National Open Cup final; what with soccer’s lower regions in disarray for the foreseeable future, chances are very small that we’ll see the Atlanta Silverbacks or Carolina Railhawks or Puerto Rico Islanders crash that party.  It will be what we normally see, year after year, in the English F.A. Cup final:  two Premier League clubs in a death grip at Wembley.

Of course, this sort of arrangement is highly un-American, but MLS fans have proven time and again that they can handle anything un-American the league throws their way:  a game clock that counts up, not down; matches that end in ties; two-legged playoff series.  And as for the concern over what would happen if a club finished last in a proposed  MLS2 for three or four seasons, playing in front of 2,000 fans, the league’s devotion to that magic word “parity” makes that highly improbable.