The Seattle Sounders fan club begins every game with a March to the Match, a pre-game ritual which, like any respectable tradition in the soccer world, involves singing, scarves and smoke bombs. Between the thick, amorphous crowd and the smoke bomb's release at the corner of Occidental Drive and South King Street, I couldn't see much of anything. Dashing towards a lamp post to gain a better vantage point, I hoped none of the police on scene would care if I ascended the structure to take pictures and videos. Once I gained my foothold, I saw the constant stream of fans rounding the corner: a slow-motion stampede, marching and singing their way to CenturyLink Field in downtown Seattle, for a match 53,000 people would attend. The crowd, mostly adults, was virtually indistinguishable from any other American sporting event, save for the scarves.
This is the good side of Major League Soccer, the side commissioner Don Garber wants you to see: passion, intensity, tradition. Something any sports fan would want to be a part of.
A week prior and across the country in Chester, Pennsylvania, some 20 miles outside of Philadelphia, my foot slips out of my sandal and sinks into a former industrial site's gravelly hole. A few hundred feet away is the brand-new PPL Park, where the Philadelphia Union are about to take on the Columbus Crew. I am on my way to the stadium, which forces me through a peculiar path, more typically accompanied by a "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted" sign than a stadium, narrowing to a two-person-wide dirt lane. A wheelchair-bound fan will get stuck here on the way out of the park, needing others to physically lift the wheelchair off the ground. During the match, the supporters section is vocal, but the rest of the park is mostly filled with children, teenagers and their parents. "What would be great is if the whole stadium was singing," says one fan behind me at one point. He, of course, did not sing at any point during the match.
This is the typical MLS experience -- less publicized, but the more frequent occurrence. There are some encouraging signs for the league: over 16,000 people paid for tickets to attend that match, which is a healthy number for MLS. There was a vocal supporters section. The Union play in a brand-new, soccer-specific venue. But -- and there is always a "but" -- most people in Philadelphia don't know any of this. The league is on the periphery of the American sporting conscience, closer to a cult than a culture. In the end, the PPL Park experience is much more indicative of MLS in general than the Seattle atmosphere. Pacific Northwest soccer fans are MLS's aspirational world; the rest of MLS is its reality.
Whenever someone tells you that soccer is "un-American" or "Euro-communist trash" (I've heard both), you can reply by telling them it generally was regarded as the second most popular sport in the country before the Great Depression. There were a whole hodgepodge of leagues combining the words "American," "Football," "Soccer," "Association" or "League" into a vaguely distinct name, each meeting the same bankrupt end. The only other American soccer league you've likely heard of is the North American Soccer League (NASL), and that's probably only because of the New York Cosmos. The Cosmos were a legitimate global spectacle, selling out the old Meadowlands Stadium routinely during Pele's three seasons and for the subsequent few years. The league ended up folding due to its top-heaviness -- without the Cosmos, the NASL was nothing, financially speaking.
Major League Soccer, formed as part of the 1994 World Cup bid, was structured with the NASL's smoldering carcass in mind: Every club owner has a stake in the league itself. No club can become too powerful.
Financially speaking, the league seems to be on the right track, as much as outsiders can ever know these things. There's a constant debate about what level of profitability is necessary for MLS clubs, depending on whether you consider them traditional businesses or more like investments, but suffice it to say, the league is doing better than most thought a pro soccer league in the U.S. could do. But now, in its 18th year -- the longest any American professional soccer league has existed -- Major League Soccer is past the point where it is worried about its mere survival. The question for MLS now is, how does it make the whole league more like Seattle?
Everyone has their theories. Many believe the league simply needs a TV product to complement the in-stadium experience, with its own, dedicated highlight show and consistent television spot. Others think the refereeing is too soft, or that the refereeing is too tough. Some hold that there's no place for a playoff system in soccer, others that there ought to be playoff series. It's obvious the league isn't where it needs to be if it wants to compete with other big-time American sports, but how it gets there is anyone's guess.
But all this in-cult bickering is just a hobby for the MLS subculture mavens. These changes would never get at the root of the league's problem, which is that its economic structure holds it back from relevancy. MLS's first priority has always been parity, always with an eye to the NASL's zombie corpse, constantly coming back to haunt it. Between MLS's salary cap, its home-grown player requirement, the Superdraft (which is exactly like all other drafts, but Super-er!) and the much-maligned player allocation system (which ensures that all the most interesting players get allocated to the worst teams), the league is structured with some Rawlsian inspiration: Nothing can benefit the best if it doesn't also clearly benefit the worst-off. This was a noble pursuit when the league's survival was an annual concern, but now the pursuit of parity is restricting the stronger clubs from putting a product on the field that potentially could attract casual fans to the sport.
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Try to accept the fact that, as American sports fans, we have been conditioned -- Clockwork Orange-style, with our eyelids peeled backwards and reels of league commissioners spouting pre-ordained talking points projecting in front of us -- to believe that parity and competitive balance are inherent goods. But, as difficult as it may be to reject this conditioning, bravely relinquish your priors for a minute and consider the possibility that a league can be successful without parity. Or that, according to the paper The Economics of Sports Leagues by economist John Vrooman, "… revenue sharing … will effectively increase exploitation of players, but it will not affect competitive balance." There's a rich history in economics literature, from Nash equilibrium to more general game theory, which supports this conclusion. (Bonus points to anyone who brings a Nash equilibrium debate to the Sports On Earth comments section.)
Andres Alvarez of Wages Of Wins takes an historical perspective of the parity myth as it applies to the NBA, writing, "We see owners changing the rules either to get a good player or in response to a deal that greatly benefited the player. The motive seems pretty clear. Owners want good players and feel upset when they have to overpay them or worse, lose out on them. And in all of the cases, the rules change in the owners favor." For some soccer-related evidence, in 1986, the combined annual turnover for the top division of English football (the Premier League was not in existence yet, but the structure of English football was fundamentally the same) was £50 million, or £105.7 million in 2012 pounds. This was paltry in comparison to the combined annual turnover for all EPL clubs of £2.3 billion (with one of those giant, hulking B's) during the 2011-12 season. With quinjillionaire owners buying select EPL clubs and using their vast fortunes to assemble Springfield Nuclear Power Plant Softball-esque rosters, there's absolutely no argument to be made that this massive increase of revenue is a result of increased competitive balance.
But MLS clubs are playing by Americanized, salary-capped rules, unable to compete financially for global talent. The LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls have already demonstrated some willingness to spend sizable sums to attract global stars in David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan and other lesser-known but still respected talent. But MLS regulations prevent them from fielding truly world-class sides.
The league fears, essentially, these "superpower" teams would be too good -- which, for a league trying to convince potential fans they're consistently improving in quality, is counterintuitive. As Don Garber said in a 2008 interview with The New York Times, "Quality is what we're concerned about, and we believe we have far more quality on field than people give us credit for." But if quality was actually their concern, they would allow the teams capable of purchasing the best talent to do so, and allow them to retain the best American talent as well.
Besides, all this effort to maintain competitive balance hasn't worked very well. The LA Galaxy have won the last two MLS Cups (and played in three of the last four), both against the Houston Dynamo. The 2006 and 2007 MLS Cups also featured repeat matchups between the Dynamo and the New England Revolution, with the Dynamo coming out on top both years. The fact of the matter is, MLS's efforts to create parity have mostly been in vain, with a clear divide between haves and have-nots. If MLS can't avoid having big and small clubs, it needs to harness this divide to attract casual fans.
You probably hate the Miami Heat, or the New York Yankees, or the Dallas Cowboys. You might even occasionally tune into their respective games purely out of Schadenfreude. The consequence of MLS's Parity Quest (worst cell phone game ever) is the prevention of these super-villains. No team can compile a cast of players easily known to the casual soccer fan, which makes the barrier to entry simply too high for most fans, even dedicated international soccer fans.
Hopefully, Major League Soccer will recognize that, although their current model allowed the league to achieve sustainability, it is time to adapt to its current climate. The Sounders, Timbers and select other clubs generate passionate environments that anyone can be attracted to from a sporting perspective, but the league still lacks a way to draw casual fans for premier match-ups. The league needs villains -- truly viscerally despised teams that anyone can root against without knowing a lot about soccer or MLS -- the kind of team you watch just to see one of their players get slide-tackled in the groin. The newly announced NYCFC has that potential, since the New York Yankees are only their second-most hateable owners.
What MLS has to do is allow that team to be hateable. They have to allow NYCFC -- and the Red Bulls, and the Galaxy, and any other club that wants to play (or counteract) the villain role -- to buy talent and bring them to the States. Is there any MLS team that triggers an abject visceral reaction from the median American sports fan? Conversely, how much would you hate NYCFC if they joined the league in 2015 with the likes of (just to throw out a couple of names) Franck Ribéry, Carlos Tevez or Joleon Lescott?
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There is, of course, one other possibility. After attending several MLS matches, talking to dozens of fans about What Is Wrong With The League, hearing their individual and equally grand theories, watching matches on television and reading about it myself, I've been ordained as part of the subculture. This final possibility dawned on me in Vancouver, while I watched a full BC Place crowd attentively and passionately witness the Whitecaps' dismantling of the hapless and incompetent Chivas USA. Maybe there's actually nothing really wrong with MLS.
At the Whitecaps match, I was surrounded by a representation of MLS's strategy: The fans in front of me were discussing the recent release of the EPL fixture for the upcoming season. The fans to my right were teenage boys speaking Spanish the entire match, who clearly knew their soccer and their Whitecaps. The fans to my left were beautiful women who talked about their absentee boyfriends the entire match and barely reacted to any of the four goals scored (yet they stayed longer for a one-sided soccer game than some Heat fans did for the most exciting basketball game in decades). At the south side of BC Place, the Southsiders supporters section sang the entire match.
Maybe we as sports fans, and particularly North American soccer fans, have a long-standing tradition to see crippling faults in everything, anointing ourselves with the pre-ordained title of Fixer Of Soccer -- because, after all, there are so few of us. Yet all of this desire to fix soccer blinds us from the possibility that our current product is growing and improving at a virtually unprecedented rate for a sports league.
Major League Soccer is, by merely existing in Year 18, already among the most historically successful leagues in American history. All the rest is in the run of play.