Part 2: A vision for the future of MLS
So a few weeks ago I turned my latest piece in to the editors at Soccernet -- a piece I considered to be a fun and friendly conversation-starter for our offseason party -- and I come back from a no-contact-with-the-outside-world vacation with my family to read that I have been both championed as the "savior" and vilified as the "antichrist" of soccer in the United States. I mean, I rarely drink, but are we serving beer at this party? I could use one.
Now, before I tilt my head back to start my liquid consumption, let me add an addendum to the first three proposals from my original work that satiates the super-serious people who think I need a healthy dose of reality before I dare speak up in public again.
NUMBER FOUR: Move Major League Soccer to Mars. We would be the first organized sport on the planet, which would allow us to implement promotion/relegation (Proposal No. 1), a monopolized structure (Proposal No. 2) and proper youth development (Proposal No. 3) from the onset, and help establish soccer as the biggest sport in two worlds.
Possible Positive Side Effects:
Real estate prices to build a stadium complex, including hundreds of fields for the Martian youth to host their tournaments, would be out-of-this-world cheap.
Oxygen treats would be available at the concession stands at the stadiums.
The players would enjoy comfortably cool playing conditions.
A Question From What I Have Proposed That Is Worth Exploring:
Could Carlos Ruiz make an MLS comeback, since added body weight could be viewed as a positive in the Martian atmosphere?
The Always-Endearing Fallout From The Know-It-All Talking Heads:
"Has Jimmy lost his mind? Is he being serious? You can't sustain life on Mars."
"So this is what the players want moving forward. They want to go to Mars."
OK, now for those people who took my "What if?" article for what it was -- a platform on which you, as contributors, build, develop, mold, reform and edit a model for a better and more efficient MLS -- let's carry on. (Readers' comments from Part 1 are in italics.)
Stop trying to walk before you can crawl.
A great point about the 14-year old MLS, and one I should have heeded before deploying my rather tepid proposal of promotion and relegation. If I had a do-over, I might have invested some more time in considering the ramifications of my proposal, and maybe even come up with something more creative and competitive, like this:
A 20-team MLS buys the USL/NASL/TOA. The USL/NASL/TOA becomes MLS 2, which then plays out its season simultaneously, albeit separately, from MLS 1 (except for U.S. Open Cup games and friendlies). The MLS playoff system remains as it is now except at the end of the season it features the top 6 teams of MLS 1 and the top 2 teams of MLS 2. There is no relegation to threaten MLS 1 owner investments, however, this format would still create substantial intrigue, especially in the MLS 2 markets where their team will always have a chance at taking the overall MLS Cup.
Or I could have been more concise about what my motivation was for offering the proposal of promotion/relegation in the first place. But I didn't, and now here I am, looming over the keyboard, with the chance -- to borrow a phrase from the movie "Dumb & Dumber" -- to totally redeem myself.
Here are the two questions that acted as the driving force behind my proposal. I'll try to make sense of the second one first:
1. How do we make MLS regular-season games have more meaning?
2. Shouldn't we make some changes to the league before we start gaining the mainstream audience so we don't lose it when we do try to shift something significant?
I'm fully aware that the promotion and relegation angle is not a viable business option at this time (or maybe ever) for a variety of reasons mentioned by the readers below:
It'll never work because it's a dopey idea.
Is it financially sustainable for the long haul?
Who's going to support an MLS2 team?
Expand and then divide MLS? Keep dreaming.
It won't fly here [in the States] so shut up about relegation already.
How do you convince the owners of a team in the MLS right now to go into the MLS2?
But it is fun to talk about, if only to wander into wishful-thinking territory.
My other motivation -- and maybe the most pertinent to me since I still have the luxury of playing -- is finding a way to make MLS regular-season games have more relevance. Within the scope of what we currently have to work with, the only feasible suggestion is to have fewer teams make the playoffs. Let's say four. But if we only have four of the 16 MLS teams make the playoffs, a good portion of the league will be out of contention after half the season is over and, according to many, no fans are going to come out and support their team if they aren't in the running for a spot in the postseason.
So under the guise of "It takes money to make money," we have to do more to incentivize the players for games, for example, those in Houston at 2 p.m. on an August afternoon. At the moment, the current win bonus for a regular-season game is so minimal that even developmental players, who make an annual salary below $20,000, couldn't care less about it. Rather than getting into the details here, since this is an area of negotiation for the next collective bargaining agreement, all I will say is that the players believe that regular-season games need to be made more meaningful. To do this, money talks. The players who make the 18-man game-day roster should be incentivized for those games, which will improve the level of play in the league immediately.
Since only 18 players would get the extra bonus money, the level of practice gets better as players push to be on the game-day roster, which pushes the starters to stay sharp, which makes the team better, which makes the games better to watch, which makes the fans want to come out, which attracts sponsors, which puts money in the owners' pockets.
Nevertheless, some of you have suggested that we should leave the league as is:
Isn't changing it like the rest of the world conforming? Europe is so boring because the same teams win it every season. Where's the fun when you already know what's going to happen? It's like someone telling you the ending of a movie before you see it, which sucks!
Hey Jimmy, I would have thought that as a fellow 30 something, you would have come to the conclusion that I did a while ago. All of those things our parents told us when we were teenagers turned out to be right we were just too stubborn to listen to them and were proved wrong in the end.
To these I say:
Have you ever gone to see a movie based on a book you have read before? You know the ending but you still go see it anyway. Why?
Over my 30-something years, I've learned that my parents are far from perfect and are much more fallible than I was led to believe growing up.
Listen, I'm a big fan of the Real Salt Lake coaching staff and players, but do all of you truly believe Salt Lake was the best team in MLS this year? Did they deserve to be crowned "champions of Major League Soccer" by having a 2-0-2 record at the right time? They had an 11-12-7 overall record in regular-season play and squeaked into the playoffs because the three teams ahead of them in the standings lost or tied on the last day. This is what parity produces: a chance for the underdog to win when it counts or, as blogger Dan Loney calls it, "Hope." Salt Lake had 30 games to win when it counted and they produced a below .500 record. But as one of you noted:
Being able to win in low-pressure situations over the course of the season does not constitute who is the best team. Teams that have similar standings during the season will have the better side when going head-to-head in the playoffs. The best games are created in these types of high-pressure situations.
This leads us right back to finding a creative way to incentivize the regular-season games so they aren't lacking in purpose. Let's hypothesize about a world where "Skittles fall from the sky," where we adopt a single table and do away with the playoffs so that the team with the best record after 30 games is the champion. Isn't that the most just way to determine who the best team is? And won't the last few games of the 30-game regular season take on added importance because it's determining the champion of the league, which would mimic the current playoff format without the sub-.500 teams sneaking in?
You underrate the intellect and awareness of the American fan and supporter.
If that's the case, there shouldn't be too much opposition to making this change. The American fan's common sense would have to understand and appreciate why this is the best way to determine the true champion.
[But] what about the Copa Sudamericana? Don't you think we need to start sending our best teams to that tournament? Think of how awesome it would be if an MLS team had a good run in that tournament and beat Brazilian and Argentine teams.
I would love for one of our teams to go to the Copa Sudamericana, and I hope we do some day. For now, we need to set our sights on winning our regional club tournaments, specifically the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), year in and year out. The fact that we don't contend regularly in this competition is troubling and hurts us as a league. By winning the CCL, or even showing well, on a consistent basis, it would go a long way toward shifting the foreign perception about our league from "Is it any good?" to "I want to play there."
Unfortunately, at the moment, not every team in MLS has the depth to compete for both the league title and our regional club championship (the CCL) so, as a team, if you're eligible for both competitions, what do you choose? If you don't do well in the league, you won't be allowed to participate in the CCL the following year. However, winning the CCL would help start a positive ripple effect about what our teams are capable of and where we are heading. What would you do? Would you go for the MLS Cup or the CONCACAF Champions League crown? What does MLS want?
Seriously, I could go on and on about this very topic, but since it bleeds into the development of our youth from a depth perspective, I vote to switch gears and push the conversation in that direction:
As we saw with the preseason tournaments [filled with popular club teams for other countries], there are millions of Soccer fans here in the States! I think that the MLS is wasting an opportunity to tap into that love and passion for the game by trying to create an NFL structured soccer league. Your thoughts?
I'm trying to change the subject.
Please get rid of all artificial fields and make it mandatory for all teams to play on grass.
You want me to take the bait; in fact, I'm dying to take the bait, but I'm not going to. Next?
Not to be rude or funny but were you on drugs when you said soccer is boring and should be scored 6 points for each goal? It might be boring for you cause you're not even a starter on the national team and are not good enough to be. The way soccer is played is like a chess match and one goal is all it takes to win. Obviously you don't and never will have the passion and heart to play soccer, that's why you're just a bench player.
Isn't that the best e-mail you have ever read? The fact that someone got so heated about a joke they misread and made personal is hilarious. How do I respond? Do I say, "You're right, since my left foot isn't as clean on the ball as my right, I clearly lack passion and heart. Maybe if I were a bit better with my left, it would appear that I care more. Regardless, and I'm agreeing with you here, I'm a terrible soccer player. I should turn down the opportunity to represent my country when asked and give up playing soccer altogether."
Are there any thoughts or questions on our youth development or the role of college in producing pro-ready players?
My suggestion for [youth development] relies on the premise of youth clubs' resistance to the formation of academies attached to each MLS team and the assumption that it would take too much time and energy to restructure the system for it to be a reasonable goal. Rather, I'm suggesting that the current structure of the youth game be left intact. It is much simpler and just as effective, in my opinion, to assign youth regions to specific MLS teams.
I like where your head is at, but I believe U.S. Soccer already does this with the Olympic Development Program (ODP), which finds talented youth players from around the country to fill rosters for our youth national teams. I'm not sure if U.S. Soccer deems this ODP program a success based on the cost-benefit analysis, but many of the best American players that I have played with and against have been identified through this project.
If MLS could somehow angle to take over the reins of ODP from U.S. Soccer, the transition for teams in MLS -- to go from little to no youth development to being stocked with promising young talent from nearby municipalities -- could be seamless.
I also think that Regional Training facilities need to start [and there should be at least] six to eight around the country where players, coaches and refs can come and learn.
It wouldn't hurt. Right now, I can only think of the youth national team residency program at the IMG Academies in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that is dedicated to giving our highly touted youngsters a chance to develop in a soccer-structured environment. If we had a few of these strewn around the country, as you suggest, we could have a bigger net to identify players and monitor their progress as they develop.
Here are a few questions for you to chew on that I don't have immediate answers to: Do we have the infrastructure to provide enough quality coaching for the number of kids playing? Do we have a sound business model to make this idea profitable? Should MLS or U.S. Soccer be in charge of these regional facilities? And finally, how important is it for players of my generation who are retiring now in MLS (i.e., Ben Olsen and Jay Heaps, to name the most recent) to stay in the game and give back?
I love when people get talking about promoting American soccer talent at home. Is there a way we can get scouts to not look at potential talent or molding players who are physical specimens while they miss out on guys who are 5-foot-6 and the ball is glued to their foot and they know where everyone is on the field and can one-time a pass to them on the volley?
I played with a few kids growing up that had the attributes you are referring to and they should have been placed in a situation, like a regional facility or residency program, to test their skills against other kids of similar ability, no doubt in my mind. However, there is a place for the physical specimens as well, and our pool of top youth players should be littered with both.
Going off on a tangent, because that's what I do, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the importance of developing the mental side of the game as well. Coping with failure, adversity, success, school, confidence (or the lack thereof), expectations from others and the opposite sex are all vital components in a player's growth and will play a major factor in whether we can depend on this player in high-pressure situations, like the World Cup. Many of the talented kids I grew up with, and whom I mentioned above, couldn't handle the pressure as the expectations grew, or as their teammates caught up to them in ability, and they ultimately faded out and stopped playing. It's sad, because they had a feel for the game and could do incredible things with the ball that I still can't do, but maybe it was for the best. If they wanted to do it, then they would have.
I have one more suggestion and then I have to go. Continuing in the vein of our youth conversation, one of the biggest things that needs to change, in my opinion -- and that wasn't addressed in my initial presentation or by any of the special people who took time out of their day to write to me in the comments section or via e-mail -- is the emphasis on winning at a young age. Trying to win at all costs when the kids are just starting to understand the game is detrimental to producing quality players when they get into their teens. The only thing we should be focusing on at a young age is teaching proper technique, because if a player can't trap a ball or dribble with their head up, how can we start teaching basic tactics?
And if we're teaching tactics in high school or college and, let's say, the subtleties of how to create space as a team and then how to take advantage of it, isn't it too late? By that time, shouldn't our kids know what to do already?
J.C., I think you're a good player but I thank God you're not running the league.
We might come to the same conclusion for different reasons, but because I believe I'm too good-looking for the position, we're in agreement.
My only concern is do you have a plan on how to get MLS to listen, or will this be falling on deaf ears like so many other suggestions have?
They have a red suggestion box at MLS headquarters in New York City so I'll stuff it with my thoughts and see what happens. I got them to stop bringing so many "everything" bagels in at breakfast so I know they read them.
Okay, that's it. I'm getting off the soapbox. I might be right, I might be wrong. Whatever. Are there any last thoughts?
Jimmy, the answers that provide the strongest financial prospects are the ones that will prevail but we can always dream.
Enjoy your holidays.
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.