Following the European example
The American fans of European soccer have spoken. Well, at least some of them have. After last week's column documenting the divide between American fans of MLS and American fans of European soccer, it didn't take long for the Euro fans to chime in with their explanations for why they ignore the professional soccer league in their own country.
The consensus among those who wrote in this week is that MLS just has too many flaws and isn't close enough in quality to Europe's top leagues to take seriously. While some confessed to never having given MLS a serious look, many Euro fans claimed to have given MLS a chance, only to be disappointed by the product.
Promotion and relegation
One of the most appealing aspects of European soccer is the fact that the worst teams in European leagues are faced with the painful prospect of dropping a division lower if they finish near the bottom of the standings. This makes for added intensity and importance in matches involving teams that have no chance at a title or a high finish in the standings. It is a great aspect of European soccer but not something that will ever work in MLS, or any American sport.
Why? Because millionaires and billionaires who own sports teams have no interest in anything that can significantly impact the value of their teams. MLS would have a hard time selling prospective owners on buying franchises with the knowledge that one bad season could drop their teams out of the national spotlight.
Then there is the simple fact that there just aren't enough established teams to make promotion and relegation work. If the United States had 40 or more established and financially stable franchises that were all capable of handling the financial responsibilities of MLS soccer, MLS could begin to entertain the idea. That just isn't the case.
How could promotion and relegation work? If there were enough serious soccer investors around to start buying and building up United Soccer League teams, and if MLS grew. The two leagues could then combine to field between 36 and 40 financially stable franchises capable of handling the risks of relegations and the responsibilities of promotion.
Could this happen? In theory it could, though finding that many investors interested in soccer in this country is unlikely today. If it were to happen it would take decades. European fans fail to realize that the system that gives us the enviable English football promotion and relegation system took more than 70 years to establish.
Eliminate playoffs and make the regular-season leader the league champion
Euro fans have been groomed on the concept of the best regular-season team being crowned champion. American sports fans have not. In the United States, teams and star players make their reputations in the playoffs. Not having playoffs at all would make MLS a tougher sell, especially since the postseason has been the most interesting and exciting aspect of Major League Soccer's existence.
Consider this year: If the regular-season leader were crowned champion, D.C. United would already be preparing the engraving on its title, although FC Dallas is within shouting range.
Crowning the regular-season leader as champion works for leagues in England and Spain because there are other things to play for besides the title, such as places in the Champions League and UEFA Cup (as well as avoiding relegation). None of these enticements exist in U.S. soccer, and creating mechanisms that are anywhere as effective won't happen any time soon.
What MLS can do, and what it should have done years ago, is limit the number of teams that reach the playoffs. Having eight of 12 teams qualify for the postseason is insane. The fact that Columbus, which hasn't won since June 3, could still make the Eastern Conference playoffs is embarrassing, as was having Los Angeles win last year's MLS Cup title after sporting a 13-13-6 record in the regular season.
If MLS made the number of playoff teams either four or six (more likely six once the league expands to 14 and then 16 teams), teams would have a much greater sense of urgency about games instead of treating the first five months of the season like an extended spring training.
Switch from two conferences to a single table
This suggestion appeared far too often to ignore. The single-table concept works alongside the regular-season champion suggestion, but its incompatibility with Major League Soccer doesn't just stem from that.
In case you haven't noticed, the United States is a big country -- a wee bit bigger than England, Italy and Spain. Having a single table and balanced schedule works in a country where fans from any team can realistically travel to all of their team's away games if they choose. By using a balanced schedule, where teams play all other teams an equal amount of times, MLS would effectively reduce the number of games its fans can get to.
This is not unique to MLS. The same goes for football, basketball and baseball in the United States. All three leagues incorporate imbalanced schedules that not only create more opportunities for fans to travel but also help foster rivalries. Having the Red Bulls and D.C. United play four times per year is a good thing (though not always for the Red Bulls). It isn't realistic to suggest that D.C. matches against Chivas USA could ever match the importance of matches against I-95 "neighbors" like the Red Bulls and the New England Revolution.
MLS needs conferences, and more importantly, needs to expand in a way that creates more opportunities for rivalries. This is why adding a team in Philadelphia or a second team in the New York market is important, as is adding a second team in Ohio and potentially a third team in Texas.
Have teams compete in Copa Libertadores
MLS teams don't compete in enough international competitions. This is true, but again, MLS teams don't have the opportunities that European teams have. In North America, the CONCACAF Champions Cup is basically the only game in town. Unfortunately for MLS, it is played at a time when its teams aren't in season and the tournament isn't a known commodity here.
The Copa Libertadores, the South American version of the Champions League, would help boost the league's visibility as well as its credibility in this hemisphere. But would it really convert Euro fans, many of whom are as ignorant of South American soccer as they are of Major League Soccer?
There were other complaints, ranging from the league's insistence on targeting the youth market more than the adult market to the quality of soccer television announcers in this country. The overwhelming sentiment I felt from the Euro fans was that far too many of them want MLS to be the English Premier League without considering that the EPL has taken more than 100 years of cultivation to reach the elite level it's at now.
That is in no way blaming Euro fans for not embracing MLS. All fans are entitled to choose how they spend their time and money and who they give their allegiances to. MLS fans who call Euro fans snobs are just as guilty of snobbery as those Euro fans who thumb their noses at MLS.
While some soccer fans can embrace both MLS and Europe, others simply refuse to accept MLS because it just doesn't measure up to the likes of the EPL and Serie A. But some Euro fans can be criticized for looking down on MLS as being an amateurish league, as if an 11-year-old professional league should be light years ahead of where MLS finds itself today. Has MLS made mistakes during its decade of existence? Sure, but the league has made steady progress, and to ignore that is to be ignorant of the reality of professional soccer in this country.
The task falls on MLS officials to find ways to make their product more attractive to the millions of soccer fans in this country who ignore their league. Are there some fans who just won't be converted? Unfortunately there are, but there are also a healthy number of American fans of European soccer who are ready to embrace Major League Soccer as soon as they feel MLS is worth embracing.
Somebody stop Real Salt Lake. John Ellinger's men have pushed their winning streak to a club-record three games, pushing them to within striking distance of Chivas USA and Colorado for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. If you listen to RSL forward Jeff Cunningham, it is a foregone conclusion that his team will catch the Rapids and Goats.
"We stepped up in the second half, and that's why we're going to make the playoffs," Cunningham told the Salt Lake Tribune after Wednesday's comeback victory against Columbus.
Cunningham and RSL will need that confidence this week against Houston, which is still harboring hopes of catching FC Dallas for the Western Conference lead.
Colorado Rapids at D.C. United
D.C. United was bound to have a dip in form, and it has come at a time when Peter Nowak's squad is facing a rather easy part of its schedule. Colorado is coming off a 1-0 victory against the Galaxy, its first road win of the year. Road win number two won't come at RFK Stadium.
DC United 2, Rapids 1
New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew
Every coach has his own way of firing up a slumping team. Some call out their disappointing players, much like RSL's John Ellinger did a few weeks back. Crew coach Sigi Schmid is employing the "maybe I should quit" strategy, which may or may not help his young and injury-plagued team recover from Wednesday's embarrassing loss to Real Salt Lake. The Red Bulls push their unbeaten streak to six games.
Red Bulls 2, Crew 0
Houston Dynamo at Real Salt Lake
How legit is Real Salt Lake? We will find out against Houston, which is riding high after its 1-0 victory against FC Dallas last week. RSL does boast more momentum following its third straight win, a come-from-behind victory against Columbus on Wednesday, but this matchup has letdown written all over it. Brian Ching finds the net as Houston halts Real Salt Lake's winning streak.
Dynamo 3, Real Salt Lake 2
Kansas City Wizards at Chivas USA
Just when we were ready to believe that the Wizards are ready to snap out of their season-long funk following a 4-0 victory against Columbus, they turn around and get thrashed by Chicago. You can consider the season officially a lost cause after this weekend. Ante Razov scores again as Bob Bradley's team creates some space between itself and RSL in the West standings.
Chivas USA 1, Wizards 0
Chicago Fire at New England Revolution
The Revs have not played since Aug. 9, which may or may not have been enough time for Steve Nicol to figure out why his team can't find a consistent rhythm. Rustiness could be a factor against a Chicago team just three days removed from a 3-0 thrashing of Kansas City. With no Clint Dempsey, look for the Revs to struggle but salvage a tie.
Revolution 1, Fire 1
FC Dallas at Los Angeles Galaxy
Seven points. That is how many points the Galaxy are out of playoff contention with 10 regular-season games remaining. With two games against Colorado and games against Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake still on the schedule, you can't say the Galaxy are dead, but last rites are being read. Can Landon Donovan lead a late-season surge? This match, the first of three matches Los Angeles still has with FC Dallas, will provide the true test. If the Galaxy can't salvage at least a point, Frank Yallop and Landon Donovan start thinking about 2007. Don't bet on it.
FC Dallas 2, Galaxy 1
Last week: 5-1
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.