The confetti had barely fallen on Toronto’s MLS Cup victory before Major League Soccer teams began making offseason moves. As impossible as it sounds, the beginning of preseason training camps is barely six weeks away. Just as every team is trying to address offseason needs, the league needs to start working on its 2018 to-do list right now.
Priority No. 1 has to be keeping the Columbus Crew in Columbus, no matter the whims of owner Anthony Precourt.
Columbus is one of the league’s founding members. In some ways, its stadium — the venue for many of the men’s national team’s most memorable victories, all against Mexico — is the spiritual home of American soccer. Throwing all of that away over declining revenue would be a slap in the face to every fan who has loyally followed the league through all of its varied missteps. If nothing else, the Crew has to stay in Columbus to let MLS fans know that they matter more than the pocketbooks of team owners.
The league’s second priority should be figuring out a way to better develop young players. Seventeen-year-old U.S. striker Josh Sargent, who is moving to German side Werder Bremen in January, correctly noted this week that there are just as many American teenagers starting in the Bundesliga right now as there were in MLS this season. MLS has touted the growth of its team academies and youth development systems, but if young players have to head to Germany to get a chance at playing, something is remarkably broken.
Given that there’s little cash in player development, perhaps it’s just a case of perverse incentives. Clubs would rather hang on to young players than develop them and see them agitate to leave for greener pastures. MLS needs to figure out a solution quickly, because youth development will be the bedrock of future growth.
Thirdly, as money flows into the league, this would be a perfect time for MLS to relax its rules on cross-country travel and to stop restricting teams from taking regular charter airline flights. This would allow for more midweek games, thereby shortening the schedule and avoiding FIFA-mandated international breaks.
MLS gets no benefit from playing games while its best players are away on national-team duty. It’s time for the league to grow up and start scheduling itself like a real soccer league. Or, for that matter, a real big-time American sports league.
Whether it’s based on financials or fan interest, MLS can be proud of its growth over the past two decades, but there is still plenty to do. The league is poised to become a permanent fixture on the American sports scene, even while becoming increasingly important on the world soccer scene.
The timeline for changes is short. MLS, like its 23 teams, should not wait for 2018 to start improving.