MLS is somewhere between Europe and America

Now that MLS is established, it needs to confront its many internal contradictions

By Jake Walerius

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[T]he claim is an old one. In the global sporting landscape, American professional sports are socialist; Europe’s elite soccer leagues capitalist.

In many ways, the claim is true. American sports are set up to promote competitive parity, while Europe’s elite soccer leagues are won every season by a group of financially elite teams. But underlying the superficially socialist elements of America’s major sports leagues is the capitalist belief that sport is entertainment, and entertainment is a product to be bought and sold. This belief stands in stark contrast to the understanding in the rest of the world of soccer as a way of life won.

Nowhere is this contrast more obvious than in MLS, which is trapped somewhere between these two modes of thinking. With the league now well-established on the American sports scene, and its influence on world soccer growing, it’s time to pick a side.

MLS is structured much like every other major American sports league — a single tier with conferences, playoffs, a draft, and a salary cap. For MLS the cap is $3.6m, which teams can exceed by using the Designated Player (DP) rule.

The DP rule theoretically gives every MLS team the opportunity to bring in a player like Andrea Pirlo or Steven Gerrard. The problem, however, is that international superstars care as much about where they play as they do about how much they get paid. This gives teams in more glamorous locations an advantage that can only be overcome with vast sums of money; exactly what the salary cap is designed to eliminate.

To be fair, having a world-famous DP (or three) isn’t everything. Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew, Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, Sporting Kansas City and Portland Timbers have all won MLS Cups without any.

Moreover, big-name DPs aren’t even guarantors of success. NYCFC finished eighth in the Eastern Conference last season, Kaka’s Orlando City FC were seventh, and the Toronto FC side boasting Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by Didier Drogba’s Montreal Impact — who were knocked out by Columbus in the next round.

These facts seem to confirm that having these big name players isn’t actually an advantage. Attracting celebrities is good PR, but it can create problems on the pitch. Thus far in the DP era, only the LA Galaxy has pursued a strategy of signing older European stars and still won the MLS Cup. The far more usual model is the one that led to Portland’s championship last season: building a well-balanced, ego-free squad.

But there remains a legitimate fear that the quality of these players will show over time. The concern is that, as MLS grows, attracting celebrities will no longer be a hindrance to the intelligent team-building we’ve seen in Portland and elsewhere. If MLS ever reaches a point where it can attract the foreign superstars it actually wants, as opposed to the ones it can get its hands on, the DP rule would threaten competitive parity.

This raises the question of whether the league should preempt this disparity by scrapping the salary cap and introducing promotion and relegation. This wouldn’t be fair either, but it would likely increase the quality of play and allow MLS to assimilate more easily into the global soccer community.

MLS team owners unsurprisingly, have refused to consider it so far. The league’s single-entity business model is at odds with the every-man-for-himself principle at the heart of any tiered system. Currently, MLS players have contracts with the league, not their individual teams. This means MLS itself can finance transfers from foreign clubs and that owners can work together to decide which team a player goes to. This sort of cooperation would be anathema to a tiered system.

MLS owners currently believe the parity, and therefore unpredictability, derived from cooperation makes for an exciting league. The DP rule might threaten parity in the long term, but promotion and relegation would undermine it completely. The current structure of MLS would collapse, so the refusal is defensible.

We see MLS as socialist, but it really isn’t. MLS is an oligarchy.

But the apparent contradictions in MLS’s business model are only one side of the problem; the other involves the philosophy on which this model is based. We see MLS as socialist, but it really isn’t. MLS is an oligarchy: all of the decisions are made by a small group of powerful, wealthy owners who have decided competitive parity is in their best financial interests. This is fine, but it comes with a set of reservations which appear to place MLS at ideological loggerheads with all soccer leagues beyond our borders.

The most significant of these challenges a basic premise of competition: when we watch MLS, we are not watching something real, but a product designed to resemble good-old-fashioned sporting competition as closely as possible. Owners aren’t competing against each other for trophies so much as they are working together to create a spectacle.

There’s a thin line between sports as business and sports representing more abstract values. MLS blurs this line by bringing the mechanisms behind the action more clearly into view. In so doing, it raises a lot of questions we’d prefer to avoid. In particular, to what extent is soccer just entertainment? To what extent do history and tradition matter? To what extent is the fan a customer?

The United States has always answered these questions simply enough: sport is entertainment, and entertainment is business. MLS complicates this answer by selling an un-American product in distinctly American packaging. Matters are complicated further by the current trajectory of the game on the other side of the Atlantic.

Trends in the European game make the MLS model looks increasingly sophisticated. That is, as the commercialization of European soccer undermines its traditional and romantic core beliefs, it looks less like MLS’s model distorts the game and more like a concept that was ahead of the curve.

The American sports-as-business model, for all its flaws, cannot exploit fans in the same way the European leagues are beginning to — because the fans can understand they were customers all along. And so the issue for MLS becomes less about the salary cap and DP rule and more about what it means to be a fan in a league that operates so explicitly as a business. As it continues to expand its fan base, MLS must seriously consider what it offers prospective supporters. That involves grappling with the special irrationality of the sports fan.

I, as a supporter, want to believe the agony and ecstasy I feel watching my team means something, something more than the agony and ecstasy I feel watching, say, a good movie. Is this because the characters in soccer are real? That makes sense, but it‘s delusional to think the lives of these athletes resemble my own. It may as well be fiction.

I check Twitter to find out, for example, that Raheem Sterling signed for Manchester City for $77m. and I think, all things considered, in the current market, he was probably worth it.

But it’s a never ending fiction. When my commitment to it becomes too ridiculous, or the pain it causes too great, the natural response is to retreat, to remind myself that it’s just a game. Except, inevitably, I get drawn back in. If it was just a game, how could it make me so much more angry and happy and sad and crazy than anything — even sometimes those decidedly not-a-game things I do, like have a life?

It gets harder to rationalize these contradictions every season. Increasingly, I check Twitter to find out, for example, that Raheem Sterling signed for Manchester City for $77m. And I think, all things considered, in the current market, he was probably worth it. I think in those situations that $77m is worth it for a 20-year-old who might turn out to be better at kicking a ball than he currently is. Something here has gone wrong, either with me, or the sport, or the culture, or everything.

In this context, MLS feels weirdly progressive. It doesn’t seem to leave room for the romance and nostalgia that have fueled the sports global popularity, but is that so bad? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just turn on the TV and know that I’m watching high quality entertainment, made to my exact specifications?

These are deliberately provocative questions, but they are important. They linger in the background of all those discussions about promotion and relegation, in the games between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, in the stadium of the Major League Soccer team named, without a hint of irony, Seattle Sounders FC.

As long as MLS straddles these two worlds, it threatens to hinder the development of a uniquely American soccer culture. Either it can embrace the European model or it can’t. But it’s hard to see how MLS can thrive if it continues to waver between the two, deciding to name, for example, its newest franchise Atlanta United FC while flouting the conventions that have ruled the game everywhere in the world since, well, always. In the broadest sense, the issue is about what MLS thinks soccer should mean in this country, to this country. One way or another, it’s time to decide.

Howler Magazine

Jake Walerius contributes to Howler and The Sports Quotient. Follow him on Twitter and check out his other work.

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