While the Premier League in England is experiencing continued growth, another little league is trying to doing the same. Major League Soccer has grown from a fledgling league to an improved league in a little over 10 years. Yet MLS has continually struggled on the international stage.
What should it do to improve?
In his second MLS roundtable, Thomas brought in fellow MLS community leader Joe Guarr, World Football community leader Salaar Arshad Shamsi, and a regular MLS and world football contributor, Eric Gomez, to discuss what Major League Soccer should do to increase its image on the international stage.
This year alone, MLS clubs have won only one international competition—the New England Revolution won the SuperLiga.
In the innagural CONCACAF Champions League, only two MLS clubs have made it to the group stages of the original four clubs—DC United and Houston Dynamo. DCU currently sit at the bottom of their group with no points and the Dynamo sit third in their group with two points.
USL clubs are doing better than MLS clubs are! The Montreal Impact are currently undefeated in the Champions League and are at the top of Group C with seven points. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rico Islanders are also undefeated and sit at the top of Group D with seven points.
So what's wrong with MLS clubs? That question is for another article.
If Major League Soccer wants to increase its image on the international stage, it's going to have to improve quite a bit. The biggest problem it has is its quality of play. Clubs and players in MLS are not awful but they aren't good either.
In order to improve, it's going to need to bring in more quality players, not star players necessarily. Once you get quality players, you then get quality clubs; and once you get quality clubs, the entire league soon improves.
You don't necessarily even need to bring in foreign players. MLS has one of the most extensive youth systems around. They can use it to bring out quality players that want to play in MLS.
Once the quality of the league improves, Major League Soccer can than qualify and compete on the international stage and improve its image. Once clubs from MLS start winning in international competitions, their image will also improve. I believe that an improvement in the quality of MLS clubs is what's needed to increase the league's image on the international stage.
I actually wrote an article about this a while back. I argued for four things in this article: a system of relegation and promotion, the abolition of the MLS playoffs, continued expansion, and an increased salary cap.
Those last two reasons are what I'd like to focus on. Currently, MLS sits at 14 clubs with a plan in place to be at 16 by the 2010 season, and 18 two seasons after that. This is good news for the league because most of the recent expansion cities have done a fairly good job of embracing their clubs. Toronto FC sold 14,000 season tickets before the team ever played a game, and Chivas USA always plays to good crowds.
I'd like to see MLS expand to 20 teams by 2015. There are many football-friendly markets in this country that have yet to be tapped into. There are ready-made fanbases scattered around this country, remnants of the old NASL, just looking for another local top-flight club to give their allegiance to.
These fans should take their lessons from the Sons of Ben in Philadelphia. The SOBs had no team to cheer for, yet fervently supported MLS and ended up playing a major role in the league granting Philly an expansion club.
With regards to the salary cap, it's simple. MLS can't compete with the salaries paid to players in the Mexican or South American leagues, much less European leagues. It's going to take more than aging superstars like David Beckham or Youri Djorkaeff to get the world to respect MLS. It's going to take money, more competitive salaries, and more competitive teams.
I'm on the record as saying that the MLS salary cap is a good thing, because it will prevent another debacle like the New York Cosmos. I'm very confident that the salary cap will continue to be raised as teams continue to gain sturdier financial footing.
Owning their own stadiums are helping a lot of teams take steps towards turning a profit, and this should continue (assuming that the recent economic plunge will be fixed somehow.)
The MLS is currently a sinking ship, Americans wouldn't want to admit it but the Major Soccer League can't even be compared to the likes of Europe's elite, which are the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, Portuguese Super Liga, German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1.
Now the question is, "What Should MLS Do To Increase It's Image On The International Stage?"
It's not really rocket science, The MLS is lacking quality, David Beckham's star presence has had an enormous impact on soccer in America. The MLS needs to recruit some more quality players to set a standard for themselves.
Secondly, the standard of football in the United States needs to be improved, The grass root levels need to be overlooked to churn out quality players from within the United States.
Thirdly, MLS needs to be advertised on a larger scale within the United States, Americans need to accept football on a larger scale, the following needs to come within one-fourth of the fan-followings of NBA, NHL and NFL.
Perhaps, bringing in quality coaches or managers from Europe or South America could help because the standard of soccer at school level and college level is nothing compared to other sports.
The NCAA's system for football needs to be reviewed and treated with as much of significance as the other sports.
While the obvious answer is to continue to import big-name international stars from European leagues, I don't know if that's been such an effective strategy for MLS.
It's certainly raised visibility for the league, and the sport (if only briefly) in the United States, but most any fan in Europe, if asked where David Beckham plays, will probably answer with "somewhere in America".
Qualifying a team to the FIFA Club World Cup would be a fantastically positive step for MLS.
It would definitely have people taking notice of soccer in America if, say, a Houston Dynamo gets to battle and even beat a Boca Juniors or a Manchester United someday soon.
If not just for the MLS to gain image points, US Soccer will be greatly benefited if the league becomes an exporting partner to the world's top leagues.
Granted, the strategy should be to send more Altidores and Adus...and less Donovans.