MLS Christmas shopping in London
What might Don Garber and Ivan Gazadis be doing in London at this time of year, a spot of Christmas shopping perhaps? Having spent his fair share of time across the Atlantic while head of NFL International, the MLS commissioner knows better than to venture onto Oxford Street at this time of year. The reality is that Garber was conducting business but was more likely selling than buying.
The MLS heavyweights spearheaded a mission to London to cement a connection between their vision for American soccer and the English Premier League. The visit with the English Football Association might have been under a cloak of secrecy, but the date, December 8, when Garber, Gazadis and their entourage walked through the doors at Connaught Place, could prove to be a significant one.
What went on behind closed doors between the Anglo-American cousins is anyone's guess. Come lunchtime they might even have staged the trans-Atlantic foosball championships. One certainty is that the MLS contingent will have returned home buzzing with ideas and hopefully with optimism.
The combination of Major League Soccer and the world's most potent soccer league joining forces, or at a minimum brainstorming, conjures up a wealth of possibilities. Here are six for consideration:
1) Loan deals. The likes of Scott Parker and Joe Cole are likely to baulk at the suggestion they stay in shape over in MLS while unable to break into the first team at Chelsea. For the next tier of out-of-favor reserves, however, the prospect of using MLS as a platform on which to shine would certainly appeal. If the choice is Grimsby, Carlisle or Wycombe on loan for a month, or four weeks living the American dream in San Jose, Washington or LA, surely there can be only one winner.
English soccer players also typically have a summer spent on the golf course that could be put to better use playing competitively in the United States. Send young English club hopefuls over to MLS on loan and you're onto a winner for all concerned.
2) More loan deals. How about sending American prospects in the opposite direction after the MLS season ends? A month here and there for United States stars on the fringe of international duty, unable to gain a permanent work permit, would give them a taste of life in the Premiership and showcase the best MLS has to offer.
Imagine Southampton needs a decent midfielder and Clint Dempsey is sitting in New England twiddling his thumbs from November to the New Year. The Premier League thrashes out an agreement with the British Home Office and all of a sudden the door is open to U.S. players during the MLS off-season.
3) Mid-season challenge games. The Champions World tour didn't project quite the excitement and appeal felt the first time around in 2003. Garber knows from his time with the NFL that exhibition games between visiting teams only hold the public's attention for so long. London's Wembley Stadium was packed to the rafters in the early days of the American Bowl series, but after a few years even the likes of the Cowboys, Broncos and Dolphins couldn't draw an appreciable crowd.
If MLS could invent an attractive alternative to Liverpool and Celtic at Rentschler Field, with the help of the Premier League, they could be on to a winner. Liverpool or Arsenal taking on MLS opposition in full stride at the midway point in the American season would be an intriguing prospect. MLS teams would have an opportunity to prove they can live with the best and even though the English clubs would blood several fringe first-teamers, they would still supply quality opposition.
4) The MLS All-Star game. Although the concept belongs in American sports and not in soccer, there's no getting away from the fact that the best from the east and west will still meet during the mid-season break.
The tired concept might be reinvigorated and capture the imagination of an American public if the format were altered. Pit a combined MLS best IX against a Premier League club promising to field a full-strength line up and that's worth tuning in for. The cream of MLS takes on Newcastle's Shearer, Kluivert, Jenas and Dyer. Yes, please.
5) Expansion. The owners of Aston Villa touted the sale of their club around a few American investors last year and stopped off to see the Kraft family and AEG on their travels. At least that's what was reported. Instead, the truth might have been that the Premier League club was gathering information from present MLS operators while considering an investment of their own. An idea bouncing around in the think tank in London this week might have been to present the possibility of MLS ownership to Premier League owners and chairmen.
Imagine the next phase of expansion takes MLS into Rochester, where the Raging Rhinos are champing at the bit. Link Rochester with Villa and thrash out a partnership and you have Rochester Villa. The name is no more ridiculous than Real Salt Lake and if the club effectively becomes the Premier League owner's new American interest it could spark further investment. In fact, why wait until expansion? If San Jose Earthquakes is still up for sale perhaps MLS and the Premier League could join forces to present it to prospective buyers in England.
6) International challenges. English soccer fans still shake their heads at the memory of a guitarist in a rock band with fuzzy red hair stepping off the bench to score the goal that beat England. Alexi Lalas didn't even play in a proper league back then and the Americans should have known their place, but they beat England.
It'd have made sense for MLS and Premier League officials to propose dates and places to take back to their international counterparts to arrange friendly fixtures between the two nations. The new Wembley Stadium would be the perfect setting for English fans to discover just how far the USA has progressed internationally. Brazil is likely to open the new venue, but the USA should be hot on their heels in terms of providing quality opposition.
And how about England venturing to the United States for a few games as World Cup preparation? England vs. USA at RFK, England vs. Mexico in Dallas and a finale against Bruce Arena's finest at the Home Depot Center would round things off nicely. It certainly appeals more than the likely Gold Cup opponents.
Whatever went on behind the closed doors at Connaught Place and whoever won the foosball challenge, surely MLS will be a winner after tapping into the expertise of the English Premier League.
Michael Preston is a freelance writer who covers MLS and European soccer.