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Jul 142013
Chinaglia 300x180 A (long and politically incorrect) ramble about Major League Soccers image problem

Who is the Giorgio Chinaglia of MLS?  Or, to phrase the question in terms of a more recent Italian international, who is the player most like Mario Balotelli in the American sports landscape?  I highly doubt a soccer player was the first, second, or third athlete to pop into your head.

One can hardly imagine Landon Donovan going on television to announce he’d decided to take his talents to a beach in Cambodia (or maybe you can)  or Kyle Beckerman being interviewed in his driveway while doing crunches.  Speaking of Donovan, no disrespect to him as a player, but is it not concerning that a 31-year-old balding man affectionately known as ‘Landycakes’, has been the face of the league for a decade now (whatever happened to that 14-year-old set to become the next Pele?).  Apart from Donovan’s shout out to Bianca at the 2010 World Cup, the ‘DaMarcus Collection’ of diamond jewelry, and some of the Deuce’s freestyles, the most interesting non-football story involving US soccer players in recent memory was the (alleged) affair between John Harkes and Eric Wynalda’s wife that led to the US captain being mysteriously dropped prior to 1998 world cup.

In a world where sports has become as much about entertainment and personality than anything, MLS is, for want of a better word, boring, when it comes to the sort of stories that occupy the back pages of tabloids in many countries.  Maybe this can be explained by the comparatively minuscule salaries many of the league’s players command, but the fact of the matter is, there is little to drive interest in MLS apart from the matches themselves.

Due to MLS’s obsession with parity, there are also rarely many major trends in terms of teams to watch as the regular season unfolds, with one club being in form for a few weeks before fading away.  No matter how much MLS tries to promote the Galaxy versus Red Bulls rivalry, only LA, with Bruce Arena’s leadership and the league’s willingness to create new rules to accommodate the team, have shown themselves to be an elite club on any sort of consistent basis.  Unless you are Toronto or Chivas (or DC United this year), no matter how poor your season has been, you can usually get back into the fray with three wins in a row.

Some may argue that this makes the league more exciting, and while no one wishes for MLS to turn into the ‘SPL on steroid’ that is La Liga these days; anyone who has ever turned on ESPN knows that what drives the majority of fan’s interest are the Yankees, Cowboys, and Lakers of sport, not the (sadly), the Mariners, Browns, or Pelicans.  People like to watch truly great teams, not a collection of mediocre ones.  Likewise, as much as the (false) cliche ‘any team can win on their day’ is rolled out, the fact is that soccer fans largely tune in to the Premier League to see ‘big four’, or now ‘big six’ compete (sorry Liverpool fans).  Stoke City vs Fulham and Wigan vs Reading do not qualify as a ‘Super Sunday’ in case you were wondering.  The sad thing, at least for those who wish to see US soccer succeed domestically, is that there are a lot of American ‘soccer fans’ who would be more likely to watch the aforementioned fixtures than most any MLS match.

In his quest to make MLS relevant, it seems that MLS Commissioner Don Garber still does not realize that MLS’s chief competitors are not the NFL, MLS, NBA, or NHL, but the Premier League, La Liga, and the spectacle of Champions Leauge football (not the CONCACAF variety).  There is no easy answer to the perennial question of what it will take for Major League Soccer to establish itself as a major fixture in the US, or even world, sports landscape.  There are a myriad of reasons given for the league’s lack of progress in this area, from the quality of play not being high enough, to the restrictive salary cap, to the inability of the national team in the minds of some deluded fans to win the World Cup.

Yet one aspect of the puzzle hardly ever addressed is the issue of how the league markets itself.  Don Garber’s recent decision to admit New York City FC into the league as the 20th team, essentially in place of the New York Cosmos, is a perfect example of the conservative approach that MLS has followed since it inception in 1993.  Garber chose the guaranteed stability a Manchester City and New York Yankees backed New York City FC could bring to MLS, in addition to the $100 million fee they reportedly paid to join the league, over the elephant in the room the Cosmos had become.

The Cosmos clearly were not about to replicate the days when the likes of Pele, Beckenbauer, and the aforementioned Chinaglia lined up for them; nevertheless, they would have generated interest both in the US and worldwide that could only have benefit MLS.  Instead, New York City FC only reinforces the image of MLS as a inferior ‘feeder’ league to the powerhouses of European football.  Why would I want to watch a team owned by Manchester City when I can watch the real thing from the convenience of my home, especially now that NBC Sports will be showing every Premier League game this coming season?

There were rumors that the Cosmos were not eager to comply with MLS’s strict and sometimes bizarre rules, where player’s are paid by the league rather than the clubs, a player can go play in Europe for ten years yet still have his rights owned by the team he left upon his return, and SuperDraft, Supplemental draft, and sometimes even Expansion drafts allocations are traded between MLS clubs for players instead of transfer fees.  Now to be fair, the league has shown a degree of wisdom in avoiding the pitfalls that befell the North American Soccer League, which went out of business after the 1984 season when the league expanded to quickly for the talent pool and the money ran out, by making sure the clubs are all financially stable and promoting soccer specific stadiums so clubs can have their own source of revenue.

However, now is not the time for caution, with soccer’s popularity on the rise, especially among the younger generations due to the high number of children growing up playing the game and its increased availability both on the television and online.  Just look at the way Fifa has surpassed Madden as the most popular sports game.  Therefore, MLS must realize they are operating in a global market and be aggressive in marketing itself not only in terms of quality of play, but also excitement, realness, and personality.  MLS is not going to be able to compete with the big European leagues financially right way (though raising the salary cap would probably help); therefore, it should embrace the unique qualities that make ‘American soccer’ appealing, not only its athleticism and hard work, but also its never say die attitude, swagger, and drama.

The league also need to find a new ‘face of  US soccer’, and I say, let him be both arrogant and bombastic, possessing both charisma and talent, a marriage between Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Christiano Ronaldo, and Joey Barton (okay, maybe not Joey Barton).  In conclusion (because its now 1:00 in the morning), if Major League Soccer truly hopes to become relevant in the coming years, it must embrace its three main fears: controversy, glamour, and  money, to make it not just a league that is interesting to watch on occasion if your team is involved, but a league that you need to follow.


Ben Hastings

Starting following football avidly after the 2006 World Cup, I try to watch as many different leagues as I can but follow the Premier League, Serie A, and MLS most closely. I am from Seattle and I am currently attending university. Also write for Forza Italian Football and World Soccer Talk. @ben1066

  One Response to “A (long and politically incorrect) ramble about Major League Soccer’s image problem”

  1. Great insight on this intriguing topic!

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