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What the MLS needs to do to advance the game in America

Because I'm a huge nerd and like looking up statistics and what not.  I've discovered through intensive, exhaustive research (okay, I read Wikipedia and like, one other article) that the MLS has become the 4th most attended league in the USA.  The gate average of the MLS surpassed 5 Million this year and things are looking up for a league that nearly died about a decade ago. 

Major League Soccer's growth has been remarkable given the fact that the country is in a recession.  I applaud Commissioner Don Garber for the way he has pretty much guided the league into where it is now.  Seriously, those of you who watched the MLS in the late 90s with those godawful jerseys that make my eyes and brain scream at the thought that professional sporting teams wore these things and tell me if you honestly thought that these teams would have the likes of David Beckham and Theirry Henry playing for them.  Go ahead, do it.  Wipe that smirk off your face when you say it though.

However, as far as the MLS has come, it needs to go a bit further.  So, here are some of my ideas for what the MLS should do in order to further itself in the United States.

1. Make sure every team in the MLS has a Soccer Specific Stadium (SSS)

As of next year, the Houston Dynamo are opening their gorgeous new stadium in downtown Houston.  That leaves the list of teams without their own SSS as follows

Vancouver Whitecaps

Chivas USA

D.C. United

New England Revolution

San Jose Earthquakes

 

Vancouver had plans to build the so called "Vancouver Waterfront Stadium" but plans were scrapped due to opposition and Vancouver has committed to BC Place.

Chivas USA of course does have a SSS in the Home Depot Center but they don't have one if you catch my drift since it's more of the LA Galaxy's field than Chivas USA's.

D.C. United still plays at the decaying RFK stadium and from what it sounds like, we might have to get used to calling them "Baltimore United" within the next few years.

New England Revolution play at Gillette Stadium, let me tell you, you aren't getting an intimidating environment when you put about 10-15,000 fans in a stadium that is designed to hold nearly 70,000.  To use an entirely inappropriate metaphor, "Its like throwing a hot dog down a hallway."

The San Jose Earthquakes? Well I've heard mixed things about them getting a stadium.

What Garber needs to do is after he gets this 20th franchise (we'll get to that later) he needs to sit down with the owners of the above mentioned franchises and gently prod them into having SSS built. I'm not saying give them an ultimatum, but every team needs to have its own SSS. 

The Don needs to start telling owners, "Hey, we all appreciate what some of you have done for the league when it was young and struggling, but we're evolving into a more professional entity and playing at professional football or small college stadiums just isn't going to cut it for the league anymore."

If I'm the Don I mentally set the mark at 2020 (Don Garber will turn 63 that year and will still be around unless he decides to walk away before then) that you start to politely muscle out franchise owners that refuse to enter the 21st century.

2. Once you get to 20 teams, stop expanding the MLS for now

I think 20 we can agree is a nice round number, a number that just rolls off the tongue like that last M&M you tried to stuff in your mouth and dropped somewhere.  Once the MLS gets to 20 teams it needs to stop.  Expansion up to this point has been a great thing, adding passionate supporter fan bases like Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, etc.  However, the league can't dilute itself too much.  We could risk making the same mistake as the North American Soccer League (NASL) and use expansion as a way to make money rather than improving the league itself. 

Whether that 20th Franchise be in New York or elsewhere doesn't matter to me. 

After you stop expansion, focus on building up visibility of the league and of the quality of play.  The MLS has been doing that slowly and steadily over the past decade or so, but what needs to be accomplished is the continued exposure of average sports fans to the MLS and the realization that these guys are indeed athletes  and amazing to watch.

The MLS' deal with NBC which will put games on NBC itself and the currently named Versus (Soon to be renamed NBC Sports Network in January), I cannot properly explain how big a deal this is without gushing like an idiot and using words like, "awesome" and a word that rhymes with "ducking." 

If MLS followers (like me) are going to help the league grow, put those channels on during games, invite friends over to watch. Tell others to watch what you know will be a good game to watch. The deal will run until 2014, so for two years, the MLS fans have the opportunity to prove that the MLS is here to stay on the big boy networks.

Lets make the best of it people.

3. Continue expanding the salary cap

Only with the cap's expansion are you able to sign more and better players.  I'm not saying that the cap needs to be blown up to unimaginable proportions, but it needs to grow.  Currently the MLS salary cap for each team is around $2.65 Million, for a base comparison according to a CNN article put online in 2010, Real Madrid's Christiano Ronaldo's annual salary was $17.06 Million.  Basically the annual salary of Ronaldo could pay for nearly 7 MLS team's complete cap salaries. 

Imagine the level of quality on the field if the MLS teams had a cap of $5 Million or even $10 Million.  It makes my mouth water. 

The league hasn't gotten to the point where it can raise the cap to such heights, though I think $5 Million is a goal that could be achieved by the end of this decade (the current CBA expires in 2014).  However, what do you do with that added player quality on the field?

4. Focus on winning international competitions

The Superliga was a good idea.  It was a competition between the MLS and Mexican Primera División basically to pit the best teams in North America against each other.  The problem was no one really cared about it. The MLS especially and it was abolished in 2010. 

So how does the MLS establish itself as a force to be reckoned with?  Simple, the CONCACAF Champions League.

For those who aren't familiar the CONCACAF Champions League (hereafter I will refer to as the North American Champions League or NACL) is basically the championship for clubs in North America. 

The NACL features clubs not just from Mexico and the US, but from every country from the Caribbean to Central America.  This is where the MLS needs to prove itself, this is where the MLS needs to say, "This is where we need to dominate." 

The NACL is the perfect opportunity for the MLS to test itself.  To date only Real Salt Lake even made the final of the NACL only to lose to Mexican Club Monterrey.  If you're asking yourself, "Why is the NACL important?" I will tell you my friend. 

You see, every soccer federation, CONCACAF (North America), CONMEBOL (South America), UEFA (Europe), AFC (Asia), CAF (Africa) and OFC (Oceania) sends one, just one team to the Club World Cup that is held every year.  The Club World Cup is basically a tournament to determine the best club team in the world.  The only way an MLS team gets there is by winning the NACL.


Now, I'm not saying that the MLS teams can win the Club World Cup right away, we don't have the quality to take on Barcelona, Inter, or Manchester United yet (All three have won the Club World Cup over the past 3 years), but just getting there would be a massive achievement for the MLS. 

5. Handle the rivalry matches better

Rivalries are a fine thing and help drive the league, however, sometimes the MLS needs to evaluate just what it's doing with those matches.  For example, the last game of the season between the Philadelphia Union and the New York Red Bulls was scheduled on a Thursday night.  For people that, you know, have normal jobs that means they'd have to either leave work early or take off work to make it to the game in Harrison, NJ.   Despite that 1,200 Union fans made the journey.  Imagine how many would have made it had it been on a Saturday.

The MLS needs to gauge interest in potential match ups and make sure they're scheduled for the best times on the best days.  Much like how the NFL seemed to magically schedule the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots a regular season game against each other every single season from 2003 to 2010 because they knew that people wanted to see Brady and Manning's teams go at each other.

The MLS put emphasis on the Cascadia Cup during the past season, that's a start.  What might be needed is more emphasis put on the rivalries that drive some of the franchises against each other.

But really, who can really find a great deal of fault for what the MLS has done over the past few years? The League is growing and gaining more fans. The hardcore fans are bringing in people who were on the fence about soccer.  All it takes is one game and bam, your hooked.  I can't wait to see where the league sits over the next few years.

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