Commissioner Don Garber sounded off recently on the subject of respect, and how he feels that MLS doesn’t get enough of it. Maybe “sounded off” is exaggerating Garber’s position. He wasn’t exactly ranting. It was more of a gentle nudge, suggesting to the American media that MLS “deserves more attention than we get.”
I suppose a resounding “ho hum” would be in order, because that very complaint has been one of soccer’s discontents for as long as I can remember -- and my involvement with this country’s soccer began over 50 years ago.
Back then, in the early 1960s, there was a standard response from the newspapers and their sports editors: We’ll give soccer its due according to its popularity -- in other words once it starts drawing big crowds.
Things got somewhat better when the pro NASL arrived in 1968. They got a lot better -- explosively and briefly -- during the Cosmos years of the late 1970s.
Then NASL bit the dust in 1984 and it looked like the media had a point -- there was no widespread support for the game. Hence, only sporadic coverage.
But a lot has changed since then. The sport has surely proved one thing that deserves to be noticed: It is not going to go away. It is now firmly anchored in high schools and colleges and in more than 8,000 thousand youth clubs. Over 3 million boys and girls are registered with U.S. Youth Soccer, and the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) adds another 500,000. Those are not statistics that can be easily ignored.
As for the adults, and in particular the pros, the glamour events -- specifically the men’s and women’s World Cups -- do get pretty extensive coverage these days. But that only makes matters worse for Garber. Because it is a reversal of what happens with the USA’s other pro sports. MLB and the NFL and the NBA can all claim to represent the very best that their sports have. The international side of those sports is very much overshadowed by what goes on inside the USA.
Whereas MLS seems fated to exist in the shadow of the global game. I think Garber is right to register his protest, mild as it is. Fact is that the American sports media have simply not kept up with the growth of the domestic game. MLS is busy establishing itself as a credible, viable pro league. OK, the caliber of play often leaves something to be desired, but at its best it is worth watching, competitive, lively and skillful. And an average attendance of over 20,000 per game ain’t bad either.
Garber feels, rightly, that such a setup indicates a serious pro league that deserves serious attention from the media. I agree with him.
But my support for Garber and MLS is somewhat undermined because I think they are often too apologetic in presenting and not energetic enough in defending what is a pretty strong case.
In particular: Making sure that MLS gets respect from the Designated Players whom it pays so well. It would be good to see MLS make a stand against the way that celebrity foreign players, brought in to add glamour and credibility to the league, can end up doing exactly the opposite.
The celebrity DPs are mostly aging stars near the end of their careers. That itself -- the signing of such players -- is already something that invites criticism -- certainly it does nothing to diffuse it. Things look a lot worse when it appears that the DPs can play fast and loose with their MLS contracts.
One of the worst offenders in this sense was David Beckham. For sure, MLS owes him a lot because it was his name and personality that allowed the league to step up to the Designated Player era. But Beckham’s behavior while under contract to the league was noticeably disrespectful, with his loan deals to foreign clubs, and his trips back to England. All of which were permitted by MLS and/or the Galaxy.
Ex-players from the EPL seem prone to this sort of thing. Thierry Henry, during his four and a half years with the Red Bulls, became something of a bore by repeatedly telling us about Arsenal and how he wanted to return to that club -- apparently in any role at all.
More recently we’ve seen Steven Gerrard, even while performing poorly for the Galaxy, appearing on British TV as a panel pundit for EPL games.
In the case of Frank Lampard’s badly botched move from Manchester City to NYCFC, the disrespect of MLS was so blatant that one was left with the feeling that MLS was being treated as a joke, that it was there for the taking.
Now we have Didier Drogba, after an excellent season with Montreal, suddenly telling us that he wants to return -- possibly on loan -- to his old club Chelsea.
MLS happens to be uniquely susceptible to the loan moves because it plays a different season from the European leagues, leaving a period of some three inactive months when an MLS player could play for another team.
These extra-curricular activities do not look good. The feeling is that an important league, a strong league, would not permit them.
But MLS does. The almost sycophantic attitude of an MLS club comes through quite clearly in Montreal’s official statement about Drogba: “We understand his attachment to his former club and his desire to help them. We are willing to accommodate him. But our objective is to have him back for another season, as agreed in his contract. This situation is out of our control. We would like to thank our supporters for their understanding and their patience."
So, Montreal fans, there you have it. Just be patient and try to understand. The club has a contract with Drogba. But whether he plays for them or not -- that’s out of the club’s control.