Last summer was billed by one of the major sports networks as “The Summer of Soccer” and I was into it. My morning routine started by checking what games were on television that day and then I settled in and watched as much as I possibly could. I can safely say that I watched more soccer over the summer of 2021 than ever before. And it was great.
As a fan, I don’t think there is really any such thing as too much soccer. But for players and clubs, there has to be a limit out there. This MLS season has been, to my amateur eye, right on the verge. Too many games, too close together, with too much travel. A compressed MLS season was accompanied by an extensive World Cup Qualifying campaign, various federation championships, Concacaf Champions League, and Leagues Cup. Players broke down and depth was challenged and exposed throughout the season.
Meanwhile, there was the proposed European Super League and FIFA’s public pitch to stage a World Cup every two years instead of every four. And, if you were paying any attention during the Leagues Cup final in Las Vegas, you heard Don Garber announce a massive tournament involving every team from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX starting in 2023.
At the same time, MLS is set to expand even further, with the league coveting new markets like Las Vegas (you don’t think the Leagues Cup final was held there on a whim, do you?).
MLS is simultaneously expanding as quickly as cities and owners can build flashy new soccer-specific stadiums and putting more and more matches on the schedule.
Charlotte and St. Louis are set to come into the league in 2022 and 2023, respectively, bringing the league to an unbalanced 29 teams. It is pretty clear that the league is driving to reach 32 teams to create two 16-team conferences.
This all has me thinking about just how much soccer a league like MLS can reasonably play without fundamentally changing the way clubs, players, and fans approach the game.
So Many Tournaments, Such Little Depth
Prior to the introduction of the Leagues Cup, teams in MLS could compete for four trophies: MLS Cup, Concacaf Champions League, U.S. Open Cup, and the Supporters Shield (plus whatever rivalry trophies were played for in derby fixtures). Add a larger, compulsory Leagues Cup tournament to that and there’s no way around it: this is a lot of soccer for MLS squads that for the most part are already thin on depth and first-team experience.
As more and more MLS players earn international call-ups, the wear and tear on their bodies increases as well. This is one downside to the quality of play increasing in MLS: International breaks are not breaks for a lot of players at top clubs. You don’t have to look beyond the Sounders to see the impact of having several players leave for international play during the season.
The issue as I see it is that few teams in the MLS have the sort of academy and roster depth — or the resources needed to develop depth — to compete for multiple trophies in a year. Even before the expanded Leagues Cup kicking in, teams are forced to make real decisions about when to field their best 11 players and when to bring in bench players and academy youth to shore up their squads enough to play in Champions League or US Open Cup.
For a good example of the wagers clubs have to make, look at Portland’s early-season struggles this year after going all-in at CCL and suffering a few injuries. They gambled on CCL, essentially gave up points in the MLS standings by fielding a second-choice roster in early-season MLS play, and got burned on both fronts. That they have scrambled into a playoff position is actually pretty impressive, considering their relative lack of depth and a puzzling trade or two. But it still illustrates the challenges and dangers of more and more soccer being played by teams from this league.
The Sounders, in contrast, were able to stay at the top of the MLS table pretty much all season while still fielding their best team in Leagues Cup and absorbing a ton of serious injuries to front-line players. That’s what depth gets you. But look around the league. How many clubs can pull that off? Most rankings of domestic academy systems agree on the top ten: Dallas, Seattle, Philadelphia, Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, New York City FC, Colorado, Sporting Kansas City, New York Red Bulls, and DC United. This isn’t a definitive list, but these are the teams you can reasonably expect to thrive in a packed season with multiple tournaments and trophies. Each one of these 10 could reasonably be expected to compete for MLS Cup AND Leagues Cup or Champions League. I don’t see how any club could realistically field their best players for more than that, though someone might mess around and win a treble at some point. Given what we saw Schmetzer do this year with his squad, I wouldn’t put it past Seattle to be that team.
The cynic in me thinks that there are some unsaid ulterior motives at play among the owners and the commissioner in MLS. What the league is doing is essentially forcing teams to spend money on player development or be content in an unofficial “lower tier” of MLS, with fans who complain about early exits from extra-MLS tournaments. And with no fear of relegation, I expect many smaller-market teams to happily compete to make the MLS playoffs and maybe win a rivalry cup once in a while. They won’t feel pressured to compete for CCL or Leagues Cup seriously, and they will instead focus domestically.
Smaller teams will suffer after their initial marketing impact if they don’t win games, and better to show well on the domestic schedule than to go for it all with a short roster and fail in every competition. In short, I don’t expect small market teams to seriously compete for trophies other than MLS Cup. Modern fans are fickle.
At the same time, the fan and pundit pressure on teams in cities like Los Angeles to compete for every trophy will be massive. We will never get promotion and relegation in the United States, but jamming the schedule with more teams, more games, and more tournaments threatens to create a pretty intractable tier system within the league. I’d like to be proven wrong. I’d love to see a system that created more parity, but it is hard to imagine many smaller clubs putting up the money it takes to develop talent, buy star players, and field deep rosters.
The Big Question: What Trophies Matter?
I don’t see professional soccer in the United States doing away with the bracketed playoff model. Attracting fans from other US sports is hard enough, and any system other than a winner-take-all playoff is anathema to American sports fans, who don’t do well with nuance in their sports. Winning the top domestic trophy will always be what American fans focus on. So the MLS Cup will still be the most coveted piece of silverware for any MLS side. It’s really hard to win an MLS Cup and will only get harder with an expanded league, so the glow on that trophy will remain.
Beyond that, it really is up to the clubs to place value on the other trophies. Casual fans already have a hard time wrapping their heads around multiple tournaments within the domestic season. Try explaining to your Seahawk-fanatic uncle how in-season tournaments work. His head will explode. The clubs and the supporters will determine which trophies are most coveted, and clubs will signal that by the quality of players they put on the field. By pausing the regular MLS season for the expanded Leagues Cup, MLS is clearly signaling that they want this trophy taken seriously. I suspect it will be wildly popular and very entertaining. I just hope it doesn’t represent the added games that break the players’ figurative backs.
A 32-team MLS and the addition of the Leagues Cup likely obliterates the Supporters’ Shield as a meaningful trophy. Though that ship may have already sailed. This year, the coach of the team that actually won the Shield has downplayed its importance in a year where the two conferences didn’t really play one another. Schmetzer never wavered from saying it was an important goal, but that was more about the playoff positioning and the value of potentially hosting MLS Cup than it was about the trophy itself. When we simply don’t know the quality of play in each division compared to the other, the main value of the Supporters Shield is the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs that comes with it.
I’m excited about the prospect of playing more games against Liga MX teams. I just hope that this doesn’t dilute the MLS sides too much and make it so we cannot compete consistently. From what I saw in CCL and Leagues Cup this year, I don’t think the MLS is very far behind Liga MX. We’re not there yet, but more head-to-head competition will get us there faster.
If any of this sounds cynical it’s because I don’t trust professional sports leagues. Nor should you. They will win every time. You can hate MLS as a league, but we love our teams so we keep showing up. They have us trapped and they know it. So don’t count on Garber or any other commissioner to do what is best for the players or the fans. It’s about revenue and power at the end of the day. On the plus side, this increased competition and expansion is a serious step toward the MLS being taken seriously around the world. I mean, that will never really happen, but it’s a step and will add fuel to the fire of that argument.
Good News for Now
As I was writing this, MLS released the basic template for the 2022 season. A late February start with only a few midweek games per team and the bulk of the competition between conference opponents will give the season a lot more space to breathe than in the past two pandemic-influenced seasons. We can wrestle with the logic behind Nashville being in the Western Conference, but for now, next season’s schedule looks manageable in terms of the density of games and the travel.
What to Watch
We’ve all watched the second season of Ted Lasso more than once. So let’s let that simmer for a while and let them get season three into production (it’s being written right now, by the way).
In the meantime, click over to Netflix and watch The English Game. The six-episode miniseries looks at Arthur Kinnaird, one of the first football stars in the UK. The show examines the early class issues surrounding early English soccer. If you’re a sucker for the early history of the game like I am, you’ll enjoy this show, and the producers do an excellent job with the period settings and costumes.
What to Read
A student of mine shared the book Among the Thugs by Bill Buford with me recently. Again, as someone who can’t get enough soccer history, this is a great and informative look at hooliganism and its roots in the labor and class struggles in England. It’s hard not to look at the politics that underpin the violence in the stands and outside the stadiums and recognize a lot about the modern world, however, which is terrifying. If you squint and use your imagination, it’s not hard to see American soccer stadiums and their surroundings becoming fascist versus antifascist warzones. Hooliganism is, after all, manufactured and self-created warfare that is fueled by latent class and race tensions, as Buford’s narrative shows.
If that all sounds too negative for you, consider that I am overlaying most of that commentary on a book that does an excellent job of taking the reader inside a world we never get to see. It is a terrifying but even-handed first-hand account of an unfortunate but fascinating aspect of European soccer. I can’t recommend it enough. And I don’t recommend reading it on the train, lest your travel companions form some opinions about your ideology and intentions.
Texts from my Mom
You may remember that my dear mother is a newfound Sounders fan who likes to text me during matches while she watches from home. Last month I finally got her to join us on the North End for a match, and I have to thank Brad Evans, Steve Zakuani, and Keith Costigan for teaching her a lot about the game during local broadcasts. Her soccer IQ has skyrocketed, and it isn’t because of anything I’ve said (or written), that’s for sure.
She still texts me. But now they are as often about tactics as they are goals for or against the Sounders. For example, here are some gems I’ve saved of late…
Mom: Is there a reason Smith isn’t playing tonight? They need more speed on that side.
Mom (after a goal against): Coach won’t be happy with that. Defense looked completely lost.
Mom (after Medranda’s stunner in Portland): Wow. That’s one of the best goals I’ve ever seen.
What I’m saying is, we have to get mom on a broadcast sometime. She’d deliver great color commentary. So whoever is in charge of that, feel free to reach out. I’ll act as her agent.