[MY VIEW] Major League Soccer has a lot to be thankful for in April of 2010. A player strike was averted. One new stadium was recently opened, another will open soon, and three more stadium projects are moving forward.
On the field? Scoring was up last weekend -- an average of 3.25 goals per game -- but the fact of the matter is that some abysmal defending was a big contributor to Saturday's output.
For every team that's gotten its a ct together and picked up some real finds in the offseason -- Kansas City with English left winger Ryan Smith, the early candidate for Newcomer of the Year, and midfield dynamo Stephane Auvray, New York with Joel Lindpere and New England with rookies Zack Schilawski and Seth Sinovic -- there's another team that's struggling and made some dubious pickups. D.C. United, Toronto FC and Chicago to name three.
Every sports league is going to be this way -- some teams improve, while others regress. Some teams fill holes, while others find new ones.
My knock is on MLS is that as a young league playing an up-and-coming sport, it should be improving from top to bottom each year. For a league with its ambitions, MLS's teams continue to sign too many bad players or players who turn out to be bad signings, which in turn leads to my other beef with MLS -- there's far too much in-season turnover.
MLS's level of play is being kept down by a variety of factors.
-- MLS continues to suffer from a trade deficit -- it loses too many good players to free agency abroad that other American sports don't lose.
-- MLS's top rookies aren't impact players the way NFL or NBA rookies might be (though we'll modify this if Schilawski continues to produce).
-- As long as MLS teams don't spend on the transfer market, they are forced to take chances on too many longshots, players who want out or are unwanted at their current teams or have been free agents of some duration.
An extreme example is D.C. goalie Troy Perkins, a World Cup candidate just a few months ago. D.C. expended a lot of MLS capital, you might say, and made him the cornerstone of its rebuilding effort, but he's been very shaky behind -- true -- a backline in turmoil.
D.C. hoped one of the answers in the back would be Bolivian Juan Manuel Pena. A classy defender with loads of experience. But he's 37 and was retired when he signed last month. Should it be a surprise that he was injured minutes into his second game and is now sidelined?
Chicago has gone through three players -- Mike Banner, Krzysztof Krol and Deris Umanzor, the latter two imports -- at left back in three games.
And then there's Toronto. Where on earth did TFC find Latvian left back Raivis Hscanovics, whom the Revs' Sainey Nyassi so exposed? And what has Preki been thinking all these months? The only thing that appears to stop him from doing a complete makeover of TFC is Thursday's transfer deadline. He'll need to wait until July 15 to shop anew.
It's great for MLS to talk about adding a second and third DP to each team, but let's first stock every team with decent players. Bad players or bad signings mean lots of turnover -- from month to month, and season to season.
My theory about MLS is the same as it was 30 years ago about the NASL, a league too reliant on foreign players at the end of their careers or on loan. MLS will never achieve its potential until a majority of its best players spend their entire careers in MLS. Until then, MLS fans are deprived of seeing too many players in all or part of their prime, and the league can't fully amortize its investment in the promotion of its best young players.
What can be done about all this?
The expanded DP program isn't the answer. MLS fans have gotten to see Juan Pablo Angel for four seasons with the Red Bulls, but what about all his earlier years?
New homegrown rules are a start. Anything to accelerate the signing and development of young players helps. Players who will begin their careers at affordable salaries and might spend their entire careers in MLS.
If MLS doesn't want to spend money on transfer fees, that's fine. But it must cut down on the number of really bad signings. Right now, teams can cover up their mistakes by replacing them during the summer transfer window that begins July 15 and offers teams a greater abundance of talent than during the window that closes on Thursday.
During the recent labor talks, guaranteed contracts were a huge issue and they are tied the summer transfer window -- MLS teams don't want players to have guaranteed contracts because they want to be able to replace them during the summer.
MLS can start by limiting the number of players teams can acquire on the international transfer market after July 15. Say, two per team. No exceptions.
Anything that forces teams to be at their best on Day 1, not Day 101, will be a start.