Professionalism is an odd topic. It can be as simple as "Does one get paid?" The NCAA has hundreds of pages and dozens of people dedicated to codifying the differences between amateur and pro status. Yesterday, after the Portland Timbers debuted their new dedicated training facility some on Twitter were claiming that the Timbers are still not a fully professional organization because they play on artificial turf. While that view may seem odd, it does capture a bit about how difficult it is to define professionalism. There's an eye to Europe in the soccer community. This phrase is usually just a short way for people to say England, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Sometimes they will include a handful of the other more developed Western or Northern nations.
When it comes to professionalism is a player like say a Roger Levesque a pro? Was he 10 years ago when MLS entry level salaries were minuscule, practices were held on high school fields and the league's ability to succeed in the sports landscape of America could regularly be questioned?
Are the more than 40% of players of players not receiving regular paychecks playing in certain European "pro" leagues professionals? Are leagues and clubs that threaten violence upon players professional? When clubs have combined debt and owed taxes levels beyond the value of their team is that professional?
Professionalism is about more than a paycheck. It is about more than benefits. In many ways it is about attitude and approach. It is something which Roger Levesque has experienced as he bounced from fringe MLS player to USL stalwart back to MLS as a regular member of the 18 on a top team in MLS. Yesterday at practice he and Sounder at Heart talked about the changes he's seen in MLS in light of what are new developments in Europe as of this week.
Roger didn't talk about the growing TV ratings (up more than 50% after the move from FoxSoccer to NBCSN and stable on ESPN2), or attendance (up about 3,000 per game on average). When first asked about the changes in the league he talked about the approach of young players coming into MLS and their time around soccer.
The league continues to get stronger. It's not just in expansion, the adding teams/franchises, I see it the most in the younger players coming into the league. Guys on our team like Alex Caskey, David Estrada a few years ago, Andy Rose. Guys like this who have been playing a long time, but have a little bit different of an attitude than players coming into the league 10 years ago, like myself. They're very committed to getting better, committed to the sport in general. That is indicative of where the sport is at. These kids are really excited about where the sport is headed, where the league is headed and the ability of the league. They see a bright future in it and our putting that effort into continuing to grow the league and grow the sport.
It's a generational thing. These players are now growing up thinking about being able to play soccer as a career. Maybe not lucrative, but a career in their home nation or adopted nation that can pay for a decent life. It is also generational amongst fans. While some MLS 3.0 markets have embraced their NASL roots and celebrate their second and verging on third generation of fans, MLS 1.0 markets are on their second generation and all within MLS, all about that one team playing at that level.
It's not just about having a tribute to a fallen fan that helped lead the supporters movement in the most storied of MLS teams as D.C. United just did. It is about players who grew up with their fathers playing in the league (Teal Bunbury, Conrad Warzycha) or even growing up a fan of one of their former teams (Drew Moor).
Players of the generation just entering MLS have something that players in Levesque's generation did not have. A professional top flight league that existed from their youth to the present day. Levesque noted that the play on the field has changed since his 2003 debut with the San Jose Earthquakes.
The game continues to get faster and faster as guys are getting better technically. It's not just faster physically and not just due to touch, but the thinking in the game as well. The younger guys can adapt better to that game playing as much as they did before going pro.
Salary levels in MLS are not high. Even the highest paid non-DPs are in salary ranges where you may have a family member or friend at the same level. But they are livable. They are attainable. They can be a step from entry level wages to so much more. Levesque thinks that even the small bumps in salary recently may be attracting more Americans to soccer.
That comes with stability of the league. That may be part of it. I think the sport in general is finding its space here in the United States. I think people are excited about it. That whole feeling starts from an early age.
When it comes to professionalism, MLS and American soccer are making strides. These advancements are things that are just now agreed to in "Europe." Contracts written on paper and signed by all parties aren't new to MLS. Nor is health care, nor timely payments, nor paying of taxes. Clubs at the MLS level are not in danger of bankruptcy on an annual basis. Levesque credits the MLS Players Union and the growth of the organizational structure of MLS as key parts of that.
I think that the Union has been a big part of that. It's been so important over the years to get more players' rights -- things like health insurance, things like guaranteed contracts if you've been in the league a certain time. That's drawing more people to soccer to make a good life out of it. You're seeing improvements in the league from an organizational standpoint and that's improving the teams.
When we consider professionalism as pertains to soccer -- it is about pay; it is about benefits; it is about the attitude of players and their treatment by teams. When we think about MLS and its place in American sports, sometimes it's good to remember where soccer was even just a decade ago. Or maybe both can be summed up with Roger Levesque's first words to me yesterday.
It's heading in the right direction. The league continues to get stronger.