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Nov 27, 2009

A vision for the future of Major League Soccer

Pot Stirrers,

The much-maligned malady that has kept me from checking in from time to time has nothing to do with my fear of Mike Petke's profile picture on this site (nice shades!) but, in fact, the satisfaction I have garnered by being a recluse from this very platform.

What can I say? I enjoyed ducking word counts, deadlines, coming up with a topic worth reading about and the pressure of trying to top my previous efforts. I enjoyed saying I used to write for a company that bills itself as "The Worldwide Leader In Sports." I enjoyed doing no type of self-promotion whatsoever (except for my radio show, Web site and notable public appearances). And then I read a book that detailed the history of Linux. And upon finishing the book, I had an epiphany. And with that epiphany, I had a vision of what the future of Major League Soccer should look like.

To the uninitiated, Linux, in its simplest form, is a computer operating system. What sets it apart from its competitors, however, is that its evolution is based on a collaborative effort from developers using free and open-source software. The original developer of Linux was Linus Torvalds, and he built his idea by standing on the shoulders and the work of Richard Stallman and Andrew Tanenbaum, just as those after him will use his shoulders to reach farther and aim higher. And those willing to join the community are encouraged to use the model in place and build something better without repercussion.

So with these Linux-influenced thoughts in my mind, I knew what had to be done. I had to create a platform for the masses, something to build off so you, my dear reader, can add or subtract or enhance or toss out whatever you see fit. It makes no difference to me how it develops, but a real conversation needs to start and start now. As a league, we're a teenager (14 years of existence), and we need to act like it. We have been toeing the line since birth, following the rules of our American sports brethren with playoffs and drafts and Eastern and Western conferences, but the time is ripe for a change. We need to tell our parents that we hate them and "what do they know about anything." We need to run with our own identity and stop trying to conform to people who aren't smart enough to understand the greatness of what we have to offer anyway. Here's the operating system I suggest:

NUMBER ONE: Expand Major League Soccer to 20 teams, and instead of splitting the 20 teams into two conferences of East and West, split them into MLS 1 and MLS 2. The top 10 teams of the year in, say 2012, would qualify to be in MLS 1, and the other 10 would play in MLS 2. I'll possibly allow exceptions, letting into MLS 1 a team that has had a wealth of history and championships in MLS (I'm looking at you, D.C. United, and your inexhaustible team president, Kevin Payne) if it has an off year in 2012, and bumping down to MLS 2 some punk team that had one good year at the right time but is perennially a lovable loser.

MLS 1 teams would play regular-season games only against each other, creating familiarity of the opponent for the fans and players, and intense rivalries overall. There would be no playoffs, and the team with the most victories after 30 games would be crowned champion. The top four teams in MLS 1 would qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, the next four teams would qualify for SuperLiga and the bottom two teams would get relegated to MLS 2. The majority of MLS games on TV would be from MLS 1, with maybe one, the best matchup perhaps, from MLS 2 getting on the airwaves.

The initial crop of MLS 2 teams would be bitter about starting in MLS 2, but bitterness creates other emotions, and emotions get cities, fans, players, coaches and owners engaged, and engagement gets people to pay attention, and attention makes money. The winner of MLS 2, after 30 games of regular-season play, would get automatic promotion to MLS 1, and the next two teams in the standings would compete in a one-game playoff for the second berth for promotion.

Possible Positive Side Effects:

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup would take on added importance, as games between MLS 1 and MLS 2 teams would be hot tickets and hotly contested. It would generate a nice boost of exposure for a tournament that deserves it.

The promotion and relegation angle would add drama and relevance to every game except for those bottom teams in MLS 2.

A Question From What I Have Proposed That Is Worth Exploring:

Would it be worth creating MLS 3?

The Always Endearing Fallout From The Know-It-All Talking Heads:

"We are Americans, and as such, we should be ourselves: We embrace playoffs and conferences, and we don't copy the incredible success of the top soccer leagues from around the world."

"Soccer is boring. They should count every goal as six points, like the NFL does, to make it seem more high scoring than it really is."

NUMBER TWO: Become a monopoly. MLS needs to buy the United Soccer League, the Major Indoor Soccer League and any other league with thoughts of being a competitor. Despite my instincts to the contrary, competition, in this regard, creates gray area and confusion, and if our main goal is to become one of the great leagues around the world while developing homegrown talent and a superior national team, everyone needs to be working together.

The USL can morph into the MLS Reserve League and host meaningful games for our younger players, because the knock on our younger players is that they don't have enough game experience in pressure situations to make good tactical decisions on a consistent basis. It's sad to say, because I'm a huge proponent of the college experience, but the current college game doesn't provide the proper environment from which to seamlessly transition to the professional level. The NCAA needs to make the season longer than four months and somehow expose these kids to what's it like to play with and against grown men who are playing to put food on the table and pay bills, because it's a completely different mindset.

The MISL can be converted into a "See Them Before They Are Stars In MLS" Indoor League. The league could and should be held during the MLS offseason from the end of November to the beginning of March, and the rosters for these teams could and should be littered with players who played less than 1,000 minutes during the regular season in MLS. Again, it's an opportunity to get players valuable touches on the ball under pressure with lots of eyes watching instead of having them sitting on the couch waiting for preseason training to roll around. The league could barnstorm around the country, hitting a variety of markets, or a rule could be introduced that each team in MLS has to have an indoor team. The best example I can give to prove why this would be beneficial to the league is that the majority of professional soccer players from America grew up in California, Texas or Florida. That's because, due to the climate, the kids in those states can play all year. The indoor league would provide MLS with this opportunity.

Possible Positive Side Effects:

By keeping MLS Reserve League teams in the smaller markets the USL currently occupies, MLS can tap into the minor league baseball mentality as fans watch a player progress from unknown in a little town to superstar in a big city and follow him throughout the rest of his career.

The MLS Indoor League could keep MLS in the media spotlight all year and give it an increased boost in entertainment value, if only because there are more goals scored in indoor soccer and Americans love scoring.

Both platforms would provide MLS with the ability to solve a variety of issues ranging from referee, coaching and player development to new television deals, which lead to new fans.

Questions From What I Have Proposed That Are Worth Exploring:

Do we have the infrastructure to pull this off?

What is the main goal of having MLS in place? Is it about land and money and tax write-offs, or is it about something more?

The Always Endearing Fallout From The Know-It-All Talking Heads:

"Soccer in this country will never work, and I know this because when I played, I wasn't very good and the soccer players always got the girls."

NUMBER THREE: Dispose of the MLS draft. Forever. Instead, encourage teams to develop their own prospects and give them the power to sign these prospects to professional contracts at whatever age they deem fit. If a player forgoes a contract offer from the team that brought him up to attend college, said team loses all rights to the player IF the player uses all four years of college eligibility. If the player goes to college for three years or less and wants to become a pro, the team that brought him up will have restricted rights to his services.

For example, let's say a player goes to UCLA, the best soccer school in the country, for a year and has a terrific freshman season. If he thinks he's ready for MLS, the MLS club that fostered his growth, let's say the Los Angeles Galaxy, will have the right to match any offer from any other club in MLS or abroad for his services. If the Galaxy refuses to match the offer, the player is free to choose whichever club gave him the best offer. If a player comes out of college after serving all four years, he is free to join whatever club he wants based on playing style, the coach in place, proximity to home, the money offered or whatever.

Possible Positive Side Effects:

This idea, coupled with MLS becoming a monopoly as described in NUMBER TWO above, gives teams and players a Point A to Point B blueprint for how to make it from youth player to professional player. And once the first 10-year-old makes it from the youth system of a team in Major League Soccer to become the star of the show at age 18, the real boom of development will begin because the competitive nature of sport, and of people (fans, owners, etc.) in general, will demand that other teams start developing their own talent as well.

Without relegation for MLS 2, some of the clubs at the bottom with nothing to play for could find comfort in becoming feeder teams for the big clubs in MLS 1 by selling their homegrown talent at a premium price.

A Question From What I Have Proposed That Is Worth Exploring:

How do we get the youth soccer factions to join the effort to work for the common good, for the benefit of our league and national team, instead of what makes the most money?

The Always Endearing Fallout From The Know-It-All Talking Heads:

"If the soccer community here in the States starts to get the hang of identifying talent and using the tools at its disposal to develop these kids, the rest of the sports in this country could be in trouble. Of course, I doubt they will ever figure it out."

In closing, I hope you understand that these are merely suggestions to make the world a better place for our kids to live in. A place where Little Johnny, who has the ability to trap a ball under pressure, hold off two defenders and tuck the ball neatly into the corner of the goal, can be brought along in an efficient manner -- a manner in which the development of players, referees and coaches reigns to benefit our top league (MLS) and our governing body (U.S. Soccer) as a whole. Whether you believe I'm on to something or on something, I think we all can agree that a conversation about what happens next needs to begin because valuable time is ticking by before we (i.e., all of us in the soccer community) get locked into a stagnant model of existence. I'll acknowledge the first 14 years of MLS have led us here ,and here is a lot farther along than most people could have imagined, but the time has come to take the next step. It's time to evolve.

So now, by standing on the shoulders of my Linux-influenced ideas above, please chime in with your thoughts in the Conversation section below by answering one question and one question only:

Am I right or am I right?

I'll be back in two weeks, using your input to keep the conversation going.

Jimmy Conrad is a defender for the U.S. team and Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards. He contributes regularly to ESPNsoccernet and can be reached at Jimmy@JimmyConrad.com.

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