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Issues 2015 Part III: Can MLS Do Big Things?

Recent disappointments have raised questions about MLS’s ability to make major moves.

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

The message from Manchester couldn’t have been clearer:  New York City FC is, under all circumstances, at best secondary to Manchester City. MLS’s eagerness to fetch a $100 million-expansion fee had led MLS to exactly what contracted Chivas USA to escape: a secondary league with affiliates of major-league clubs.

When MLS announced NYCFC as part of a groundbreaking partnership with the Manchester City and the New York Yankees, the league billed the expansion as signaling a new era in MLS. From the expansion fee, to the presence of a team playing in a stadium immediately within America’s largest city, to the signing of David Villa and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, MLS held NYCFC up as an example of what the league can accomplish when it flexes its muscles.

MLS, the league self-proclaimed, is a big deal.

Except the Lampard signing isn’t what NYCFC and MLS sold it as. And that soccer-specific stadium in Gotham doesn’t exist and shows no sign of becoming anything more than a vestigial press release in the foreseeable future.

Supporters of NYCFC and all MLS clubs alike are left today asking one simple question: Can MLS do big things?

For all the positive trends in MLS – from record attendance numbers to a more lucrative television deal to steadily improving quality of play – the past year has created considerable doubt that MLS has the clout or organizational wherewithal to do truly big things.

In February 2014, expansion to Miami was billed as the veritable resurrection of MLS’s greatest feat to date – the signing of David Beckham. Seven years after Beckham first came to the league, the English legend was poised to help deliver MLS to the big-time by unrolling the boulder in front of the tomb of top-flight soccer in Miami.

Less than a year later MLS’s return to Miami is nowhere. No club. No stadium. No light at the end of the tunnel.

In May 2013 the league billed NYCFC as proof positive that the biggest clubs in the world saw MLS as a big part of the future of football.  Those clubs, with Manchester City leading the way, could hardly wait to get in on a piece of the action.

Yet the news about Lampard on New Year’s Eve couldn’t have more clearly shown that, rather than the future of the sport, Manchester City saw MLS merely as a provincial repository for aging stars past their use-by date and academics not yet ready for primetime.

In January 2014, when Toronto FC signed Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, we were told the signings marked the ascendancy of a sleeping giant on the western shore of Lake Ontario.  TFC had become the first Canadian super club.  This, we were breathlessly told by everybody at Toronto FC and MLS, was a bloody big deal.

And yet less than a year later Defoe appears on his way back to England after making meager impact in one injury-riddled season, Bradley shows signs of frustration, and the ever-growing stands in Toronto are nearly as empty as ever.

Three recent major initiatives. Three significant failures that seem destined to land somewhere on the spectrum of disappointing to disastrous.

Over the past two years MLS has eschewed the smart growth that put the league on its current trajectory in favor of eye-popping headlines. MLS is eager to expand in sexy, albeit uncertain markets like New York and Miami. Meanwhile, Sacramento, despite nearly unprecedented support in USL-Pro, an MLS-stadium deal in place, and an organized, shovel-ready ownership group, has the feel of the city MLS will only go to the prom with if Las Vegas (a city with no professional soccer history to speak of) or Minneapolis (whose NASL club averaged 6,133 in attendance at non-double-header games) don’t ask.

MLS wants to be a big deal. It wants to thrive in the big markets. It wants to land the big stars.

But time and again over the past two years the league has shown its capacity to do so is at best questionable, making MLS’s decision to reach for high-hanging fruit a risky proposition that has exposed the league to embarrassment just as it was beginning to earn itself a sliver of international respect.

As Orlando City demonstrates, however, MLS isn’t banking entirely on home-run swings. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that this year MLS will pluck the low-hanging Sacramento Republic from USL-Pro.

But MLS clearly feels it has to swing for the fences to accelerate its development into a league of choice. While league officials may be correct in this assessment, the disappointments of the past year call into question whether the league really has the capacity to do so.

Whether MLS can answer lingering questions about its ability to pull off big moves, then, will determine whether the league is capable of making the jump observers have ambitiously forecasted with every success over the past half-decade.

But in light of recent stumbles, it’s hard not to wonder whether that high-hanging fruit is still out of reach and MLS is only capable of continuing on its path of steady but incremental progress.