Major League Soccer: a league of their own

SoccerEx is the go-to event  for all things concerning  the business of soccer. It  gets  the most powerful people in the game together to form relationships  for the betterment of the sport.

Held in Manchester last week,  the MLS Commissioner , Don Garber – its public face since 1999 – used the moment to hold a wide-ranging interview to not only show off where the league was up to, but also the extent of their ambitions.

The full interview in all of its glory is here:

Below are thoughts on the most pertinent points he made.

MLS do – and must continue to –   do it differently than other leagues

The core script from the MLS Commissioner was that MLS does it differently to the rest of the World.

They operate a  single-entity structure with no promotion/ relegation (it is  simply Major League Soccer), a restricted free agency and  a spring-to-December season. And they would like to keep it that way.

Their goal is to do things in a way which ensures they are around for a long time. That’s the only rule which matters.

We are happy as we are

It must first be taken into consideration  that professional soccer in the United States is in its relative infancy.

It doesn’t have 100 years of soccer history behind it  like other leagues and they  also have to compete for their place in the U.S. sports market (for the TV contracts which fund its existence and progression) against four other sports which do have the heritage.

Despite this, MLS has been pretty effective in its 20 years of existence at growing its game (and in ways which have probably exceeded the expectations of most), so they field a strong case  for continuing  to exist in isolation of the rules which govern the rest of global football.

No need to promote, nor relegate

This topic of contention was met with a firm belief that not only would  it not work for them, it  would only threaten the league’s existence.

While promotion/ relegation is the World Wide standard (as it works to develop and create a competitive structure for both the game and the players), it simply would not be practical for MLS – the U.S. already operates an established way of sports in their country. Minor/major leagues, East/west conferences, playoffs, drafts, high school state championships, college national championships. Soccer needs to do the same.

Plus, w hen you consider the reality of it, ‘Major League Soccer Division 2’ really becomes a contradiction. It is either the Major League or it isn’t.

That’s how it works for other US sports and they function rather well.

It is only a matter of time

Governance points  like such will rumble on and while they do, MLS’s focus should be on the pursuit of ‘catching up’  with its on-the-field product.

It is a fair assessment within the soccer community that right now, MLS is far behind the World’s top leagues. But  some positive commentary at SoccerEx was how it was widely accepted that one day, they will catch up with the rest.

“… it may be generations before MLS reaches the quality of the Premier League   and La Liga, but we want to be ‘part of the conversation’ globally for players  and fans.”

An ambitious, but   importantly realistic ambition to uphold for the league.

Yet they are still happy to be different

The adage, any given Sunday, applies in earnest to America’s NFL.

That is a league built on equality of talent and potential, and it operates with the belief that each and every week, any team holds the ability to win.

MLS is not dissimilar.

“We are very committed to the idea that at the start of every season every fan can think their team can win a championship.”

This is Garber’s declaration of what makes this league an interesting one (so far in its 20th year, the MLS has experienced nine different winners) – there is a belief with all teams that they have a chance of winning the title.

There is true competition in this league rather than a stronghold; even from those believed to be operating as one of the league’s more modest models.

This is a point of difference which is ownable and unique in the football World.

A new kind of tournament

Taking the conversation broader than purely MLS, Garber publicised an idea  suggesting  the creation of a potential  annual ‘Anglo-American Cup Tournament’.

Obviously just conceptual at this point, but talks have happened between representatives of the Premier League and Major League Soccer over it.

While none of the finer details were made available (and perhaps the news is stronger without them at the moment), the format of any potential tournament suggests pitting the MLS cup and league champion against an FA Cup and Premier League champion.

Clearly this would bring with it plenty of logistical hurdles, but it would also be a huge global PR push for both leagues if they were able to legitimise it and do it correctly.

Only time will tell if that can happen, but what this also says is that opportunities exist for the MLS and Premier League to work more closely together.

“There is more interest in investing in MLS than there are teams available”

This is an insight you can’t contest and one which supports the need for a commitment to be made to leave alone those things which are the core equities of MLS  (its single-entity structure with no promotion/ relegation, its restricted free agency, and its spring-to-December season).

In summarising Garber’s appearance – he didn’t hold back in executing a healthy dose of optimism and confidence .

And while it was an opportunity to show off the league’s improving metrics (attendance numbers, academy growth, the rising popularity of soccer among young people given America’s changing demographics), this was a declaration that this is a league on the up and their natural progression is taking them in this direction.

T his fantastic piece from the BBC’s Ben Smith is worth a visit in terms of looking at singular ambitions being realised:

Progress is being made at a remarkable rate – they are truly a part of the global conversation – and putting its stake in the ground for where it fits into the global soccer hierarchy for the future.

And if left alone to achieve it their way, in the future, anything is possible.


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