By: Steve Boltri – Staff Writer
Since the early 1990s, soccer has been deemed the “next big sport” in the United States. The United States’ bid to host the 1994 World Cup was granted in 1988, but was contingent on one thing: the country’s ability to start and maintain a “respectable” Division I professional soccer league.
This bid came shortly after the North American Soccer League (NASL) folded in 1986 due to a lack of personnel (coaches, players, fans, etc.).
In 1993, Major League Professional Soccer was started, and by 1996, it had formed into Major League Soccer (MLS), a Division I league consisting of 10 teams across the U.S. and Canada.
MLS now has 22 teams, including four new franchises that have joined the league since 2015, and there are plans for expansion in the coming years.
On top of the league’s rapid expansion, popularity amongst sports fans has grown too.
According to statista.com, in 2016, MLS games had an average attendance of 21,692, more than both the NBA and NHL.
Despite its growth, soccer in the U.S. is still inferior to that of the top leagues in Europe, and will be until drastic changes are made.
For starters, the U.S. considers its “major sports” to be football, baseball, basketball and hockey. Each of the five European countries with a top league considers soccer to be its major sport.
Because it’s not a “major sport,” MLS games are rarely televised, let alone on major networks. And when they are televised, it’s usually on the Fox Sports networks, which often aren’t included in standard cable packages.
In fact, English Premier League games and German Bundesliga games are more easily accessible by television to most Americans than MLS games.
Watching MLS on a regular basis simply isn’t practical for most people who are unable to physically be at the stadium.
Another setback for U.S. soccer is that MLS teams have a salary cap, and the league has instilled budget charges for players based on age, whereas the European leagues do not have either of these financial restrictions.
A budget charge is the maximum salary allowed for a player (for example: 24-year-old players have a maximum budget charge of $480,625 per year).
Each MLS team is allotted three designated players whose salaries are allowed to exceed their pre-assigned budget charges, but these players’ salaries still count toward the team’s overall cap.
This restriction on how much money teams can spend on players severely limits the amount of talent in the league. Top players can be paid millions more in Europe, and the top teams in Europe that have more money to spend have the ability to stack their rosters with world class talent.
Combining the lack of TV time with lower salaries than players in Europe is a disaster for the growth of MLS and discourages young athletes..
The children in this country rarely can watch MLS on television, and know they can’t make as much money as they could in other sports. So, they are more likely to wind up watching the “big four” sports and aspire to be professional football players, for example.
Kids always say, “I want to be the next Lebron” or “I want to be like Tom Brady.”
But for most of soccer’s history in America, there hasn’t been a clear face for idolization among the youth. Landon Donovan is arguably the best player in U.S. soccer history, and during his prime, was a slightly-above average player for Fulham, a very average team in England at the time.
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Looking at Europe, the majority of young athletes want to be soccer players, which ensures that the country’s best athletic talent is on display on the soccer field and not on the basketball court, for example.
Despite the current enthusiasm for soccer as a whole in the U.S. and the expansion of MLS, the league’s reputation isn’t comparable to the major leagues in Europe.
MLS is currently defined by 3 three main reputations: it is considered to be a league for players who aren’t good enough to play in the top leagues in Europe, it is considered to be a final destination for former European stars who are “too old” to compete at the highest level, and the actual style of soccer is known for being fast-paced and more physical but less focused on technical skill–one of the main draws to European soccer.
World stars in their prime simply don’t want to play in MLS. Even the majority of the best American soccer players aspire to play in Europe, especially the young generation of talent.
Young players move overseas at young ages to pursue training at some of the world’s best youth academies. Once these players move to Europe when they are young, it is hard to draw them back to the U.S. for the reasons already discussed.
As for the players who do stay in the U.S. for their youth soccer, they are rarely equipped to be world stars. Training at youth soccer clubs simply isn’t as good as it is in Europe.
On top of that, players in the U.S. often don’t begin their professional careers until they graduate from college, whereas European players will often begin playing professionally at the age of 17 or 18, which gives them a head start over their American counterparts.
It’s worth mentioning that college soccer forces players into an unnecessary adjustment period when they become professionals. In Europe, players will often play professionally for the same club they played their youth soccer, making the transition period very easy.
MLS’s structure has contributed it’s lack of success. It is split up into eastern and western conferences, utilizes a system of playoffs, lacks the use of a promotion/relegation system, and has a draft before each season.
European leagues don’t have conferences and they are scheduled so that each team plays every other team in the league twice in the season. In MLS, some teams play against each other more often than others, which causes an imbalance in difficulty-of-schedule for certain teams.
MLS uses playoffs to compensate for the differences in schedule difficulty, whereas European leagues crown a champion based on the top performer throughout the season.
Promotion/relegation is practiced in most countries in Europe. Each country has between three and five divisions of professional soccer, and the top three teams from each division get promoted, or move up a division, while the bottom three teams from each division get relegated, or move down a division.
This keeps each division fresh with new teams and players and it avoids one of the biggest problems not just in MLS but in all of American sports: losing on purpose to get a higher draft pick.
If teams are fighting to avoid relegation by finishing above the bottom three, even if they are having a dismal season, they will keep trying with the hopes of remaining in their league, which in Europe, leads to financial compensation, which leads to the ability to sign more players without cap restrictions and budget charges, which increases their chances of success in the future.
When MLS teams purposely lose to obtain a draft pick, it hurts the league’s competition and its quality of soccer, not to mention this comes with the risk of the draft pick being a bust, which again causes teams to resort to losing on purpose hoping their next draft pick will have more success.
For those of you thinking that the U.S. doesn’t have enough leagues or teams to support a promotion/relegation system, the U.S. actually does have four divisions of professional soccer: MLS as division I, North American Soccer League (NASL) as division II, United Soccer League (USL) as division III, and although not officially recognized as division IV, National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) is considered by most to be the fourth tier.
The problem, however, is that some of the lower division teams are affiliated with higher division teams, similarly to the “farm team” systems utilized in baseball and hockey. Until these affiliations are broken, promotion/relegation is impossible both financially and logistically.
On a positive note, there is a lot to look forward to in the coming years. The aforementioned 18-year-old Christian Pulisic, who plays for Borussia Dortmund of the Bundesliga in Germany, is quickly becoming known as the first ever American game-changing superstar, and seems to have all the tools to emerge into the best American player ever.
He scored both goals in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Trinidad and Tobago on June 8. Pulisic is just one of dozens of young American players that have loads of potential to be exceptional players on the world stage. The U.S. is a serious contender to win the World Cup in 2022 or 2026.
As also mentioned before, MLS has plans to expand to 24 teams in the next couple years as soccer continues to make a push to be a “major sport”.
The best thing for soccer in this country would be to host another World Cup, which might be on the cards as the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are frontrunners in a joint bid to host in 2026.
On top of all of that, there seems to be a general excitement about soccer amongst sports fans of all ages. If the job of president of the U.S. Soccer Federation can fall into the right hands that are willing to make the changes discussed, soccer may become the most popular and most important sport in the Unites States.
Photo Courtesy of flickr.com and sportsillustrated.com