MLS in Search of Pizazz

By Paul Gardner

What the old North American Soccer League had, and what the new Major League Soccer does not have, was pizazz.

As the NASL is now dead and gone, while MLS is flourishing, what price pizazz? If it leads to extinction, then MLS is clearly better off without it. MLS has just completed its 15th season. It is an expanding league, it has 16 clubs, it will go up to 18 next season. We have Commissioner Don Garber’s word for it that MLS is a “healthy” league.

At the end of its own 15th season, in 1982, the NASL was anything but healthy. It had 14 teams -- but that was down from 24 teams in 1980. Ten teams had folded in just two years, and it was about to get worse, because two more disappeared before the 1983 season started, and at the end of the 1984 season, the league collapsed.

That is a direct comparison that should make MLS feel pretty good. It has proved a much more solidly grounded project than NASL. It’s easy now to look back at NASL and condemn it as a league that paid too much attention to image and not nearly enough to financial stability. A league that relied on pizazz to make a breakthrough into the mainstream of American pro sports.

The attempt, obviously, failed. But the pizazz angle is worth a close look. In the NASL, the pizazz came from the Cosmos. The two were one and the same thing. They created plenty of excitement and entertainment, and brought the league media coverage the likes of which soccer had never experienced in this country.

But what must not be overlooked is that the Cosmos, however much the glamour and glitz of the celebrity lifestyle surrounded them, were always a damn good soccer team. The huge crowds they drew to the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey were rarely, if ever, disappointed by a poor game. There was always plenty of action and goals. It was an exciting experience -- it was always a fun place to be.

If we take that element -- the pizazz factor - and make another comparison with MLS, things do not turn out so well for MLS. It’s almost as though MLS has made the decision that pizazz = frivolity = failure. Therefore no pizazz. And, believe me, for the first 14 years of MLS existence, no pizazz was what the New York (and New Jersey, too) fans got.

In the very stadium in which the Cosmos used to glitter, the MetroStars and after them the Red Bulls were a grotesque reminder of more vibrant better days.

I’m not about to suggest that putting MLS on a sound financial footing is of no importance, but it is not a process that can ever come over as something enthralling. It’s an essential but -- from the sports point of view -- utterly dull component of the picture. We’ve now had 15 years of MLS trying to ensure financial security -- and if we take Garber at his word, it has done well in that area, it has produced a healthy league. In the process it has, perhaps inevitably, saddled itself with a drab corporate image. Concentrating on business matters will do that for you.

I get the impression that, each year when Garber gives us his state-of-the-league message, a staple ingredient is that sponsor dollars have increased. Good news, for sure. But pizazzy news? Hardly.

The pizazz that MLS needs must come from happens on the field. If MLS cannot afford to sustain a team like the Cosmos, it at least needs to offer a consistently exciting version of the sport. It is not good news that MLS has just completed a season in which its scoring rate was the lowest ever, at 2.46 goals per game. Garber did not mention that stat in his address, but he is obviously aware of it, and what it means.

As an overall indication of a league’s pizazz, goalscoring is a pretty good measure. But not quite everything. The Cosmos scored plenty of goals, but they scored them in great style. Cosmos goals were frequently memorable goals, highlight goals. It is an underlying ability to raise a whole 90-minute game of soccer to a high aesthetic level, punctuating it regularly with the climactic excitement of goalscoring, that creates the excitement that MLS is lacking.

The problem -- and the evidence of MLS awareness -- came together nicely during MLS Cup 2010 in Toronto. The game was won by the Colorado Rapids, who must be the worst team ever to win the title. They do, as it happens score goals. They were the second highest-scoring team in MLS. But they are still an almighty bore. Of the five goals that Colorado scored in the playoffs, not one had any outstanding soccer merit. The “climax” came with the goal that won them the title -- an own goal by a Dallas defender.

None of that will matter will to Colorado. But it should be a matter of deep concern to MLS that a team playing such primitive soccer should end up as the champions. When Gary Smith -- who happens, not incidentally, to be English -- took over as the Rapids coach in 2008, he told us that his aim was get the team playing like England’s Arsenal.

What he has produced is a team that doesn’t look anything like Arsenal. A team that is almost the very opposite of Arsenal. An unimaginative blue-collar team. That term, blue-collar, is not my description.

Both the Rapids’ defender Drew Moore, and the team’s technical director Paul Bravo used it after the final as a way of defining a strength of the Rapids. Conor Casey, rather more to the point, admitted that “it wasn’t the prettiest of games.”

An wild understatement, of course. But MLS is trying to do something about it. Garber has announced that a full-scale analysis of MLS soccer is under way. A European firm has been engaged to prepare a detailed documentation of every aspect of what happens on MLS fields -- all the throw-ins, the offsides, the goals, the saves, the substitutions and so on. It remains to be seen whether that approach -- which smacks of the corporate -- is the way to produce fine soccer.

But there can be no arguing with the intention: putting more pizazz into MLS soccer. Also, though MLS cannot say this, trying to make sure that we do not get a repeat performance of a team as banal as the Rapids turning the final into a boring, blue-collar brawl.

8 comments about "MLS in Search of Pizazz".
  1. Ed Farnsworth, December 9, 2010 at 8:40 a.m.

    16 MLS clubs, increasing to 18, no?

  2. Ian Plenderleith, December 9, 2010 at 8:40 a.m.

    The Beckham Rule was supposed to be the 'pizazz' move, but that has only worked in terms of bringing the league publicity, not exciting soccer. In theory it's all very nice that Salt Lake and Colorado can call themselves champions, but when a mediocre team wins the title crown it only reflects the overall poor quality of play. There must be a gradual or wholesale removal of parity, and an abolition of central control of player contracts - these are the two best ways forward to create exciting teams. At 15 the league's a growing, restless teenager, and MLS is having trouble letting go of its offspring. In a couple of years, though, these teams will need to leave home and cope for themselves without parental controls.

  3. Ted Westervelt, December 9, 2010 at 9:45 a.m.

    Both the MLS and NASL are mutants. Both leagues imposed themselves on the narrative. All this pressure that people are applying to them wouldn't be needed if every club was in charge of it's own fate. If a club chose "Cosmos pizazz" in an attempt to win games - great. If another chooses Estudiantes brawn, great too. Leagues shouldn't be deciding the personality of clubs. Perhaps what works for McDonald's and Burger King does not work for soccer. Perhaps league investors have to invest more than money for soccer to reach it's massive potential in the US. MLS has tried all kinds of lipstick. It's still a pig.

  4. Brian Something, December 9, 2010 at 10:05 a.m.

    Gary Smith was confused. He meant he wanted to play like the Arsenal of 1988, not the Arsenal of 2008.

  5. James Froehlich, December 9, 2010 at 3:08 p.m.

    I'm surprised that nobody has raised the question of exactly where this "European firm" will be from. And whose expertise will they be using? English FA gurus? Maybe if they're from la Liga, I might pay attention but why pay for this report when I'll tell you , for nothing, what the problem is: US players can't pass, trap, or dribble under pressure --- period. To compensate for this deficiency, they play physically and MLS referees allow it to happen. You can't have pizazz without skill and you can't have skill without protecting the skillful players. Instead of paying me or some consulting firm to do some ridiculous study we should just make all US/MLS players sit through repetitive showings of the Barca-Real Madrid game.

  6. Alvaro Bettucchi, December 9, 2010 at 11:16 p.m.

    Everyone has put in their comment, and each one has its' own merit. I'd like to add one more, that no one has mentioned. Have a first and second division, with no playoffs. The team in first place has to be consistant throughout the season to remain there, and others will have to play consistant soccer to remain in the top half, where extra money prizes would go to more than one team (maybe the top four?). The bottom two drop, the third and fourth from the bottom, playoff with the 3rd & 4th from the top of second division, and the top two of the second division move up.

  7. Karl Ortmertl, December 11, 2010 at 9:58 p.m.

    The MLS is in a unique situation, but I doubt if those who run the league have the imagination to take advantage of it. It cannot now and never will be able to compete financially with the big European leagues. Soccer will never generate that kind of passion here. Therefore, instead of blindly and blandly trying to immitate those leagues, why not create a unique, more appealing product? Make it a finesse league instead of just another, second rate in this case, goon league. Referee the matches like basketball where if you impede people or knock them on their ass, it's always a foul. The idea is to attract finesse guys who play the beautiful game rather than second rate goons, which is all we can afford over here. Create a pleasing, high scoring game, just by getting rid of the goon-ism and signing skillful players who don't make much because they are unable to compete in the goon leagues.

  8. x x, December 12, 2010 at 12:07 p.m.

    Unfortunately Mr. Gardner comes from a time when pundits were considered to be all knowing. Fans could only watch live games or their own team on TV. If they were really lucky they might catch that out of market TV game. Back then pundits could behave as they were all knowing because as far as us fans knew, they were calling it just as it was.

    Back then we didn't have the means to know better. We didn't have satellite TV. We didn't DVD players for recording games nor the internet. We didn't have decent access to archived games. We just didn't know better.

    But we have all those things today. Unfortunately for Gardner, even the more casual of fans have seen old games. They've watched other teams in other markets. They would never look at the 1978 Minnesota Kicks and say they had "pizzaz". We know they rarely if ever scored goals of "soccer merit". Take away the beautiful Ace Ntsoelengoe and you had to team that did nothing more knock the ball as far forward as possible and pray that Futcher or Wiley can bully the ball into the back of the net. The Kicks were better than most NASL teams. It wasn't a league with pizzaz but a handful of creative players surrounded by industrious brick layers with accents.

    These days as fans we see these games and know better. Unfortunately Mr. Gardner still wants to behave as though it's 30 years ago. He wants to pretend that we don't see other games. That we don't know any better and still turn to pundits to show us the light.

    But we do know better. We see those old games. We know as a whole the game today is better played and skilled than 30 years ago.

    Most importantly, we know that in the modern game title games and cup finals in most any league in most any country have become ugly affairs. We would never bother deciding the merit of an entire league or a team's season based on how a cup final game looked. When we see Gardner fail to recognize these things, it doesn't cause us to pause and reflect but blow him off for yet again he demonstrates a lack of basic knowledge about the modern game.

    And because of all of this, that's why we cringe every time we Paul Gardners name. He doesn't yet realize that we have the internet, DVDs, decent access to game archives and such. He still thinks we're little 7 year olds looking up at him with wide eyes, begging for him to tell us exactly how it is and eagerly eating up every word. But we're not. We grew tired of him 10 years ago. Most of us can't utter his name without 3 or 4 naughty words pouring right out to describe Gardner's columns. Some of us would even venture the claim that someone like Jim Rome, who hates the game and probably hasn't ever watched an entire 90 minutes of it in his life, someone like Jim Rome understands the game better than Gardner.

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