It's the end of another year and, despite progress being made, Major League Soccer is still a long ways away from being even close to the top of the global soccer pyramid.
Major League Soccer is an interesting affair. I'm sure you can all agree. Even if you've only been following the Portland Timbers or the league for the last year or so, you have probably noticed a few quirks and oddities here and there. Many of those quirks were established to help MLS survive in the early years when neither the sport nor the league were guaranteed to survive beyond even a few years and indeed a few short years after its establishment it was that same entity structure that helped the league from crashing.
Still, as we look back in recent years, it has become clear that, at least locally, the league is not only surviving, but also growing and expanding at a rate some of us never even thought possible. Looking back to 2005, there were 12 teams and no such thing as the Designated Player rule. It was such a marginal league locally, nationally and globally that it's almost awe-inspiring that we are where we are today.
But it's not over yet. In 2012 MLS has truly become a local culture in many of its respective cities. Portland, obviously, but also Seattle, Washington DC, Vancouver, Houston, Philadelphia and even Los Angeles (among others) have all taken to their team as a major league sports franchise. Nationally, as well, the league has made headway. Talking about MLS isn't the same as talking about Arena Football or rugby anymore. It's much more on par as talking about the NHL. People, at the very least, seem to recognize its existence, even if they don't actively follow. That's a huge step in gaining nation-wide acceptance.
In soccer though, simply being nationally accepted and relevant isn't enough, as it is with MLB, NFL and NBA. This is a global sport and, as such, MLS and even the Portland Timbers, are competing globally for mind and marketshare. Some of you can argue that it's not important for MLS or the Timbers to be globally relevant, but I can guarantee you that MLS execs are aiming for that top spot.
Here are a couple of my suggestions on how MLS can grow at a faster pace without compromising long term viability:
Modified Salary Cap System
The current salary cap is a joke. $2.81 million dollars is a laughably small amount. Granted teams can "augment" their teams with up to three designated players. Still, the current system relegates MLS to being the penny pinchers of the world, even behind much smaller nations.
What I suggest is a modified cap system. I don't believe MLS should expand it rapidly on its own dime, but rather give teams the opportunity to do such a thing. Over the next 2-3 years MLS should introduce a modified salary cap system which would have the teams and league share the burden of their players. Here's how it would work:
MLS will increase their own salary cap by $1 million each year for the next three years. That would be $4-6 million from now until 2016. However, they should also allow teams to match the league in salary cap. So each team, over the next 3 years would also be allowed to spend $4-6 million of its own money. That would essentially give each team a salary cap of between $8-12 million dollars. This also gives MLS the added benefit of being able to recruit heavily from the 2016 World Cup if they deem it necessary.
Change the Calendar
I know, I know. I actually love going to games in the summer, and really enjoy having soccer to watch all year around. Unfortunately, the current calendar schedule just doesn't make sense for the dates that really matter: the beginning and end of the season. I know some people can argue that for some cities this would be unbearable, but hang with me for a minute.
What I am suggesting is that MLS work much like the new Russian league schedule, who also just switched to a autumn-spring schedule from something that was similar to MLS's current schedule. MLS would kick off in mid August before any serious NFL or NCAA football games begin. They would play until late November and break for 2 months. Teams would then start playing again in early February, schedule adjusted so severe cold weather teams can play away from home for a couple weeks. They would play until early June, giving the play-offs all of June to perform with nothing bu MLB to compete against, as opposed to college and NFL football. In another month and a half the next season would kick off again.
Obviously this can be modified to add weeks where needed for scheduling purposes, but until they make this kind of switch, it will be difficult getting global mindshare from players and fans. Additionally, it makes competing in even regional tournaments, like the CONCACAF Champions League, more challenging because MLS teams are forced to play competitive matches against regional rivals who are not coming off a 3 month break.
Players Prefer Free Agency
It's no secret that during the last CBA negotiations between the league and players union a big point of contention between the two sides was free agency, something that every major soccer league in the world grants its players. In a sense, it's kind of an embarrassment to the league. When somebody signs with the Portland Timbers, what they're actually doing is signing with MLS.
Unfortunately, with MLS's convoluted system come players who might prefer to just not come here at all. Why sign with MLS and be locked into a single team until they trade away your rights when you can sign with some team in Europe for the duration of your contract and then be free to negotiate on your own with other teams? For a player with global ambitions, this just doesn't make a lot of sense for them.
If MLS wants to truly be an alternative destination league for up and coming players and not just retiring ones, they need to address the fundamental way they handle player contracts starting with allowing players free agency.
Those are just a few of my suggestions, but we're interested in hearing yours.
How would you make MLS a global league?