By Ridge Mahoney
If you didn’t see it, please check out the excellent story written by my friend and colleague
Michael Lewis in the Guardian, harking back 50 years to the launch of the National Professional Soccer
I, too, have been around long enough to remember those days vividly if not always clearly.
Having already been in junior high school when the NPSL kicked off,
there’s a lot to look back on, such as the milestone attained in 2013 when MLS kicked off its 18th season and thus exceeded the longevity of the North American Soccer League, which emerged from
the rubble of ’67 to start up in 1968 and struggle for 17 years until it wheezed its last breath in 1984.
Unfortunately, I don’t think enough memory of those days survives.
For all its outstanding players, excellent teams and memorable games, the NASL never got close to succeeding as a business, and like it or not, a professional sports league and its teams must get the
money right or they are doomed. Many soccer leagues have failed in this country, and so have professional leagues in baseball, hockey, football, etc.
Why? Couldn’t pay the bills.
The drastic steps taken by the original group of MLS owners to get professional team soccer back in North America are routinely derided and ridiculed both here and abroad, but in
a 22nd season, MLS owners, executives, staff members, coaches and players who have labored to make it work and continue to do so have every right to ignore much of the vitriol aimed at them.
Get on the right Twitter feeds of a certain genre and every reference to MLS will refer to it as “shite,” perhaps the most unclever usage ever devised to use a swear word without
actually doing so. And most of what takes place in MLS stadiums every weekend does not compare favorably to the grand and glorious Premier League, which is so heavily stocked with foreign players that
teams that insist on using large percentages of English players usually suffer the consequences.
The Premier League is great entertainment but devotees of MLS should not give a shite as
to what fans of that league think of theirs, or how FC Dallas compares to Middlesbrough, or why Bradley Wright-Phillips lights up MLS after scuffling for regular minutes in England.
Heck, the English League started up in 1888, and it only took a century-plus for enough rich people to create means by which a league could spread its images and passion around the world. The
Premier League started up in 1992, with 104 years of competition and history and legend as a foundation. It predates MLS by four years. Not a fair comparison.
MLS is way behind the
world’s top leagues in many aspects yet just where it ranks compared to La Liga in terms of skill or Germany when it comes to stadiums just doesn’t matter.
So rather than grit
my teeth and increase my intake of blood-pressure medication, I laugh and ignore it. They don’t really care about us, so why should we care about them? I mean, really.
I also must
take issue with a tweet sent out by Eric Wynalda, and in the interest of full disclosure, I will say I’ve been fascinated by him since I first saw him play as a San Diego State (my alma
mater) freshman at the Division I final four in 1987. Without question, he’s not so much pushed the envelope as punched holes in it as a tremendous player, insightful coach and of course
free-swinging commentator and pundit for ESPN and Fox.
His barbed comments sometimes miss the mark as well as the truth but always command attention, and what drew my notice was a snide
reference to what is holding back American soccer is a lack of ambition to excel, basically, that we aren’t a world power simply because “we don’t want to be,” or words to that
Now, that’s rocket fuel for critics who want to blast off in any one of several directions. It’s a slap, or several slaps, at MLS for its single-entity system,
pernicious financial strictures, cumbersome player development programs, and -- in cahoots with U.S. Soccer -- absence of a soccer pyramid by which teams move between divisions via promotion and
All of those aspects of MLS and U.S. Soccer – and many others -- deserve scrutiny and critique, but one must remember one thing about Eric Wynalda – he takes issue
with everything and anything that isn’t done the way he would do it. As a provocateur, that’s his right and his job. Yet he knows all too well he’s not running the ship and ergo can
steer his ego in any direction he so chooses.
(Not too long ago he took one of his rips at MLS because it didn’t align its salary structure the way it is done in Germany, i.e., a
player’s compensation is heavily tied to appearances and results bonuses, in many cases, to the tune of 40 percent or thereabouts. The fact that most leagues don’t use such a financial
formula to the same extreme is not relevant to him, nor is the reality of the MLS Players Union fighting for more guaranteed money, not less, and longer contract terms for the rank-and-file players
most affected by trades, drafts and other mechanisms used by the league.)
I subscribe instead to the concept mentioned to me by one of Wynalda’s former U.S. teammates, Peter
Vermes, which is simply that “we” haven’t figured it out yet. And by figuring it out, he means developing and implementing methodologies that can work in this country given the
staggering obstacles of travel distances, academic issues, finances, competition from other sports, etc.
Duplicating the Dutch won’t work, nor will embracing the Brazilians, and yes
the growing pains have been intensely painful and will continue to be so. Sorry, kids, we’ve been playing catchup for about 50 years but only since we got back to the World Cup in 1990 after a
40-year absence did the race really begin.
There’s no need here to list the major developments and accomplishments of MLS and other leagues as well as U.S. Soccer in their efforts
to improve all aspects of the game in North America. Suffice to say a lot of time and resources and money have been poured into the game at many levels and mistakes have been made and there’s
still a ton of work to do and unfortunately, progress is a “long, hard slog,” as per the words of MLS commissioner Don Garber.
It’s extremely frustrating when
Liga MX teams consistently knock out MLS teams in the Concacaf Champions League, especially when a proud team like FC Dallas comes within a last-second goal of forcing extra time in the semifinals
despite not having its prime playmaker for both legs. Better luck next time.
It’s not going to be pretty and it’s not going to be easy, but if Bruce Arena believes the
USA could win the World Cup in 2026, hey, that’s only 16 years later than good old Project 2010 projected when it was instituted in 1998. It’s a noble goal to shoot for and coming up short
won’t be the end of the world.
And failure won’t mean we’re shite. We just didn’t get there in time.