Why the MLS will never be #1

By Kyle Basedow

This past Wednesday, Major League Soccer made an announcement that will bring a 23rd team to MLS play in 2018. The team, Minnesota United FC, will play in a new soccer only stadium in downtown Minneapolis (mlssoccer.com)

This presents a minor problem. By bringing a 23rd team into the league, it makes the MLS have three more teams in their top division than any of the other top soccer leagues around the world, who all have 20. To the average person, this may not appear to be the problem. It certainly isn’t a problem for the MLS, who wish to see continued growth in order to make soccer become a more prominent sport in the United States, but it’s a problem for those who watch the MLS with a more trained eye.

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On multiple occasions, MLS commissioner Don Garber has said that he wishes for the MLS to be one of the top five soccer leagues in the world. With 23 teams (and more to come) in one top division, that dream isn’t a reality. When compared to the Barclays Premier League, the MLS’ main competition for viewership, the difference in skill and fan devotion is something that the MLS can’t hope to rival in their current state.

Here are a few reasons why the MLS can’t compete with the Barclays Premier League (or any other major soccer league):

1. It would have to become the United States most popular sport

Plain and simple, the MLS struggles for viewership in the United States. Unlike in the UK and most countries in Europe, where soccer is both the most popular and most viewed sport, soccer is the fourth of fifth favorite sport for a majority of Americans.

While the average attendance for MLS games has risen over the past few years (in 2013 average attendance was 18,611), it doesn’t even come close to competing with the average crowd of 35,996 that the BPL manages to draw to every game. In comparison, the NFL has an average attendance of 68,000 or so, with millions more viewing at home. But, to be fair, soccer stadiums aren’t built to hold the same amount of people as football stadiums. However, that doesn’t take away from the popularity of the sport.

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Soccer is an incredibly popular youth sport in the US but as these young players grow older, they tend to develop their fandom towards the big recognizable European soccer teams as opposed to their local MLS team. In Europe, fans often support their local team, no matter how bad they are. Until the MLS can inspire that type of fan devotion on a consistent basis, it will never compete for viewers with any of the major sports leagues in the US or with the major soccer leagues that are found abroad.

2. No relegation = Less league competition

As I mentioned before, the MLS just accepted a 23rd club to join its ranks. In most American sports, this is seen as growth. However, when it is compared to other soccer leagues around the world, it is seen as a hindrance.

In the Barclays Premier League, 20 teams compete a total of 38 times each with the top four teams earning a spot in the Champions League, 5-7 can earn a spot in the Europa league, and the teams who finish in the bottom three get relegated to the lower division the following season with the top three teams from that division replacing them.

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Because the MLS has no movement, the teams at the bottom often remain there for multiple seasons. Instead of fostering competition among the teams who cant compete for the top spot, it instead makes them focus on losing in hopes of getting a better pick in the draft.

3. A post-season

Another thing that the MLS does that no other league does is actually hold playoffs at the end of the year. There are two trophies awarded in the MLS, one for winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield for best regular season record, and the MLS Cup for winning the playoffs.

The playoff system actually plays better to the US audience because it offers a chance for more teams to win a trophy. On the flip side, this system takes away from the importance from the regular season and the reward of being the best club throughout the year, even if the Supporters’ Shield is awarded.

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The playoff system also allows for different conferences to exist. No other major soccer league is split up into Eastern and Western conferences. As opposed to each team playing every other team twice, the MLS has 24 in-conference games and then 10 games against teams from the opposing conference for a total of 24 games.

A hypothetical solution:

If the MLS has any hopes of becoming one of the best soccer leagues in the world, they have to make some changes.

The first step would be to eliminate the conference format. You want to have playoffs? Fine, just take the top eight teams and call it a day but you have to at least let every team play each other twice.

The next step would be to insert the idea of promotion and relegation. Give the teams in lower divisions something to fight for and teach a lesson to the teams in the upper division who try to tank for a draft pick.

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That leads me into another change, the elimination of the MLS SuperDraft. Let all players who want to go pro be on the open market. If you want to make it fair, let the teams that finish with the worst records get the first crack at signing any one player they want. Once that player is identified, the team has two days to get a contract done with him before he hits the open market where he would be fair play. Any team that talks to another teams designated player during those two days gets a fine and loses any chance of signing that player.

These changes would foster growth of soccer in the United States to even higher levels, with more teams playing with more desire and more players getting a chance to showcase their skills. Are they likely changes? No, but a man can dream, can’t he?

All stats and information from ESPNFC.com unless stated otherwise

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