The 2009 MLS season is now in the books, and a final long on quantity (120 minutes plus penalties), but short on quality has crowned Real Salt Lake the champions. I'm sure the streets of Salt Lake City will be in full Rio Carnaval mode well into the middle of the day. Elsewhere, GMs around the league will roll into their offices and continue the process of building their teams so they can take RSL's place on the podium next year. The long term strategy of MLS has always had a strong emphasis on containing costs and anyone familiar with the history of soccer in the US knows why that is. Blockbuster transfers for international superstars will not be a featuring in MLS for a very long time. Instead, finding bargain players will be key to MLS success and the true test of GMs across the league.
The league is entering what Dave likes to call MLS 3.0 phase. MLS participates in international competitions, tying the league into a system of competitions that can lead all the way to a world title. The league now largely avoids "Americanizations" and plays the game by the same basic rules as the rest of the world uses. The exceptions such as playoffs and the lack of a promotion and relegation system, while irksome to the purists, have been implemented in such leagues as Brazil and Mexico, countries in which soccer can be said to have had some success. In short, MLS has matured into a league that is part of the world soccer community and the trend is headed in the right direction.
The big challenge facing MLS is converting the US soccer fan into MLS fans. At the moment, a fan of soccer without a an interest in a particular MLS team, doesn't have a lot of reasons to watch MLS. The level of play in MLS is still clearly inferior and cable and satellite networks such as ESPN, Setanta, Fox Soccer Channel, and GolTV allow a fan to watch game after game from Europe, South America, and even Asia and Australia. The best of these leagues feature teams with nearly unlimited budgets who scour the globe to find the very best talent. Many of these fans may sample an MLS match here or there and find the play rough, amateurish, and not particularly appealing. That was certainly true of the final and it was not a display that would have convinced a soccer fan not already sold on the league to invest time watching MLS.
To make that final sale with soccer fans, MLS needs to improve the standard of play and this is going to require that the league push the envelope on both cost containment and parity. Some of the ways this could happen include:
Some form of free agency.
At the moment, if a team makes an attempt to re-sign an out of contract player, they retain his MLS rights indefinitely. While this may be a great way to avoid the bidding wars that can sometimes accompany free agency, it also makes it harder for MLS to retain out of contract players. Take the example of Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The Crew have made an insultingly low renewal offer that is over 60% lower than his previous contract. Schelotto is now awaiting other offers, but because the Crew have attempted to re-sign him, any other MLS club interested in his services has to compensate the Crew with a player or money. Conversely, a foreign team can simply make an offer directly to Schelotto himself without involving the Crew in any way. The upshot is that if an MLS team and a foreign team have equal resources to spend on acquiring Schelotto, the MLS team will be at a disadvantage because it will have to divert some of that to appeasing the Crew, while the foreign team can spend it all on Schelotto himself. Given that many foreign teams have much greater financial resources than MLS teams, the disadvantage can be enormous.
Filling the DP slots
Now that Schelotto is out of contract, there are ten out of the possible sixteen DP slots in the league remaining unused. While having a Designated Player isn't a guarantee of success, good DPs raise the standard of play in the league and that's something MLS desperately needs. The ball control, passing, and finishing skills of your standard MLS player are still very rudimentary and that leads to a pinball style of play where the ball carroms semi-randomly around the field for long stretches of the game. Ten more players of the Beckham/Ljungberg caliber could make a big difference in reducing that short of play to a minimum and moving MLS toward a more sophisticated standard of play. At a minimum, MLS should consider measures to push teams to either use or trade their DP slots. The simplest way to do that is to make the DP salary cap hit automatic, regardless of whether the slot is filled or not. No team could ever afford to throw away that much of their salary cap, so they must either find a good DP or deal the slot to someone who can use it.
Be first to top quality players, especially on free transfers
This is somewhat related to the previous point. Recently I posted on the giant missed opportunity that Juninho represented for MLS. To recap, Juninho Pernambucano, one of the worlds greatest free kick takers and top attacking midfielders, became available earlier this year on a free transfer and made it clear that he was willing to leave Europe. He ended up signing a two-year, $2 million per year contract with a Qatari club, a deal that is fairly average for an MLS DP, as it would have been third out of seven at the time (Landin had yet to sign at the time). Before the DP rule allowed MLS teams to offer contracts on a par with world standards, an opportunity to sign a player such as Juninho was irrelevant and could be ignored. Those days are in the past.
As I mentioned, measures like these would push against the long standing and well justified policies of cost containment and parity in MLS. However, caution can be stultifying and counterproductive if it becomes a veto against any innovation that might involve some risk. The one risk MLS simply can't take, however, is allowing the level of play to remain stagnant and mired in mediocrity.