The Ending Adolescence Of Major League Soccer: Of Designated Players And Raised Expectations

HARRISON NJ - JULY 15: (L-R) MLS Commisioner Don Garber Head of Red Bull Global Soccer Dietmar Beiersdorfer Thierry Henry Managing Director Erik Soler and Head Coach Hans Backe pose for a photo on July 15 2010 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

In the first of a series of articles taking inventory of Major League Soccer post-World Cup, mid-transfer window, SB Nation Soccer editor Richard Farley discusses how new designated player rules should raise expectations of a maturing league.

Thierry Henry’s arrival in New York has finally satiated Major League Soccer fans' thirst for another big-name arrival, but accompanied by the arrival of Blaise Nkufo (as well as acquisitions by Chicago, D.C. United, and Toronto), the signing’s sparked the most anticipated transfer window in league’s history.  With new rules providing more flexibility to bring in talent, the league could be on the cusp of an era thought in the distant future before David Beckham arrived in 2007. Then, Beckham was brought into a league permitting each club to acquire one marquee player. Today, clubs have been given three designated player slots, and with one franchise already intent on filling each of those spots (and another linked with an attempt to do so), the summer of 2010 is poised to start satisfying those who’ve pined for an improved on-field product.

In the past, when discussing the perception Major League Soccer isn’t improving, I’ve demurred - giving MLS and commissioner Don Garber a pass until the league matured. Though in its fifteenth season, MLS is in its adolescence. At the same point in its history, baseball’s National League had only eight teams. The hegemonic National Basketball Association had just finished its sixth straight season won by the same team, while the National Football League featured a team being replaced midseason for failure to pay league dues. Fifteen seasons is nothing, particularly in a United States professional sports landscape that’s almost 150 years old.  The league's state and decisions need to be viewed with that perspective.

Eight Years Of Expansion

The relative health of 2010's Major League Soccer makes it easy to forget the league is only eight years removed from contracting 17 percent of its teams.  Now, MLS is two years away from nearly doubling the number of franchises that played the 2002 season.

MLS - 2002 MLS - 2012
Eastern Conference Eastern Conference*
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
MetroStars
New England Revolution
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Kansas City Wizards
Montreal Impact**
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC
Western Conference Western Conference*
Colorado Rapids
Dallas Burn
Kansas City Wizards
Los Angeles Galaxy
San Jose Earthquakes
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
FC Dallas
Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy
Portland Timbers
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders FC
Vancouver Whitecaps
* - alignment is speculative and for comparison purposes only, as MLS has not announced what the conference alignment for the 2012 season.
** - Montreal's MLS franchise may not keep the name of its current USSF Division II team.

Granted, the sports and economic landscape has changed drastically since the adolescences of baseball, basketball and football, but remembering back to MLS’s 10-team league of 2002, we see both the trials of a young sports league and how far Major League Soccer has come. That was the season after the league contracted the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny. Eight years later, the league has added its 16th team (Philadelphia), is half-a-season away from adding its 17th (Vancouver) and 18th (Portland), with a 19th (Montreal) to begin play in 2012. Garber is looking for a 20th team, at which time I’d said I would stop being deferential, start being more critical of the full-grown league’s direction.  The fully realized league would be MLS's passage into adulthood, my thinking went.  Until now, I’ve judged Garber solely on how he’s dealt with MLS’s adolescence, with the league deserving plaudits for its ability to stabilize its foundation while sustaining growth.

This winter, however, everything changed, with an alliance of ambitious MLS clubs pushing through new designated player rules, hinting at the early arrival of Major League Soccer's adulthood. Clubs like Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Toronto are fast-forwarding MLS past through its formative years, with each club having already filled its second designated player slot. At the same time, franchises like New England, Chivas USA, Colorado, and Real Salt Lake may make MLS an awkward teenager, with none of the franchises having ever signed a designated player. Given that one of those teams is the reigning champion of MLS, the wisdom of allocating so much cap space to one player could be questioned. Still, three of last year’s four conference finalists had at least one designated player, and with 10 of the league’s 16 teams having used the rule at some point in the last four seasons, the league seems poised to embrace its future.

MLS Designated Players
Team Player (Seasons)
Chicago Fire Cuauhtémoc Blanco (2007-2009)
Nery Castillo (2010-present)
Chivas USA Never used
Colorado Rapids Never used
Columbus Crew Guillermo Barros Schelotto (2008-2010)
D.C. United Luciano Emilio (2007-2010)
Marcelo Gallardo (2008)
Branko Boskovic (2010-present)
F.C. Dallas Denilson (2007)
Houston Dynamo Luis Ángel Landín (2009-2010)
Kansas City Wizards Claudio López (2008)
Los Angeles Galaxy David Beckham (2007-present)
Landon Donovan (2010-present)
New England Revolution Never used
New York Red Bulls Juan Pablo Angel (2007-present)
Claudio Reyna (2007-2008)
Thierry Henry (2010-present)
Philadelphia Union Never used
Real Salt Lake Never used
San Jose Earthquakes Never used
Seattle Sounders F.C. Freddie Ljungberg (2009-present)
Blaise Nkufo (2010-present)
Toronto F.C. Julian de Guzmán (2009-present)
Mista (2010-present)

With that embrace, though, Major League Soccer will lose the buffer that’s protected it from some of its critics.  That buffer had implicitly said, "once the league is done with its expansion phase, then is should be expected to compete," but with the new rules, some franchises are not waiting, deciding to push forward and acquire the talent that should allow it to compete in tournaments like CONCACAF Champions League.  

Champions League Results, Since 1997

Though Major League Soccer started in 1996, the league didn't enter the CONCACAF Champions Cup (the Champions League precursor) until the following year, experiencing immediate success with LA Galaxy's appearance in the 1997 final. The next year, D.C. United won the tournament, but aside from Galaxy's triumph two years later, Major League Socer has failed to replicate its initial successes:

CCL Finalists, 1997-present
Year Winner Finalist
1997 Cruz Azul (MEX) Los Angeles (MLS)
1998 D.C. United (MLS) Toluca (MEX)
1999 Necaxa (MEX) Alajuelense (CRC)
2000 Los Angeles Olimpia (HON)
2002 Pachuca (MEX) Morelia (MEX)
2003 Toluca Morelia
2004 Alajuelense Saprissa (CRC)
2005 Saprissa Pumas (MEX)
2006 América (MEX) Toluca
2007 Pachuca Chivas (MEX)
2008-09 Atalante (MEX) Cruz Azul
2009-10 Pachuca Cruz Azul

CCL, a tournament where MLS experienced great success at its onset (winning the competition in two of the first four tournaments MLS teams were entered), has become emblematic of the league's awkward phase.   In the wake of successes from great, turn-of-the-century D.C. United and Galaxy teams, it’s been a decade since a Major League Soccer club made a Champions League final. Then, Los Angeles beat Honduras’s Olimpia to win what was then called the Champions Cup.  With the league's new direction, hungry fans will expect MLS to start replicating that Galaxy team's success.

The season following that Galaxy triumph, Major League Soccer contracted the Florida teams and entered its now-waning stabilization phase. Increasing the number of designated players and raising the salary cap may not be enough to turn around Major League Soccer’s international record, but it’s an important statement of intent to critics, as have been the subsequent signings of Henry and Nfuko.  That statement:  Quality and results matter, and while Toronto’s signing of Mista and Chicago’s signing of Nery Castillo are more confounding than inspiring, they still exhibit franchises’ intent to improve the product for the fans.

And whether it be designated players, improved international results, or just better quality for the weekend match that’s trying to draw more ticket buyers and television viewers, the product is still the ultimate concern.  At least, it should be the ultimate concern for a league that's just coming into its prime.

With that in mind, MLS franchise results on the international stage are not the only worrisome trend concerning the league's product.  This summer, Major League Soccer participation in the World Cup hit an all-time low, presenting a potentially greater problem for a league that has always held the goal of improving the quality of home-grown talent.  If individual clubs fail internationally, the effects can be contextualized.  If the league is not producing (or attracting) players competing at the game's highest level, it becomes more difficult to sell the product.

In the next post, a closer look at Major League Soccer’s representation at the World Cup.

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