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An introduction to Major League Soccer for new fans

Looking to jump into Major League Soccer but unsure where to start? Don't worry! Writer Drew Gobrecht is here to help! Or ... well. He's here to ramble incoherently at you for a while, anyway. Just humor him. He's very excited.

Sports are amazing.

The excitement, the suspense, the crushing disappointment. Okay, maybe that last part is just because I’m from Philadelphia and have a bit of a masochistic streak, but I love it all.

You probably love sports too. Many people do.

But … maybe the classically "American" sports aren’t doing it for you like they used to. Football is bogged down by constant controversy, too many penalties, and a depressing lack of concern about the fact that the sport gives all of it’s players serious brain damage. Baseball is… Well, let’s be honest. Baseball is boring. There are 162 games a year of dudes mostly standing around scratching their balls. Hockey suffers from the exact opposite problem. The sport is so chaotic it’s nearly impossible to follow. The NBA is dominated by a few stars which all seem to gather on a few good teams while the rest race to the bottom, all hoping to draft the next LeBron.

Maybe you feel that way and you’re hungry for a sport that’s exciting without being chaotic, that’s physical without literally killing the players, that got stars but no tanking. Or maybe you love all the sports and you just have a huge appetite for something new.

Boy, have I got the sport for you!

Soccer.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, hypothetical sports straw man. "Isn’t soccer that sport played by a bunch of pansies over in Europe?"

Okay. First let’s ease up on the homophobic slurs, yeah? This is 2017. We’re supposed to be past that.

"Sorry."

It’s okay. Nobody’s perfect. You didn't know any better. But for future reference, everyone here in Soccer-Fandom tries to be cool and inclusive about stuff like that.

"Got it."

Anyway, yes. Soccer is that sport played by a bunch of people over in Europe. It’s also played in South America, Africa, and Asia. Basically, everywhere in the world. But it’s not what you think! Soccer is a grueling sport filled with exciting moments, complex tactics, incredible feats of skill and athleticism, and an awesome fan culture. It’s got all the stuff you’re looking for!

"Why are you working so hard to sell me? Couldn’t you have assumed that I had an open mind based on the fact that I clicked on an article intended to introduce me to Major League Soccer?"

Yeah, well … Shut up.

"I’m just saying. This introduction seems pretty superfluous."

Yeah, but … Doing jokes about straw man arguments is kind of my thing.

"That is a terrible thing. No one thinks you’re funny. Just get to the point."

Okay, okay. Geeze…  

So you’re interested in Major League Soccer, eh? Awesome! I’m here to be your completely unqualified guide.

So, what do you need to know about the league before becoming a fan?

Major League Soccer is growing, and growing fast. The league is almost unrecognizable from its former self, even if you only go back five or so years. There has been a huge influx of cash through expansion teams with owners willing to spend, new TV deals, and an ever-growing fan base. There are 22 teams in MLS across two conferences, more than double the 10 teams the league started with over 20 years ago. Two more teams are on the way in the near future, and another four are coming some time after that.

With all this new cash, there has also been an influx of talent. You may have heard rumors of MLS being a "retirement league," but those rumors have been greatly exaggerated. There have been a lot of legitimately good (not just good for MLS) players coming over in the prime of their career (Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro, Giovani Dos Santos, etc.). There have been even more middling-level (on the international scale) talents to join the league. Players whose names you probably wouldn't recognize, but are good enough to be playing in Europe and chose to play here instead. We've also seen a pretty substantial effort by the league to bring United States Men’s National Team players "home" to the domestic league. Players like Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Alejandro Bedoya have returned to MLS. Lastly, many teams are investing heavily in academy programs which produce quality domestic talent, and the league encourages this. As a result, I don't think many would argue that the quality of play hasn't risen considerably in the last few years, and all signs point to the play continuing to improve.

I won't oversell it though, MLS is still a long way from being of similar quality to the top European leagues. On that score, there is still a lot of work to be done. However, I legitimately believe that the league is on the right path. It will likely be a long time still, but within the next two decades I think MLS will be considered one of the top leagues in the world, and will be competing for America's sports-related attention right there along with the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL.

It’s not all peaches and gravy, though (that’s a saying, right?). MLS has a transparency issue. There are a ton of convoluted rules regarding roster moves and the salary cap. I won’t get into those rules here, but suffice it to say that many fans are frustrated by the quagmire of roster regulations. On top of that, the league is notorious for changing/bending/breaking those rules when it suits them. For example, when a big-money team in a big market city wants to sign a big-name player, the league will usually try to do what it can to accommodate them, even if the signing would be in violation of the current roster regulations. It's frustrating, particularly when you're not one of the teams that seem to get preferential treatment (read: everyone but NY, Seattle, Toronto, and LA)

All that being said ... Sigh … I must begrudgingly admit that I understand why it happens. Big name players in big market cities go a long way towards raising the profile of the league, both domestically and internationally. Sometimes, if the league were to strictly enforce the roster rules they would be shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to growth, which might be more fair, but would be counter-productive in the long run. Doesn't mean I like it though grumble grumble.

In fairness, MLS very recently took a huge step forward when it comes to transparency. There is an in-league mechanism called Allocation Money, which is basically a fancy name for cash that the league hands out to every team which can be used for player salaries or player acquisition. There are different kinds of allocation money, but I don't want to get into the details here. Suffice it to say that Allocation Money (AM) is a big part of a lot of roster moves in MLS. However, until the most recent draft, the amounts of allocation money spent were never made public. So, for example, if the Union bought a player from another team in the league, the announcement would go something like this: "The Philadelphia Union have acquired midfielder Chris Pontius for allocation money. Per club and league policy, additional terms of the deal were not disclosed."

Frustrating, right? There was basically no way for fans to know if that was a good or bad trade without knowing how much money exchanged hands, right? Well, luckily, MLS has *finally* come around and started to release AM amounts when a trade is announced. This is a big deal, because it will allow us fans to better track the amount of AM our teams have in their coffers, and give us a better idea of the "value" of players. This is a big step in the right direction, and I am glad they finally took it.

In short, MLS is in a very good place. The league is growing at an incredible rate. They’re encouraging teams to invest in the development of local talent, they’re making moves to bring in quality international talent, and they’re doing a good job of capturing the attention of a young and enthusiastic fan base. Now is a great time to jump on the bandwagon of soccer fandom.

Now all you need is a club to support. Don’t worry, I’ve already picked for you. You’re going to support The Philadelphia Union! Excellent choice.

Stay tuned for my next article where I introduce you to the team and tell you everything you need to know to be a fan!