MLS Faces a Long Road to the Top

Champion’s League humiliation exposes major faults in MLS’ growth strategy
by Roy Rosell   |   Friday, March 21, 2014

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

The 2014 CONCACAF Champion’s League Quarterfinals could not have gone any worst for MLS.

Watching the 3 games that eliminated the remaining American teams from the competition in an all-destructive onslaught, I couldn’t help but feel that SKC, San Jose and the LA Galaxy looked like peasants with small daggers tossed in to a lion’s den, forced to hold on for dear life.

Los Angeles was torn apart within seconds, their pride and hopes of glory shred in to pieces within the first minute of play. Kansas City managed to hold on for twice as hold, letting the assault begin after 2 minutes. San Jose managed to save themselves from this utter humiliation but in the end, failed to achieve the one thing they had gone to Toluca to do: advance.

In the wake of yet another CCL failure against Central American competition, this one probably the worst is MLS history, it is becoming more and more difficult for MLS fans to formulate arguments pertaining to the continual growth of the league. More so, the likelihood of MLS HQ’s goal of becoming a top league by 2022 has turned from an achievable ambition, to just plain laughable. When the supposed best team in the league gets slammed 5-1, and the crown jewel of the league gets absolutely demolished, giving up 3 goals within 30 minutes and looking like a high school junior varsity team in comparison the entire time, it becomes clear that something has gone awry.

Up until yesterday’s revelation, I, as well as many other soccer and MLS enthusiasts, were starting to believe that MLS and Liga MX were finally getting close to being equal and even further, MLS was starting to close the gap on the EPL. The influx of talent from Europe and South America in to the league in the past couple years, the reintroduction of American stars and the overall excitement with all the new teams, owners, stadia and growth all pointed to a rapidly improving product. Taking in to account Real Salt Lake’s fantastic run to the CCL finals just a couple years back, expectations were very high for this time around.

Then, the worst disaster struck for 2 of 3 teams. San Jose pulled off an admirable result, but upon closer look, did nothing to prove MLS’ improvement or garner any respect from the non-fan. The Earthquakes were outshot 36-10 with Toluca hitting the target 11 times and having 72% of possession. When asked of his thoughts on San Jose’s efforts, Toluca’s coach stated that “(San Jose’s players) were all just sat back” and that San Jose had little style and “launched one thousand long balls.” He then added that, “Here (in Mexico), they say soccer has grown a lot in the United States, but I honestly don’t know in what way.”

Wow. That stings.

So where does the problem lie? Why is MLS so far behind even after the influx of new talent in recent years?

Well, the truth is that the teams are doing it all wrong.

MLS teams are paying players a lot more than they should be and failing to spread the talent throughout the 23. The drop-off from best player in the starting lineup to that player’s replacement off the bench is tremendous. Though splashing tons of money on big names helps from a marketing perspective, the on-field product does not improve unless there is a large sum of money set aside for the rest of the team.

Terra, a prominent sports program in South America, recently published study results of the highest paid players in each league in the Americas. Who came out on top? Jermain Defoe and Clint Dempsey – each makes around $9 million a year. Behind them are Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, among others. The top salary in Mexico goes to Humberto Suazo at the drastically smaller amount of $3 million a year. Additionally, the highest paid player in Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and others don’t even crack the $2 million mark, with most leagues’ top players making far less than $1 million. 

With this in mind, it is clear that MLS way of handling team forming and dealing with recruitment needs revisiting. Having a few highly paid stars may bring in more fans, but having dozens of sub-par players making under $100,000 on the same team as those stars is a recipe for disaster. It is this issue; the failure to spread the quality throughout the starting lineup that has resulted in the recent humiliation south of the border. Mexico, on the other hand, has mastered this spread of talent.

According to Aaron Nielsen of RedNation, the amount of money Toronto FC spent on their new acquisitions this transfer window is equivalent to purchasing the top 50 players in Mexico. In addition to that, Liga MX made approximately $83 million on players they sold this offseason.

The MLS?  About $4 million.

This clearly shows yet another gaping hole in our growth strategy: MLS is just not buying the right players and the league is not developing them either.

You’ve probably heard it a million times: “The key to success is in youth development!” Well, this is true. The reason Mexico is able to make such a huge sum of money in each offseason is because they are able to attract and develop young talent to such an extent that teams in Europe feel they are worth several millions. As a result of the success of young Mexicans in Europe, Mexico has built a reputation for quality youth development. MLS on the other hand, has been developing their academy players in order to send them off to all but kill their careers in college soccer.

After 20 years of existence, why has this not been fixed?

As for having a better chance at winning CONCACAF next year, how about playing some preseason games against quality South American opposition (and not equally unprepared MLS, USL and college teams). It might be a better method than placing the blame on the MLS’ season just starting.

Maybe getting knocked out of the CCL in this humiliating fashion is a good thing. Definitely not for the short term, but perhaps it will help to reassess priorities. MLS is getting too carried away with the glitz and glamour of big signings, new franchises, stadia and other bright and exciting things but forgetting about the most important factor: quality.

For the league to actually begin to improve, this must be a priority. Not who will get the last franchises, not what 30-year-old European star will be the new face of the league. The concentration needs to be on closing the gap with superior leagues and that will only be achieved by taking a close look at recruitment, player development, achieving a better spread of salaries and winning the elusive CCL so MLS can enter the conversation of being compared to some of the world’s best leagues. 

Roy ROSELL

Nationality:
USA
College:
Cal Poly Pomona
Club Domestic:
LA Galaxy
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Absolute fanatic, especially passionate about MLS and it's growth. LA Galaxy columnist with no filter and a knack for the controversial. Travelled the world watching soccer matches, but there's no place like home.
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