Minnesota United has escaped the wobbly North American Soccer League, which is losing at least three teams this offseason. But now it joins Major League Soccer, which still seems to think that it’s fighting for survival as well. It’s a mentality that is hurting the league’s on-field product.
All signs point to continued growth for MLS. The cavernous, empty football stadiums of the early years have been replaced with soccer-specific stadiums in all but a handful of cities. Franchise values have skyrocketed, to the point that high-end MLS teams are now worth about the same as low-end NHL teams. New owners are lining up to pay $100 million-plus expansion fees. Demand for new teams is outstripping supply.
Even so, Minnesota’s new league still is driven by the fears of the past. The league sets the salary cap so low that it would barely pay for a middling baseball relief pitcher. It bans teams from taking charter flights for all but a handful of away games, to keep any team from gaining a season-long competitive advantage.
It’s all done to ensure that no team falls behind, but the effect is ridiculous parity, like a basketball league that bans players over 6-6 from raising their hands above their head. Every single MLS team, even the truly putrid ones, had a winning home record this season. Not one managed to put together a winning record on the road. Every team struggles mightily to build a solid squad; it’s parity, but at a cost.
MLS also insists on scheduling five weeks’ worth of playoffs and a meaningless midseason all-star game. This means that the league has to fit in games during FIFA-mandated international breaks, so teams lose some of their international stars for multiple games during the year. The league could get around this by scheduling more midweek games, or cutting down the games outside of the regular season, but it still clings to its playoffs and showcases.
Add in the league’s convoluted, ever-shifting rule book and the effect is to make MLS look decidedly minor league. The cost control, the scheduling, the rules — none of these leads to better soccer teams. They just reduce the chance that a team is going to fold.
As the new expansion teams come into the league, it’s time for MLS to start focusing on the field, not the fear. The schedule needs to be altered so that the league’s marquee players are available 100 percent of the time. If that means allowing teams to take charter flights to ease the difficulty of midweek away trips, that seems like an easy decision to make. The salary cap needs to be opened up so each club can build an excellent team, not just throw money at three Designated Players.
It’s time to change the league so that it focuses on soccer, not survival. Better on-field play should be the goal, not refighting the battles of the past.
• David Beckham’s planned MLS team in Miami hit an unfortunate milestone this week. It’s been 1,000 days since the team was announced, and the team is no closer to taking the field than it was nearly three years ago. A report by SI.com indicated that at this point the team is aiming at 2019 for a start date, rather than 2018.
• After 10 rounds of the Premier League, three of the top five teams are squads with no European competition to worry about. Arsenal and Manchester City will have midweek games to worry about into the new year. Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham can focus solely on the weekends. It would not be a surprise to see the latter three take over at the top by Christmas.
• There’s something strange about the setup of women’s soccer in the U.S. The women’s national team has two friendlies against Romania next week. If forwards Crystal Dunn and Christen Press play in both, they’ll both have played in all 25 national-team games this year but neither will have played more than 14 NWSL club games. That seems backward.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Tottenham at Arsenal, 6 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Fans of both North London teams will relish the extra hour of sleep Saturday night, and the opportunity to rest up for the Premier League’s most acrimonious rivalry. Both teams will be thinking of the impact this match will have on the title race, not just about the opportunity to beat their nearest, hated neighbors.
MLS playoffs: Montreal at New York, 3 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Montreal leads 1-0 after the first leg but now has to try to hold off Bradley Wright-Phillips (above) and the Red Bulls for 90 minutes in New Jersey. The Impact has one big advantage: The tiebreaker in the two-leg match is the number of away goals scored, so scoring just once would require New York to get three goals to win.
MLS playoffs: Toronto at NYC, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1. Under new manager Patrick Vieira, NYC adopted a free-flowing style, which lifted the second-year team to second place in the Eastern Conference. For some reason, though, NYC abandoned that style in the first leg of this match and tried to play defensively. As a result it lost 2-0 and now has a huge hill to climb at home.
MLS playoffs: Seattle at Dallas, 8 p.m. Sunday, FS1. Seattle used a three-goal burst in the second half to take a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead into the second leg. Dallas has lost its two best attackers — Mauro Diaz to injury, Fabian Castillo to a midseason transfer. Can the home team find three goals from somewhere while keeping Seattle off the board?