Commentary

MLS and the global practices

Before you can compare MLS to other pro soccer leagues, you have to comprehend the local dynamics and the history of MLS. MLS was born in December 1993 as a result of one of prerequisites by FIFA for awarding the 1994 World Cup to the USA. In a country without a proper amateur/semipro/pro league structure and with memories of the financial disaster of the NASL still intact, U.S. Soccer had no option but to choose the top-down approach -- let us create the tier 1 league and then worry about the rest -- and a very sound financial model.

Since they had no other models to follow, they were inspired or guided by the principles of big four: NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.  Hence the MLS was born with a lot of similarities to the other professional leagues in the USA. Couldn’t they have been inspired by the EPL or La Liga model? It is difficult to say even with hindsight. 

Let us look at MLS today after 24 years. It has now 22 clubs from two countries and is planning on expanding. It had started with 10 clubs in 1996. MLS’s total revenue ($461 million) ranks it 18th among the professional leagues of the world. The average attendance in 2015 of MLS was over 21,000, ranking it at the sixth spot among its peers. Although we cannot tell the financial status of each individual club since they are privately owned, MLS from the business perspective looks like a success story.

One should realize that the total revenue of the four big Northern American Leagues surpass the total revenue of the 15 leading soccer leagues of the world. Hence they are extremely successful business models. But these four leagues have no competition globally on the field. Some people detest the fact that winners of these leagues are proclaimed as world champions; unfortunately that is a reality even though the four leagues only have North American teams.

On the other hand from a “soccer” point of view, MLS is far away from a success story. Still an MLS team has to win a Concacaf Champions League trophy; all the past glories belong to Liga MX teams. MLS is still looked as a retirement league by the European counterparts.

Let us compare MLS with the rest of the soccer leagues from different vintage points. Since 2003, MLS quit the process of “Americanizing” the Laws of the Game. Unlike the other four sports, the rules of the game are not decided by the owners. MLS decided in 2003 to go global in this area although the PRO initiative is a bit unorthodox governance approach to officiating compared to other soccer leagues.

All professional teams in the USA are governed by the “ownership” model with a few exceptions like the Packers. One might thing that elsewhere the same is true. The ownership model is also true in England and Italy. This model is referenced as the Anglo-Saxon model of governance. Elsewhere in Europe, the “member association” model is still predominant. The soccer giants like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are governed by presidents elected by the membership. Although there is a tendency in recent years in Europe to adopt the “Anglo-Saxon” ownership model.

MLS is one of the few leagues in the world that doesn’t utilize promotion-relegation. The only other major league that doesn’t have promotion-relegation is the Australian A-League. There are other similarities between the USA and Australia with respect to soccer. First of all, in both countries the game is called “soccer.” In both countries, in terms of revenue, there are at least four other major sports that come before soccer. So you might see a common justification for saying no to promotion-relegation.

I will not talk too much about promotion-relegation in this country. It is something every lover of the game wants but knows that it is nearly impossible to implement in the near future. The argument that the owners would not want their teams to be relegated for which they spent millions of dollars is a valid one. On the other hand an investor buying a team in Europe and spending millions of dollars face the same dilemma, but he/she still makes the investment even though the team might be relegated.

Peter Wilt wrote an excellent article about the future possibilities of promotion-relegation; the interested reader can benefit a lot from that article. Recently USL announced that it is planning in developing a Division 3 league. This gives us hope that eventually there might be promotion/relegation in the lower leagues. Anyway a country the size of Europe and with a population of 324 million should have more than 70 professional clubs.

A food for thought: One can understand the reasons for MLS not being favor of promotion-relegation because of the relegation part. How about the promotion part? Couldn’t the winner of NASL and USL (if it is not a MLS affiliate) be offered the next expansion slot with a reduced franchising fee? Naturally, this could be executed if the club met the stadium criteria or promised to do so. Sorry, I forgot that MLS is a business entity. Why should they reduce the expansion fee for a club that was successful on the field? There are other clubs or owners waiting in line to pay the full expansion fee with no history of soccer operations or successes on the field.

MLS also uses the playoff model to decide the champion like the big four leagues. They give a Supporters' Shield to the winner of the regular season. Unlike in the rest of the world, the MLS Cup winner is considered the “real” winner and not the regular-season winner.  The only major league in Europe that utilizes the playoff system is the Belgium League. The playoff system is Belgium is not a knockout competition. The top six teams at the end of the season play a min- league with points borrowed from the final standings. If the playoff system has to be utilized, the Belgium model seems to be a fairer and more enjoyable method of determining the overall champion. Look at the soccer quality of the last MLS Cup final and decide for yourself. Is that the game I am in love with? MLS can do a similar playoff. The first eight in the regular season can play a mini league. The first-place finisher can start the mini-league with eight points and the 8th with one point. There will be more games in this format but less teams compared to the current play-off format. Through this playoff model, your success in the regular season can be carried into the playoffs more than having the home-field advantage. At least through this system MLS will be more in line with the rest of the world giving the deserved credit to the regular season.

Another non-standard approach is to have games during the international window.  The MLS season is shorter than the average European League. The March through October season causes serious problems during World Cup and Copa America years. Although the number of games played during the international window has decreased in the recent years, still we have MLS games in which some of the best players cannot play due to commitments to the national teams. MLS can either consider extending the duration of the league or switch it to fall through summer season with an extended winter break to accommodate the harsh winters of North America.

All of these deviations from the international practices are to make the MLS which is a business entity prosperous and profitable. For the owners, that is what is important. Through this system, the player development and the quality of the game is a secondary issue. The big four leagues do not have a player development or quality of the game issue. They have the best players in the world in their leagues, the USA develops some of the best athletes in football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey and the leagues have the highest quality attainable. Unfortunately, that is not true for MLS. The best players of the world will not and do not come to MLS until MLS is a global soccer powerhouse. The best soccer players are not developed in the USA.

The only way to increase the quality of soccer in MLS is through local player development. Parallel to an increase in soccer quality, the revenues of MLS will increase. Then MLS might become a soccer powerhouse. Then you can see Lionel Messis, Cristiano Ronaldos playing in MLS during their prime times.

Although the primary goal of the owners of MLS might not be player development, it is the primary goal and mission of U.S. Soccer. That is the only reason for their existence.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.
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21 comments about "MLS and the global practices".
  1. Ben Myers, April 7, 2017 at 1:06 a.m.

    Yes, MLS does not follow the norms of international soccer. Well, the only way to get the league to a better level of play is to begin changing the way MLS works, and with a promotion-relegation system, then tell soccer fans and the press why, and, finally, get on with it. Yes, the current MLS owners will all squawk, because it forces them to actually compete rather than just playing a season knowing they will be in the league the next season. And, yes, there is something to play for, to avoid relegation and the financial hardship it induces. There is no longer any excuse for the cockamamie end-of-season playoffs to determine the final champion. Let the other sports do it their way. Soccer can do it the well-established soccer way. And I could almost write a book about all the woes and sins in the non-system we have for developing soccer players. In fact, I wrote a long paper after the last World Cup and sent it to Sunil Gulati. He said "Thank you" and little has improved since.

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, April 7, 2017 at 3:53 p.m.

    Ben M: At least you got a "thank you" response from SG...

  3. SoccerdadCA 06, April 7, 2017 at 2:03 a.m.

    Thank you Mr. Guvener for shedding such groundbreaking insight into the state of our little soccer experiment we call soccer. Rest assured you are the first person to ever to come up with these profound gems of enlightenment. All of the "fake" lovers of soccer here in America truly appreciate you, Mr. Turkish Secretary General, explaining the quirky nuances of our Major League Soccer to us football neophytes. Please give our regards to Mr. Blatter the next time you see him.

    Really Soccer America, publishing this old world Euro-centric drivel in 2017? Even the national sports talk shows have given up on these antiquated US vs. the World comparisons years ago. Your readers are better than that.

  4. Gary Young replied, April 10, 2017 at 3:21 p.m.

    I happen to agree with the writer 100%. He did not lie about one single thing. Thx to Soccer America for this article and I hope he writes many more. It comes down to the fans allowing this nonsense to continue. We will get pro/rel and true llayer development when most of us figure out we have the power to demand it simply by not watching Mls games. Us Soccer only purpose is to develop better players. Nothing else. Hopefully they are reading this which I am sure they have.

  5. SoccerdadCA 06, April 7, 2017 at 2:10 a.m.

    And thank goodness for the ability to watch real football on American TV. I am on pins and needles to see who will be crowned champion this year in that non-playoff system. Surely it's too close to call now, right?

  6. SoccerdadCA 06, April 7, 2017 at 2:14 a.m.

    Oh, Chelsea has already won? My bad. Well at least there's the Turkish league. Go on you, Besiktas!!!

  7. Ric Fonseca replied, April 7, 2017 at 3:59 p.m.

    SoccerDad.... Man-oh-man, you sure sound like a soccer carmudgeon! As a recently retired college history professor with about half-century involvement and actual participation, I enjoyed reading the article as Mr. AG really hit the nail on the head. In all, a very interesting and easy flowing US Soccer history article, and if I were to grade it I'd give it an "A" for substance, style, organization, and very easy on the eyes!!!

  8. Wooden Ships, April 7, 2017 at 6:21 a.m.

    SoccerdadCA, I can't tell if you're more offended about realizing for the first time (out of the closet) that you've been a faux fan of the beautiful game all this time, or, that we still struggle so with developing quality international players. I think the author makes good points and its a little like not noticing how your house smells because you are always in it. With all due respect.

  9. J Fox, April 7, 2017 at 7:02 a.m.

    Thank you Mr. Guvener, excellent and informative article. SoccerdadCA, no need to be a disrespectful sarcastic douchebag.

  10. Kent James, April 7, 2017 at 10:35 a.m.

    Excellent article, AG. Soccerdad CA, no need to get snarky. AG was not condescending, he was just summarizing the current situation. And he's right. The US is making progress, but we're not where we should be yet.

  11. j bapper, April 7, 2017 at 10:42 a.m.

    I liked the article. Soccerdad CA sounds like one of those parents that thinks they know a lot more about the game than they really do. Lighten up dude...

  12. Fire Paul Gardner Now, April 7, 2017 at 1:04 p.m.

    Mr. Guvener consistently writes the best articles on this site. People wondering why MLS isn't already the greatest league in the world, producing oodles of world class, amazing players, should read this to get a little perspective. It takes time. Also, there are sound reasons why MLS is set up the way it is. Plus, it doesn't always have to remain that way.

  13. Ric Fonseca, April 7, 2017 at 4:05 p.m.

    Oh, and folks, BTW, I was present when the old NAPSL, the fledgling soccer rules changes being used, and then was in the very same room from '93 (actually more like '91) to '96 lived during the LA Aztecs, and other teams existence, when the plans were laid out and MLS kicked off and it has been a pretty interesting ride. So kudos to to AG for a very interesting historical narrative!

  14. Rick Golden, April 7, 2017 at 10:54 p.m.

    We know how they do it in Europe, that doesn't make it right. LigaMX is very successful, and guess what, they have playoffs. It keeps more games relevant longer into the season. What do 2 mid-table teams have to play for at the end of a season, nothing!

    Playoffs are a knockout competition, winner moves on, loser goes home. Seems to work well for the World Cup, Champions League, and every other tournament in the world. That is how I view MLS Cup, a knockout competition at the end of the season that only allows the best teams in. I like it.

  15. Ahmet Guvener, April 7, 2017 at 11:52 p.m.

    I think my point was not anti-play-off, but rather the teams that reach the playoff has to carry more from the regular season than the mere home field advantage. Knock-out competitions with one or two games do not necessarily identify the better team. A play-off series of 7 like in the NBA does.

  16. Joey Tremone replied, April 9, 2017 at 1:25 p.m.

    The goal aggregate weakens home field advantage, and the whole design of the away goals rule was to neutralize it (as in European competitions it would be unfair).

    They should judge the playoff series on points, and play out the ET (which will be at the higher seed) whenever the points are tied.

  17. Rick Golden, April 8, 2017 at 8:59 a.m.

    Fair point Ahmet. I think they try to give value by making the 3-6 teams "play-in" and home field advantage for MLS Cup as a reward for the best team. I think a key will be if they can stick to this format with 24, 28 or even 32 teams. Right now about half the teams make the playoffs, and 4 of the lower ones get eliminated after one game. If there are still the same number of playoff places, but 8-12 more teams in the league, then you are rewarding quality during the regular season. I fear that they will tweak the system and dilute it by adding more playoff teams. I like pressure-filled games that mean something. You are right that the "best" team does not always win a knockout competition, but it is still is an exciting way to stage a sporting event in soccer. Thanks for the response.

  18. I w Nowozeniuk, April 8, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.

    I would suggest grouping the eight top teams in the standings into a two group round robin playoff were three games decide the finalists. And home team advantage goes to the team with the best record during the season.

  19. Scott Johnson, April 10, 2017 at 12:22 a.m.

    You miss a more fundamental difference between MLS (and the other major pro sports in the US and Canada) and foreign pro leagues. MLS (and the NBA, NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, etc) are all joint ventures of the involved teams. Who owns the NBA? It's constituent teams. Who owns Major League Baseball? Its teams. That there prevents pro/rel--for that you need independent leagues with the power to admit or expel teams from competition.

  20. Scott Johnson replied, April 10, 2017 at 12:26 a.m.

    WRT to playoffs. One unique thing about the US (and a few other countries) is the sheer size of the place. It's a short cab ride between Old Trafford and Etihad. It's a six hour plane flight from New York to LA. That requires divisions--as soon as you have divisions, and unbalanced schedules, then playoffs make sense. Of course, North American sports fans have come to love playoffs--and in my opinion, this is NOT an obstacle to the improvement of US soccer. The other sports have playoffs and do fine, after all.

  21. Scott Johnson replied, April 10, 2017 at 12:30 a.m.

    And the biggest difference? The salary cap, the draft, and limited free agency--all the ways in which North American sports owners conspire with each other to keep down wages. In the "Big Four", this works fine; salaries there still are better than salaries abroad. But in soccer--this is a big reason why you won't see a Messi or a Neuer or a Pique in their prime--no MLS team can afford to pay any of these guys what they are worth, and even if an owner had the money, league rules prevent it. This is a big reason people worry about the Chinese Superleague leapfrogging MLS--the Chinese were spending like drunken sailors to attract top talent over from Europe.

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