The Problem with Major League Soccer

MLS

by American Manc on December 5, 2012

The problem with the MLS lies in the league office, not on the pitch.

A very small handful of people in Los Angeles and Houston watched the LA Galaxy repeat as MLS Cup Champions on Saturday. Major League Soccer’s “biggest” game of the season pulled a 0.7 in overnight television ratings this year, down from last year’s 0.8 (which was outdone by a replay of an English Premier League match). That means approximately 2.02 million American televisions tuned into the match on Saturday at one point or another, 26.88 million less than what showed college football’s SEC conference championship game that it was directly competing with.

Not even the hullabaloo around David Beckham’s last match could get fans excited about this one, though at least now we can stop watching Becks pretend to give a shit about the MLS.

“Today was always going to be an emotional day for myself, win or lose”  the La Liga champion, Champion’s League champion, two-time FA Cup champion, and six-time English Premier League champion said after winning his second MLS Cup. Beckham has done a lot to grow the game in the United States – that much is undeniable. But it still has a long way to go. When asked about his future, post-Galaxy career:

“My commitment stays the same to the MLS, I might not be playing here anymore, but my commitment stays the same to grow this league and to continue to have days like this.”

That’s all well and good. Hopefully he means it; hopefully he does remain – in some capacity – an ambassador for the MLS. He paved the way for guys like Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, and Tim Cahill to come over to the states where they can be paid exorbitantly more than their teammates (not to mention more than they’d get anywhere else) and be able to face – shall we say – a comfortable level of competition while they play out their waning years. And I mean that with all due respect.

When asked how it feels to have done so much for the growth of soccer in the U.S., Beckham responded ever graciously:

“Soccer’s done a lot for me here in the States as well, you know, I’ve learned a lot from being here. I’ve learned the people love this game here, people love being successful here. It’s been – proud moment for myself to be a part of this.”

I don’t doubt his sincerity, but let’s not act like his $6.5M/year salary and potential to grow his personal brand in a city as rich in pop-culture as Los Angeles didn’t have anything to do with his decision to play in the MLS – not to mention his declining form/involvement with Real Madrid.

But how can Major League Soccer continue to grow if its cup final ratings do the opposite? For starters, it can eliminate the cup all together.

One thing we learned from the Galaxy’s second consecutive title is that the regular season doesn’t mean jack shit. The Galaxy finished with 54 points on the year, 12 points back of league leading San Jose. In a standard league table, the Galaxy would have finished 8th – the same position Liverpool finished in the Premier League last year in one of its most disappointing seasons in club history. Yet, due to America’s supposed insistence on a playoff and decisive “championship game” system, here the Galaxy sit at the end of the campaign with the MLS crown.

Just for kicks, let’s compare the “MLS Champions” with the San Jose Earthquakes in the major statistical categories:

 Los Angeles

 San Jose

Points

54

66

Wins

16

19

Losses

12

6

Draws

6

9

Goals For

59

72

Goals Against

47

43

Goal Differential

+12

+29

In fact, San Jose had more wins, fewer losses, more goals scored, and a higher goal differential than every other team in the league - and it wasn’t even all that close:

San Jose

Second Place Team

Points

66

63 – Sporting KC

Wins

19

18 – Sporting KC

Losses

6

7 – Sporting KC

Goals For

72

59 – LA Galaxy

Goal Differential

+29

+18 – Seattle Sounders

Take issue with the Quakes’ style of play if you must, but the results are the results. But I mean, hey – who really cares about those first 34 games of the season anyway?

And if the MLS absolutely has to have a playoff format, tweak it.

Currently more than half of the 19 teams in the league make the playoffs. Re-read that last sentence so you can truly relish in its absurdity. One way the MLS can reintroduce integrity back into the regular season and maintain its precious playoff/championship game format is to take the top team from each conference and pit them together in a two-leg championship series. Poof – instant credibility.

And once you’ve done all that, get the season on a different timetable. American football is king in the states, especially when it comes to television ratings. Scrap the current schedule and model one after any of the European leagues. Take Germany’s Bundesliga, for example. If the season starts in late August, takes a three-week winter break in December/January, and then finishes up in May, the MLS won’t have to worry about the climax of its season directly competing with NFL or NCAA football for ratings – and should fare much better against regular season NBA and early-season baseball. It also puts the MLS on the same timetable as the four biggest soccer leagues on the planet (which you don’t have to compete with ratings-wise due to time difference) and lines it up more appropriately with European transfer windows.

I know I’m not the only American soccer fan who wants to like the MLS, but the powers’-that-be insistence on Americanizing an inherently non-American sport is holding me back from falling in love with the beautiful game being played in my own backyard, and it’s time for that to change.

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

For British Eyes Only December 5, 2012 at 6:01 PM

Very well said Manc. I agree with everything you’ve said here. I’d even like to add an idea that has always been on the forefront for me. Why not embrace the loan system in Europe? Top teams have plenty of youngsters that they want to ship out for some consistent playing time. Usually they’re forced to send them to lower divisions within their own country or send them out internationally where they may not know the language. It would allow for the younger potential European superstars to grow while also improving the talent level across MLS. It could also allow some European vets to get some playing time to earn back a spot on a first team squad. It would’t force the MLS owners to change much of their fractured wage structure either. I could talk about what MLS needs to do for hours. It’s surprising that so many American soccer fans couldn’t care less about a league in their own backyard. I keep hearing that it’s growing and here to stay, but I’m skeptical. Good post man.

American Manc December 6, 2012 at 1:17 AM

There are certainly other things I would change, the loan policy among them, but I would start with the general structure of the league (like you, I could talk about this for hours). I could get into the MLS, I’ve seen some quality play – flashes of brilliance, if you will – but I just can’t do it with the way it’s currently set up (it also doesn’t help that the nearest team to me is an 8.5 hour drive due north). If I were armchair-quarterbacking as CEO of this league, my first order of business would be to eliminate the divisions a crown a champion the conventional way.

MLS decision makers don’t seem to understand that the majority of soccer fans in the states are fans of teams/leagues overseas. Ratings for Premier League matches on Fox Soccer are far higher than marquee MLS matches; subsequently MLS TV broadcast rights are quite the bargain (that most networks still aren’t willing to pay) compared to the PL. I just don’t understand why they insist on being different when there’s already a model for success out there – everywhere.

The Casual Observer December 6, 2012 at 11:43 AM

Americans aren’t stupid…ignorant of some of the finer points about soccer I will grant you, but not stupid. It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the regular season means nothing in the current format so why watch? Which means no TV ratings for the regular season. And with all the “other” football games around when they are now doing the finals, there is no way they will draw anyone to that broadcast either.

I would disagree with American Manc on one thing though. I would keep the divisions…at least for now. I would have an unbalanced schedule so that the division teams had to play each other more often, and I would do that for some period of time so that some regional rivalries would be fostered. It is one of the things missing in MLS that hasn’t been mentioned. Can anyone imagine a Manchester United vs Arsenal (or City, or Liverpool, or even Leeds) match that had half the stadium seats empty?

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