Just saw this story over at SI.com. Don't feel compelled to read it as it basically paints a false picture of the current state of affairs. In a nutshell, it claims MLS is coming dangerously close to following in NASL's footsteps in four key areas:
- Gap between haves and have-nots
- Rapid expansion
- Small-market overspending
- League failing to develop American players
Without wasting too much time and energy debunking this nonsense, I'll attempt to deal with it quickly.
The Growing Gap
The author uses a rather trite anecdote comparing the crowd for the LA Galaxy-NY Red Bulls match that features five Designated Players and the SJ Earthquakes-KC Wizards match. About 25,000 showed up in New York, while just about 8,500 were in San Jose.
Is this a problem? Sure. Is it even close to being as big a problem? Not at all.
Even ignoring the fact that this represents a near record crowd for NY and a season-low crowd for San Jose, this is simply not a gap that even approaches NASL-level attendance disparity. In 1980, the peak of NASL attendance, an average of more than 42,000 showed up for Cosmos games, while six teams averaged less than San Jose's season-low crowd with as few as 4,465 went through turnstiles in Philadelphia.
The average gap in NASL was about 38,000 from top to bottom and it was 23,000 from second best to second worst. In MLS, the gap is a much more palpable difference of 27,000 from top (Seattle) to bottom (San Jose) and just 12,000 from second best to second worst. The average league-wide attendance in NASL that year was 14,443, while MLS is currently on pace to average nearly 17,000.
But the gap is not just about attendance, it's also about talent. Frankly, I don't see this either.
Let's look at San Jose as an example of a small-market team being overrun. A year ago, they were one of the worst sides in MLS. This year they are currently sporting the seventh best Points Per Match and are on pace to make the playoffs. FC Dallas, another supposed poster-child for inequity, missed the playoffs last year and is making a run at the Supporter's Shield this year. Neither team did this by going crazy in the transfer market or by acquiring high-priced talent.
Three of the top four teams (FCD, Columbus and Real Salt Lake) in MLS are currently small-market sides.
The NASL went from nine teams in 1973 to 20 teams in 1975 and peaked at 24 in 1980. In no consecutive years during the entire history of the league did they ever go with the exact same teams playing in the exact same cities. Teams were being added, contracted or moved every year.
Say what you will about MLS going from 10 teams in 2003 to 19 teams in 2011, but that's a glacial pace in comparison to NASL. It's also worth noting that no team has been contracted since 2001, and only two have ever suffered that fate, and only one team has ever moved.
I don't have the salary information for NASL handy, so I'll just take the author's word for it that small-market teams were outspending their means. I do have the same information for MLS, though, and I just don't see it here. Half the teams in the league aren't even maxing out the salary cap of about $2.8 million. Most of those teams don't have a single Designated Player and those that do have ones being paid relatively modest salaries. Supposedly, just two teams failed to turn a profit last year (once SUM money is included). No teams are in danger of being contracted. Is this really worth debunking?
Lack of American talent
This is barely worth addressing, but in case you're wondering, about 60 percent of MLS is filled by Americans while NASL was usually around 20 percent.
Admittedly, this article is not saying that MLS is currently in danger of becoming the NASL. Rather, it makes the impossible-to-disprove assertion that MLS will eventually turn into the NASL if current trends continue.
Maybe I'm looking at MLS through rose-colored glasses, but I just don't see the imbalance developing the way the Chicken Littles say it is. Some say MLS is controlling growth too tightly. Others say it is growing out of control. MLS seems intent on walking the middle path. Wake me up when there's an actual problem.