When New York City FC was announced as a Major League Soccer (MLS) club-to-be in 2013, I certainly thought it would be my club. A new, albeit desperately enthusiastic fan receiving a real hometown club (the “New York” Red Bull play in Harrison, New Jersey!) seemed like a godsend. To boot, it soon became clear that the team was also bringing in some huge players, including one of my all-time favorites: Juventus’ deep play-maker star Andrea Pirlo.
Perhaps if NYCFC had arrived in the nascence of my soccer fandom, it wouldn’t have gone this way, but I soon discovered that when MLS came on the television, I could barely help but shield my eyes. I loved to watch Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, I loved to watch Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and I had developed an affinity for my Italian fa- ther’s own favorite club, Juventus. Watching an MLS match after a top-tier European one was a bit like returning from a trip to Italy and heading to the neighborhood Olive Garden. In both cases, one “just has it,” so to speak—the technical quality on the ball, the fresh ingredients, and centuries-old recipe know-how—and the other does not.
Major League Soccer’s lack of quality became embarrassingly apparent this fall when the MLS-player-filled United States Men’s Soccer Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. With a few bad bounces and many uninspiring performances, the team fell ignominiously to Trinidad and Tobago, a country with fewer than 1.5 million people. Firsthand observation confirms what the USMNT’s MLS-inspired failure suggests: American soccer is devoid of the technical quality that makes the beautiful game just that.
The problem is that MLS, as the country’s professional soccer league, falls short of the standard of play that a country with a mil- lions-of-kids-strong youth soccer presence should have. How does that problem come to be, though? I believe that the answer lies in the structure of the MLS.
Major League Soccer is a single entity. It is not a league of independently owned clubs; instead, all clubs are owned by the league and operated by a shareholder. “In the single-entity business structure,” the league website’s About section reads, “club owners operate a financial stake in the league, not just their individual team” (MLS- soccer.com, “About Major League Soccer”).
There are some arguments to be heard in favor of this approach to improve American soccer. Stateside leagues have folded before under the weight of their component teams’ overinvestment. Formulating a sort of compendium of investment can make it somewhat more palatable for prospective team operators to throw in their lot.
The MLS was also created as part of the American bid for the 1994 World Cup, meaning that it wasn’t necessarily an organic fomentation of investor interest in operating American soccer franchises. The argument would go that the MLS’s single-entity approach was a shrewd way of trying to kick-start popular interest in soccer with the one-two punch of a new, stable professional league and a stateside World Cup.
On the other hand, it is hard to escape the stark reality that this MLS set-up is inherently non-competitive. What incentive do MLS clubs have to increase their quality when their “ownership” is not a distinct entity from that of the rest of the competition? As things stand, MLS intra-competition is more or less “on good faith.” All the teams are insulated from their own failure, to such an extent that the incentive for improvement is irreparably muted.
Unsurprisingly, quality of performance has not risen at the rate it might otherwise. Though star European players like Andrea Pirlo have provided American fans with spritzes of world-class play during the twilights of their careers, the average standard for American players is still very low. This dearth in quality was displayed in full measure last month, when a team featuring Borussia Dortmund wonder-kid Christian Pulisic, but weighed down with six MLS players, failed to qualify the United States for the World Cup finals.
It is my opinion that a higher-quality Major League Soccer—and a resultantly higher-quality American national team—would have to at least involve a multiple-ownership structure akin to those in the other major American professional sports leagues. At best, this reformed MLS would also embrace a promotion-relegation format.
In pretty much the rest of the world, soccer leagues are part of a pyramid system where the worst teams of the higher league get sent down to the league below, whose best teams in turn get promoted to that aforementioned higher league.
The effect is that all teams have to keep pace with the league’s standard of quality, lest they get demoted. This format, coupled with large media rights deals, has made the English Premier League into a financial giant with unparalleled levels of investment in player quality.
Granted, the Premier League is the home of international megaliths like Manchester United and Liverpool FC.
Even with the adapting of a promotion and relegation system, an MLS club will not be reaching such heights for the foreseeable future. The similarity between the two leagues, however, is nonetheless the financial situation (in the MLS’ case, the potential one).
Media rights giant MP & Silva bid $4 billion on the American league’s worldwide media rights this past summer.
The MLS predictably rejected the proposal: For one thing, their current deal doesn’t expire for years.
But the real sticking point was over the promotion-relegation format condition that the offer was contingent upon (Jeff Carlisle,”MLS rejected $4 billion media rights deal requiring promotion/relegation,” 07.24.2017).
This deal was never going to happen, but the scale of MP & Silva’s offer still demonstrates that there is a belief in the possibility of an internationally relevant American soccer league.
The MLS needs to recognize and react. It needs to recognize the potential value of this offer. It needs to recognize the absurdity of the United States failing to qualify for a World Cup final. And it needs to react with a transition to multiple ownership structure and to a promotion-relegation format.