On the Second Day of Christmas: Two Decades of MLS

It’s 1996.  I’m sitting in the living room of my parent’s house in Great Yarmouth, a frown of concentration ruffling my brow, my thumbs mashing the brightness and contrast buttons on the TV remote.

On the screen, caked in static, flickering, twitching and distorting, a football match unfolds.  I’ve just about tweaked the contrast to the point where the ball is visible during wide shots.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering”, my Dad said “it’s just going to be a few old has-beens and a bunch of crap American players”.

This is my introduction to Major League Soccer.

The match, whose participants I’ve long forgotten, had been televised live in the wee hours of that morning.  That I’d taped it on an old VHS tape using my creaky hand-me-down VCR had already scuppered any expectations of a visually pristine experience.  Worse still was that it had been broadcast on the UK’s Channel 5.

The station was brand new but it had infamously stumbled out of the blocks, unavailable in some places, coming through with poor reception in others.  Yarmouth was halfway between.  We could receive it.  Barely.

As awful as the picture quality was, the standard of play wasn’t much better.  The game ended in a scoreless draw.  Not a decent goalless draw where both teams defended well and nobody took their chances.  This was the type of dour, tedious draw that left the mind so numb, that you could probably have shoved a cactus in my ear and I wouldn’t have noticed til long after the final whistle.

The hockey-style shootout tiebreaker however, struck me as quite novel and interesting.  Sadly, this innovation was sacrificed to the Gods of soccer purity a long time ago.

I went through the same dose of eyestrain the following week, just to give it a fair crack but after a similar experience, I decided not to bother again.  If I’d had a vested interest or connection to MLS or American soccer at the time, it would likely have been different.  As it was, I’d sated my curiosity and had no need to come back.

Fast forward a decade to World Cup 2006.  My world is a different place.  A larger place.  A happier place.  For this tournament, as well as rooting for England, I’m also following the fortunes of my wife’s country and my own soon-to-be home, the United States.

As we all know, they flopped miserably in the competition.  The performance against Italy was the only redeeming moment, though honestly the most prominent memory I have of the match was the announcer screaming “EQUALIZER!!!” as the US scored that notorious disallowed goal.  This call was particularly memorable because the goal would have actually given the US the lead.

Nonetheless, the immigration process was well underway and my love of football compelled an interest in the US soccer landscape.  Moving to Southern California, I knew that LA Galaxy were the local team and that Club Guadalajara of Mexico had recently placed a “US version” of themselves in the same stadium.

As I’m sure I’ve written here before, the idea that I’d be in the vicinity of a relatively new and growing league with clubs in their infancy, was fascinating to me.  Here I was with a rare opportunity to watch these entities (or as I would later come to understand, this single entity) progress and develop almost from scratch.

The pragmatic part of me also noted that tickets would likely be cheap and I might get to see the odd star in the winter of his career.  The latter of these ideas then crushed the former, when one week after my move, it was announced that David Beckham would be signing for the Galaxy.

This isn’t meant to be an homage to the Galaxy (that’s probably going to be day 1o) but rather set the scene for my entrance into the world of the MLS follower.

For now, I’ll just say that I saw my first game in 2007, attended more regularly in 2008 and starting with 2009, I have been a season ticket holder ever since.

The league is an oddment in many ways.  Unlike most football leagues, there is real value placed on parity and competitiveness.  There’s a salary cap.  In fact the opaque roster rules and mechanisms make it very much the Rubik’s Cube of sports leagues.

They make for a bizarre soup of wage-juggling, high-profile acquisitions, frugally priced journeymen, smartly leveraged contracts and the odd reserve player that earns less money than I do.

Then there are the seemingly ad-libbed rules, brought in whenever LA Galaxy wants to sign a famous player that the rules prohibit an unforeseen scenario occurs.

Take the notorious case of Jermaine Jones’s MLS team allocation.  Y’see, MLS has this “allocation process” whereby under certain circumstances, when a US national team player joins the league, they get placed with a predetermined team.  The idea being that this player goes to the team of greatest need.  Or whoever traded with the team of greatest need, to get their spot in the queue.

Jones apparently didn’t quite fit into that category but wasn’t a Designated Player either (they don’t get allocated if they’re paid over a certain amount… head sore yet?), and both Chicago and New England had made offers for his services.  To determine his destination, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, performed a “blind draw”.  This wasn’t performed publicly.  Whether he was actually blindfolded and picked balls out of a hat, flipped a coin, or said “Andy Hauptman sucks… send him to New England”, we’ll never know.

From an organizational standpoint, the teams are technically part of one single MLS entity, with ownership of every club split between the named owner-operators (“owners”) and the overall league itself.  This causes detractors to shriek wildly at all who may listen, “They’re not real clubs..!!!!!!”.  Then again, detractors of this ilk also tend to have rage-induced aneurysms over the one game every three years that’s played in a venue with gridiron lines on the field, the fact that playoffs are used, or the fact that US football teams fall below the standards that their support of Barcelona has gotten them used to.

The general salary bill is paid for centrally and revenue is shared.  There are mechanisms for owners to supplement with their own money, such as the Designated Player rule, which allows each club to pay three players beyond the cap.  This allows LA Galaxy teams to sign the likes of David Beckham and Giovani Dos Santos, who would be unobtainable under the $3-4m team cap.

So a bit weird but it also makes transfer season genuinely interesting, seeing how teams balance their squads.

Perhaps I should address the aforementioned quality.  In 1996, I gave it two matches and saw no reason to go to the effort it took to continue.  In 2007, it had markedly improved from the product I recalled, though you still had to take the rough with the smooth. The sight of David Beckham unmarked, madly waving his arms in frustration at the rookie 20 yards away who dared not attempt such a long-range pass, typifies the spread between the best and the worst of that era.  Frankly, in 2016 it’s improved even more significantly from what it was on DB’s debut.

I’d peg the very best MLS teams, with a full and healthy first XI, at the top of their form, as around the standard of a strong Football League Championship club.  While the spread is shorter these days, there is still a greater drop-off between your starters and bench than the typical English club.  There are plenty of League One level guys that flesh out the supporting casts in MLS, which in the great spectrum of word football, is by no means awful.

The parity of course means that no squad is truly dominating compared to the rest.  The exception of course is the current Chicago Fire, though they’re actually dominated. If you’ve ever seen the film “The Towering Inferno”, if you had to compare Chicago to one of the actors in that movies all-star cast, they’d be one of the unnamed extras that catches fire.

The league enjoys healthy attendances, is growing and progressing steadily and is starting to build the foundations of a much-needed youth system.  While TV ratings lag (they’re the third most watched football league after the Premiership at #2, who themselves are a fair distance behind #1, Mexico’s Liga MX), this season saw large gains in that respect and this season’s MLS Cup between the Sounders and Toronto was the most watched in league history with 1.4m viewers.

It’s not all plain sailing though.  Outside the leagues commercial marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (“SUM”), whose revenues are (quite deliberately) not readily available, Don Garber himself claims that the league still isn’t making profits off its own steam (though he said this quite strategically, while negotiating a new salary structure with the players union).  The ratings, I’ve already mentioned but it could all have been so much worse.

As MLS reflected on its 20th season in 2015, it was revealed that the league had come exceedingly close to folding in 2002. Indeed, it seems that they were a whisker away before the late Lamar Hunt persuaded the other owners to commit to keeping MLS alive.  In the process of making that happen, Don Garber arrived, set up SUM and made the hard choices of contracting the Florida clubs, Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny.

Some will point to Chivas USA but in truth, that was more a situation of MLS seizing control of a badly run and increasingly problematic team, putting it up for sale and the new ownership group (with more than 20 individuals, not far off CUSA’s average attendance!) deciding that simply relaunching as a completely new club (LAFC) would be more effective than trying to overcome the former incarnation’s hefty baggage.

As a supporter of an MLS team, I personally don’t need the league or even the Galaxy to challenge the best in the world to enjoy it.  If it continues to improve at its current pace, that’s more than good enough for me.

I’m a parity convert.  I enjoy the fact that each new season is somewhat of a fresh start.  That you can’t look at any team and truly be sure that they’re going to be title contenders or miss the playoffs.  I’ve given sincere thought to how I’d feel as a Man United fan if the Premiership was like that and in all honesty, I’d love it.  Each season brings new story and anything really can happen on any given week.

I do have my reservations, of course.  I think the league could be more open about its weird tapestry of rules and regulations.  The league has stepped in on a couple of potential transfers and vetoed them, for no other reason than they didn’t think they made good business sense.

If I could ask just one thing of Don Garber, it’s that he stop making the proclamation that MLS aims to be a top league by 2022.  At the current rate, that’s unrealistic and invites unnecessary and unflattering comparisons to the actual top leagues.

His actions are more in line with “slow and steady wins the race” than “the little engine that could” and that’s just fine.  MLS needs to be praised – and criticised – on its own merits.

It’s a league that takes a lot of unfair heat for not being as good as others, even though I feel that in comparison to all leagues (not just the high-profile ones) it’s certainly above average.  And for a league barely over two decades old, in a nation that until recently, had quarters of its society holding the sport in true disdain, that’s not bad at all.

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