Thursday, July 19, 2007

MLS All-Stars Beat Another Foreign Club - What Does it Mean? -- I'd like to say the MLS All-Stars 2-0 win over Celtic means that American players are making great strides. Of course, if I begin with a sentence like that, obviously I'm going to follow by adding that I can't say that. It's true -- I can't say that.

One could say that all this win shows is that a team consisting of the best players in the MLS, playing with midseason form and condition, can beat talented foreign club sides that are just beginning training for their next season. That isn't giving the MLS' team its proper due. The MLS all-star team has won the last four years, defeating CD Guadalajara, Fulhma, Chelsea, and now Celtic. I think these wins show that the best players in the MLS can play with good clubs, even the top European club sides -- and I won't qualify it by pointing out the European teams are not at the top of their game, or in the best of shape.

The biggest disappointment is that the American players are not really shining in these games. Last year, it took a brilliant piece of individual play-making by the Canadian Dwayne DeRosario, to beat Chelsea 1-0. This year, DeRosario made a nice pass to set up Colombian Juan Pablo Angel (of the N.Y. Red Bulls) for the first goal. The second goal was scored by another Colombian, FC Dallas' star Juan Toja.

So, the league has some pretty good foreign-born players. It is also true that the level of the play in MLS is improving greatly. The triumph of the U.S.A. in the Gold Cup, and the strong performance of the U.S.A. U-20s suggests that there are some fine American players. It's just that there aren't very many of them. Tonight marked the last All-Star game for two of the best: Cobi Jones, whose speed and skill hasn't been replaced in the U.S. midfield; and Eddie Pope, who was the best defender the U.S.A. has produced -- his absence from the U.S. back line is obvious each time the national team plays these days.

With the league looking to expand next year -- and probably twice more in coming years -- the MLS will have to look abroad for much more talent. Having Beckham here enhances the league's prestige, and makes it more likely that the league can attract good foreign players. However, the league will have to significantly adjust the salary cap so teams can sign foreign talent. The league might also consider granting each team another designated player exception to the cap (the Beckham rule).

These changes are necessary, if the league wants to continue to raise the quality of play. Expansion can only dilute the overall quality of the teams. Look at D.C. United. They are struggling to find any depth. They were knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup, playing a team of second-stringers -- beaten by a third division side. The teams will become more profitable, but the league has to have the foresight to invest in the product.

The league needs more stars, but also deeper, better rosters -- better players at all levels. That will take some money, but it has to be done. Ultimately, to succeed, the league needs to be something Americans stay home to watch on TV. Similarly, home games need to become events that the home city fans turn out to see. There are too many choices -- too many other ways to spend one's time and entertainment dollars, but also too many other options, even for the soccer fanatics.

The M.L.S has the toughest road of any American sports league, because it's not just competing against the other sports, in the battle for fans' attention. The M.L.S. is also competing against the best foreign soccer leagues...and international competitions, as well. Now, soccer fans in the U.S. can watch the E.P.L., the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, and the Mexican league -- as well as the European Champions League, and Euro 2008.

Even against such daunting competition, the M.L.S. does have a potential built-in advantage, because it is the national league. That's only potential, which will be squandered if the product isn't good enough to meet the demand. As exciting as those other competitions can be, Americans still will have a natural inclination to watch the M.L.S. -- if the quality of play makes for entertaining soccer games.

No comments: