2009-03-09 21:39:04

Major League Soccer has handled many issues well recently but Soccer 365’s Richard Snowden still believes the league needs to do more to improve the on field product.

By Richard Snowden/

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A few weeks back, this space asserted that Major League Soccer is getting the most important things right. And for the most part, that’s true – off the field, at least.

On the field, however, we have been reminded rather acutely of late that MLS still has a long way to go indeed.

It’s bad enough that David Beckham, whose presence was supposed to provide positive PR for MLS, has seemingly been talking less-than-flattering smack about the league every other time he has opened his mouth lately. In the past couple of weeks, though, MLS has done itself no favors in the court of public opinion, either.

Following upon last year’s abject embarrassments in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Houston Dynamo continued the trend in the tournament’s quarterfinal round against Mexico’s Atlante. Despite suspect defending and anemic offense from their opponents, Houston could only stumble its way to a 1-1 draw in the home leg before playing a proper stinker in a well-deserved 3-0 drubbing in the return game.

The damning proof was evident for all to see on the pitch. Arguably the top team in MLS showed scant creativity and shocking technical ineptitude, barely able to string more than a few passes together much of the time against a tired, mistake-prone opponent that may well be the worst team in Mexico at the moment.

But it’s never a fair fight, the apologists forever claim. The foreign teams are always in mid-season form while the MLS sides have barely begun preseason training when the knockout rounds arrive, the hackneyed refrain goes, so MLS’s representatives always find themselves at a serious disadvantage in the Champions League.

This tired excuse has been put to the sword once and for all this year thanks to the heroic performances of the USL First Division’s Puerto Rico Islanders and Montreal Impact, clubs that are supposedly inferior to those of MLS.

Having already outlasted three of MLS’s four entrants (two of whom were dumped by minnows in the tournament’s play-in round) in this year’s competition, the USL-1 clubs – who are battling the very same off-season rust – made MLS’s humiliation complete by outperforming the flaccid Dynamo in the Champions League quarters.

The Islanders advanced to the semis by beating tough Honduran opponents Marathon in both legs, while the Impact came within a few minutes of eliminating Mexico’s Santos Laguna before succumbing to late-game defensive gaffes. Even so, Montreal beat their Mexican foes by two goals in the first leg and drew over 55,000 fans to the match, two achievements MLS teams can only dream about at this point.

This sorry state of affairs poses a serious problem for MLS that goes well beyond mere short-term embarrassment – one that needs to be solved if the league is to have reasonable prospects for greater success in the years ahead.

MLS officials may boast of their success at the gate in places like Toronto and Seattle, but those markets are exceptions to the rule. Most teams enjoy modest support at best, and arguably the main reason for this fact is that the league, in the eyes of many soccer fans in this country, lacks credibility.

Over the years, MLS has tried different approaches to establishing itself as a credible league. Predictably, the most common has been simple marketing spin, which can be had relatively cheaply. This approach, not surprisingly, has convinced few, as evidenced by the many soccer fans in America who follow foreign leagues but ignore MLS.

The other main method MLS has tried is signing big-name foreigners, the most obvious example being Beckham. While this can sometimes be good for business, it has also frequently backfired, as we are currently seeing with Beckham’s want-away antics and unsavory comments about MLS, which only undermine the league’s credibility further.

The lack of success of these approaches leads to a simple conclusion: Ultimately, MLS will have to establish itself as credible on the field, with compelling play and positive results against quality opposition. Nothing convinces skeptics like quality and success, and MLS and its teams will need to offer these things in order to earn the credibility required to increase (and keep) interest.

In on-field terms, the most MLS has done to try to increase its credibility to date (which in reality is far more about raking in cash from MLS-avoiding Mexican fans) has been to create the SuperLiga, featuring four MLS and four Mexican sides. Played in late summer, SuperLiga is scheduled such that MLS teams, being in mid-season, should enjoy the same advantage that foreign clubs have over them in the Champions League.

However, there are two glaring flaws in the SuperLiga approach. The first and probably most obvious is that, even in preseason form, the Mexican teams still often outperform their in-season MLS opponents. Needless to say, this does MLS’s public image no favors.

Secondly, SuperLiga is, in plain terms, pointless. It offers no path to higher competition, as opposed to both the Champions League (Club World Cup) and MLS’s other money-grabbing contrivance, the all-Mexican InterLiga (Copa Libertadores). Given the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, the games can be interesting at times, but their lack of intrinsic worth drains them of much of their credibility.

Granted, only regular 5-0 wins over Barcelona would convince the most snobbish fans that MLS teams are worth following. Still, when your teams consistently lose against even struggling Mexican sides – never mind get creamed 4-0 at home by Trinidad’s Joe Public, as New England did last year – it isn’t too hard to figure out why large numbers of fans feel that your league deserves neither their respect nor their time.

As recent message-board activity suggests, quite a few fans seem to understand this need for greater credibility, and several of those fans have expressed hope that yet another embarrassing failure by MLS teams in the Champions League, exacerbated this time around by the success of the allegedly inferior USL clubs, will finally spur the league into doing more to help its teams succeed on the international stage.

Unfortunately for such fans, and to the league’s long-term detriment, MLS executives appear rather less than concerned about such matters.

While visiting Chicago last October, MLS commissioner Don Garber summarized the attitude of league executives in response to a question about MLS’s abysmal track record in CONCACAF play, airily dismissing such concerns by playing the poverty card.

«We can go to ESPN and have them double their [TV] rights fee and go to … fans and have them sell out every game so that our revenue changes and then you can expand your roster,» Garber retorted, essentially blaming the problem on the league’s relatively small roster sizes.

«But the reality is we’re still a business that’s developing,» he added. «The need to beat teams in the Champions League isn’t enough to reconfigure our entire business model.»

In a word (or two), that rationale is a red herring, for there are other, more effective ways MLS could address the problem without requiring the league, in Garber’s somewhat overblown phrase, to reconfigure its entire business model.

To the league’s credit, one useful step has already been taken. Unlike last year, which saw the same MLS teams in both SuperLiga and the Champions League, separate groups of teams will appear in these competitions next time around. This will require teams to play fewer games, thus mitigating the negative effects of MLS’s small rosters.

Moreover, MLS’s main problem is not so much the size of its rosters; rather, it is the lack of quality they contain. As Houston clearly demonstrated recently, rosters that are top-heavy with very average players will stand little chance against good CONCACAF opponents. Even against much weaker foes like Joe Public or Panama’s Tauro FC, some MLS teams are simply too bereft of talent to get results, as we saw last year.

MLS teams don’t need larger rosters with more mediocre players; they simply need better players on their existing rosters. This raises a notion bandied about in this space a while back: Why not start allowing teams to acquire several outstanding players instead of just one or two big names?

If money is really the issue, as Garber has asserted, that rationale holds no water with this approach. If MLS teams can spend $6.5 million per year on Beckham, or $3 million per year on Cuauhtemoc Blanco – moves that may help with merchandising but do very little to make the team better – there’s no reason they should be forbidden to spend the same amount of money on multiple players, which would improve the entire team.

Just think how much better L.A. gets with six $1 million players, or how much Chicago improves with three such players. At that point, you have teams capable of beating any opponent in the region and even putting up a respectable fight at the Club World Cup – and teams that can no longer be so easily dismissed as Sunday pub league sides by smug naysayers, either here or abroad.

It should be clear by now that interest follows from credibility, not the other way around. MLS executives would do far better to give up trying to put the cart before the horse and concentrate on drawing fans with a quality product and good results instead of relying on the empty hype of factors like Brand Beckham, which produces fleeting results at best.

And credibility, of course, must first be earned in the region, in competitive games (as opposed to meaningless friendlies like SuperLiga or the All-Star Game), for these pave the road to the Club World Cup. Until the skeptics see MLS sides instead of Mexican or Costa Rican clubs representing our region on that stage, they will continue to assume (and not without some justification) that MLS teams must be poor indeed.

At this stage, then, establishing credibility needs to be job one for MLS brass. They’ve established the league off the field by increasing revenues, expanding into new markets, and building stadiums; now, they need to focus on building the credibility that will draw more people into those facilities and keep them coming back.