By Paul Gardner
On Tuesday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber gave us a 24-minute State of the League address -- sort of a pep talk, really, because almost everything he had to say was either positive, or was positively interpreted.
He’s been around now 11 years, has Garber, and he speaks well, and sounds comfortable, dealing with every aspect of the league’s many facets. Well, to be truthful, every aspect except one -- more about that exception shortly.
The summary that Garber gave us of the past year covered a series of solid, if not spectacular achievements. No doubt he and the rest of the MLS gray suits prefer it that way. Sudden, explosive triumphs tend to be short-lived, they burn out quickly, leaving doubt and suspicion behind them; better off with the slow steady tread of a more measured advance.
So MLS will go on expanding, just one or two teams at a time. But Garber let us know that plenty of cities are interested in joining the league, so we know that slow progress is not to be seen as a struggle, but rather as something marking his and the league’s confident control of its future.
And of course, there was continuing good news on the sponsor front -- MLS always seems to be doing well in that area -- with a 15 percent increase in, er, was it income? Or the number of sponsors? Can’t remember, but a 15 percent increase is undoubtedly good news whichever it is.
I liked what Garber had to say about the league structure. He left things open as to whether MLS would switch to a single-standings league (instead of the two-conference alignment), but made it very clear that the playoffs are here to stay, with a doubly emphasized “we will never do away with playoffs ... we will always have playoffs.”
I like that because I like the playoffs, and I like it because it is a rebuff to the tedious Eurosnobs who want only to replicate what “they do in Europe,” reducing the USA and MLS to a sort of Premier League West.
On player development, Garber presented a somewhat less than coherent series of initiatives designed to encourage the entry of young American-trained players into MLS. While it’s not too difficult to pick fault with all of these measures, the overall aim of them is not to be denied, nor, I think, can there be any doubt about desire of the MLS owners to see a steady crop of talented young stars entering the league.
No doubt, a goodly part of that desire has an economic base, as homegrown players are likely to be cheaper. I don’t think that motivation really matters -- and any way, it may well be incorrect. What matters is to set up a nationwide scheme (I’m deliberately avoiding the word “program” with its implication of heavy organization) that will provide opportunities for boys to develop their skills, and to make MLS an attractive future employer.
Very noticeable was the fact that Garber either forgot or deliberately omitted any mention of the colleges on this topic. Has it finally sunk in that any serious scheme to develop pro players will not come from the colleges? This looks like further evidence that Garber and MLS realize that they themselves will have to take care of player development. Which is thoroughly realistic.
All this translates into a revived, and presumably improved, reserve league, to expanding roster size, to removing the current restrictions on the number of “homegrown” players a club can sign in each season.
Garber also talked of helping the Federation to improve the quality of officiating. I happen to believe that, on the whole, the refereeing is quite good in MLS. I wouldn’t rule out improvements (sadly, the refs waited for the playoffs to pull off two of their worst decisions of the season) but what on earth can Garber mean when he talks of providing referees with “more technology”? Let’s just hope that he’s not talking about the famous GLT that so incenses Sepp Blatter (and yes, you are supposed to know what GLT means!).
Then there were continued assurances that MLS is actively pursuing the idea of placing a second team in the New York area -- which would certainly be the most exciting version of expansion that I can think of.
The weakest part of Garber’s talk -- maybe the only weak part -- came whenever he felt it necessary to talk about the game itself. Garber is not, in any way, a soccer expert -- he does not claim to be one -- but on occasions like this he’s more or less obliged to pretend that he is. To hear him discuss the relative merits of Dallas and Colorado is to wish he would change the subject -- quickly.
This is a serious weakness. The game as played on the field -- the soccer itself -- is, after all, the core of all this sponsor and fan and coaching and stadium-building and player-development activity.
It is a tricky subject, but one that MLS urgently needs to get right. As a new league, introducing a new pro sport into a pretty crammed market, MLS needs to present the most attractive “product” possible. Not just for ornamental reasons, but for selling-seat, getting-TV-ratings and attracting-sponsor reasons. For business reasons.
We’re looking into it, was Garber’s response. It seems that MLS has hired a European company to analyze its games -- presumably with the idea of working out what can be done to improve its excitement value. Garber talked of incentives for goalscoring and for wins -- “We've come up with a number of things that hopefully over time can incentivize attacking soccer” -- which sounds great, but may be missing the point.
There is attacking soccer ... and there is attacking soccer. Simply thumping long balls forward is attacking soccer. It might score highly on whatever stats the experts come up with. But it is not attractive, and usually not particularly effective. Missing are those magical ingredients of skill and artistry. The touches that will never show up in the stats.