Thursday, March 11, 2010

CBA Must Change if MLS is Ever Going to be Truly Major League

By El Chupa

As El Chupa has returned the focus of his massive intellect to the MLS and EPL, he's run across more than a few references to MLS fans who actually think that teams in the MLS can compete in the EPL or the other European Leagues.  Such would-be rocket scientists often cite the dominance of the few teams at the top of the various tables, believing MLS clubs could take on, say, Portsmouth and win.  There are also apparently MLS "haters" who take every opportunity to bash the MLS given its obvious inferiority.  Allow El Chupa to set the record straight.  Number one: the MLS is not even close to the real major leagues; number two: who cares? Number three: only renegotiating the current draconian CBA will make the league better.

First off, what do we and the players want? The following: free agency; guaranteed contracts; quality of life concessions; a higher minimum salary.  Note that El Chupa also thinks the players should trade all four of the above for a salary cap or some measure that could keep salaries in line with the economics of the league so the league doesn't implode. However, we also think that the league has to open its books and move toward some sort of revenue sharing or luxury tax on the salaries of big stars so that teams in larger markets don't dominate the league and (most importantly) so that salaries aren't held down artificially by the league in order to maximize profits for the league at the expense of the players who are, in fact, the product.  But then again, we support health care reform, so we're probably socialist radicals.

But what about the overall quality of the league?  Prior to the Crew’s surprising draw on Tuesday, Brian Strauss over at Soccer Fanhouse painted a rather bleak picture of the Crew's and the entire MLS' prospects in the CONCACAF Champions League:

"Since 2001, not a single MLS team has reached the Champions Cup/League finals. The performance since the competition was expanded two years ago has been awful. In the 2008-09 Champions League, MLS compiled a shocking 2-10-6 record. This year it is a less humiliating 7-9-8, but just one of its five entrants (Toronto FC claimed Canada's spot) advanced to the quarterfinals. The fact that the league gets so many spots in the competition is, frankly, indefensible."

Strauss' larger point was about the relative competitiveness of the MLS compared to other leagues.  "Could an MLS team compete in England or Spain? People ask these questions as if they matter. It's a fantasy. Clubs in those leagues are barely playing the same sport."

That the MLS is inferior to the major European leagues is obvious.  Yes, the European tables are dominated by a few clubs with huge bank accounts, and there is no revenue sharing or salary cap in the European leagues as there is in the NBA, NFL and NHL.  This leads to only a few teams having a legitimate shot at a league title.  The various national cups (FA cup, King’s Cup in Spain) and the UEFA leagues offer much compensation for these deficiencies, however. 

Regardless, MLS fans have to remember that not only are there first divisions in Europe, there are dozens of lower divisions brimming with talent.  The MLS’ competitive deficiencies are a result of the fact that it lacks a firmly established, highly sophisticated, highly efficient and productive soccer structure as in Europe which could train and produce talent from grade-school on up.  Arsenal’s Samir Nasri, whose stunning goal in Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League match against Porto is worth watching over and over, was signed by Pennes Mirabeau at the age of six.  There are millions of young men playing soccer in the streets of Europe; and there are sophisticated and established systems for funneling those players into developmental leagues and beyond.  The US system is absolutely Paleolithic by comparison.  This is one reason why Nordecke Luchador would love to see the MLS and the USL combined allowing for relegation and promotion.  But I digress. 

US soccer has gotten to the point where our starting XI are legitimate contenders on the international stage—not to win the World Cup but to qualify and compete. We own the CONCACAF and that should not change, much to the chagrin of our South American compadres (do they play soccer in Canada?)  But we are not deep. Our B teams have performed miserably since the Confederations Cup, and Bradley hopefully now knows what serious fans of the Yanks have sadly come to realize in the last year: one injury (Davies, Onyewu) and we don’t have the developmental structure to replace them.

Pay attention the next time you watch La Liga, Serie A, the EPL or the Bundesliga.  Notice how often a starting player you would kill to have play for your MLS team or the USMNT is mentioned as not making his home country’s squad in South Africa this summer.  My reaction is often: you’ve got to be kidding me? How many freaking world class strikers does France freaking need?!  The US simply doesn’t have the same "problem."  If Torres goes down for Liverpool in the next few weeks with a torn ACL, Spain can replace him.  Without Davies, the US is in serious trouble.  There are starters on the USMNT who play in Europe in the lower divisions rather than the MLS.  Meanwhile, there are MLS "stars" who when they play as part of the USMNT "B" team reveal just how shallow is our talent pool.  Conor Casey is one example.  He scores boo-coo goals in the MLS but doesn't look even fast enough let alone satisfactorily skilled to play at the international level.

So the MLS has a ways to go.  But El Chupa’s other point is this: who cares?

Look, if you watch the MLS because you want to delude yourself that it is a legitimate, world-class professional soccer league, you’re either under the age of twelve or you’re a moron.  You should watch the MLS because it’s all we've got, because you desperately want the league to get better and it needs your support to get there, and because you want your grandkids to live in a world where the MLS has developed to the point where a country of 300 million (the US) can produce not just 25, but 50 or 75 or 100 players who can compete with the players in countries like Spain (45 million); Holland (17 million); or the Czech Republic (10 million). 

The key, really, is whether the MLS business model is moving us toward that day or if the league is a mere fast-sport franchise (the International House of Soccer)--one that is slightly profitable as a business but will never garner the market-share necessary to further US soccer development as a whole.  We think the latter.  And we think changing the CBA is a vital step towards insuring that within a generation or two we will have produced not one Nasir but dozens and that they will be playing in cities across the country in a truly major soccer league.

One more thing: Alexi Lalas is a douche.

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