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.
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|
|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)|
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)
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.
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.