With the start of Major League Soccer’s 21st season this Sunday, loyal fans from all over the United States and Canada are anxiously anticipating the beginning of their favorite clubs campaigns. However, this will mark yet another season of the far from perfect MLS. In recent years, the league has done a good job of expanding to the North American audience, but how can they bring themselves to the next level?
Problem one, the games are simply hard to watch. Not hard to watch in the footballing sense, but hard to watch because they’re never on TV. Here in the States there are two nationally televised games a week. They are traditionally both on Sunday with one on ESPN, and the other on FOX Sports. No worries, you can still watch your local team on TV, right? Wrong. Due to blackout restrictions many local matches are unavailable unless you go to the stadium. I’ll use my case as an example; I live in Upstate New York, which means I’m in the TV market of a pair of MLS’s biggest clubs, New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls. In order for me to see these games they would either need to be playing in one of the predetermined nationally televised games that week, or I’d have to make the four hour drive down to the stadium. And if you’re in the UK, you’ll likely see one MLS game on Sky Sports a year. So in order to expand the league’s visibility the games simply have to be visible
There is no doubt that players like Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo are doing tremendous things for the MLS, but not nearly the impact David Beckham had nine years ago. The main issue is these players are using the league as a sort of a retirement community, and the young stars aren’t exactly coming to Major League Soccer en masse. The future of the league lies with international players still in their prime, like reigning league MVP Sebastian Giovinco and Mexican international Giovani dos Santos. The MLS’s designated player rule, put in place with the arrival of Beckham, allows a club to sign 3 players whose salary exceeds the maximum player salary ($387,500). Obviously, the number of designated players a club can sign would have to increase for the league to attract big names.
In order for Major League Soccer to become one of the best leagues in the world it will first have to ensure that it is the best league on its continent. The USA vs Mexico rivalry goes well beyond the national team level and the Dos A Cero trend that plagued the Mexicans for years. It seems like the nations have been going at it since the Alamo, and that will only continue with the continued growth of both leagues.
In the past week the CONCACAF Champions League has had four matchups between MLS and Liga MX clubs, which was a great chance for one league to make its case over the other. Unfortunately for Major League Soccer, following the first legs, their opponents from Mexico are favored to win all four matchups heading into their second legs.
Former MLS and USMNT standout Omar Gonzalez recently completed a move to Liga MX and hasn’t looked back. This presents yet another problem; national team talent who do monumental things for the growth of MLS, aren’t even playing in their home country’s league. United States National Team manager Jürgen Klinsmann has always been a supporter of players playing abroad, something which MLS commissioner Don Garber is not too thrilled about.
Liga MX isn’t the only league taking talent from MLS. In the most recent January transfer window, the Chinese Super League was buying talent left and right from the world’s biggest leagues like La Liga and the English Premier League. Last week MLS All-Star and former Newcastle United forward Obafemi Martins packed his bags to chase the large paycheck that awaited him in China.
The All-Star Game
This is one thing that is doing phenomenal things for Major League Soccer, where every summer the best MLS has to offer faces European mega-clubs like Bayern Munich and Arsenal. This not only has fans from all over the United States flocking to the host city, but also fans in Europe who tune in to get their first looks at their teams. However, wouldn’t it be cool to see a team of MLS All-Stars take on a team of Liga MX All-Stars? This would truly help to decide which league was truly better, by watching a game that directly compares the rival leagues best. The question is, which does the MLS pursue first? European influence or continental dominance?
Promotion and Relegation
In my opinion promotion and relegation is what is holding back European fans from consistently supporting Major League Soccer. If MLS wants to be a world superpower, it has to act like the one. It’s a tough call for Don Garber to make. The system is in place for promotion and relegation, but it simply isn’t happening because of a fear of losing US soccer fans who love the playoff format seen in major American sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB. In an anonymous poll, conducted by ESPN, 64% of MLS players interviewed said they were in favor of switching to a promotion and relegation system.
Major League Soccer is growing thanks to events like The FIFA World Cup, which bring waves of excitement for the sport to the United States. However, the league simply isn’t doing enough to draw from those waves to bring attention to itself from nations that are already wholeheartedly in love with the beautiful game.