I’m tired of having to talk about MLS as a whole league all the time. I know other leagues are discussed as a whole on a regular basis, as evidenced by the repetitive “best in the world” conversation that’s constantly going on between the European leagues. But MLS teams seem near inseparable when discussed outside the circles of MLS fans. They/we don’t discuss the quality of Dallas FC, LA Galaxy, or the New York Red Bulls. We discuss the quality of MLS with the teams as examples of our point. Constantly.
But I got sucked into that conversation today, and it’s my own fault.
I usually steer clear of responding to inflammatory remarks, especially about a topic like the Europhiles vs. MLS debate. But as we celebrated the 2015 Supporters’ Shield banner in Red Bull Arena before today’s game I was feeling full of pride for my team’s accomplishment, and I let it cause me to bite on a troll comment on Twitter. In response to a video of the banner someone posted this tweet:
ML$’ version of the Participation Trophy.
I should have let it go. I know that. Instead, fired up by my team pride I responded.
Takes being best across 34 games. If that’s a “participation trophy”…
Over his next several responses it became perfectly clear, as if it wasn’t already, that he was simply a Europhile whose argument could be boiled down to “MLS is bad because it isn’t Europe, and because I said so.” I could have left it at that with a perfectly clear conscience. But I continued to defend the league because I enjoy supporting it and am emotionally invested. This exchange isn’t what I want to write about, but it’s the inspiration, so here’s a snapshot of it just for context:
Him: If US didn’t play fake soccer, it would be a league championship.
Me: Ahhh, so it’s based on biased dislike. Gotcha
Him: Imagine #LCFC winning EPL, only to have to enter playoffs. Ridiculous.
Me: How can you disrespect the season winners in US while glorifying single table in England?
Me: That literally makes no sense
Him: How can you tolerate watching shit football?
He went on to discuss such original criticisms of the league as the single-entity structure, lack of promotion/relegation, how it’s set up differently from the rest of the world’s major leagues, and drafts. And all of these were surrounded in a sweet candy shell of insults and a lack of insight or actual opinion. He referred to the league as “McSoccer”, “one giant team, scrimmaging itself”, and compared it to cow dung. A second person joined the conversation and criticized the pro/rel aspect as well while mysteriously suggesting multiple pyramids within the country’s league system.
None of this is anything that we haven’t heard, and ignored, a thousand times as fans of the league. But for some reason this time, on this day, it got under my skin. Eventually, too late I think, I realized that there was nothing to be gained by continuing with either of these trolls (for that’s exactly what they were), and simply stopped responding while they continued the conversation with others.
But it got me thinking. And there are a couple points I thought worth writing down, even if just for myself. I’m sure they’ve been made other places, but they’ll keep popping up until the conversation goes away…soooo basically never.
The image of recreating a European single-table league here wouldn’t work, and it has nothing to do with us being arrogant Americans. There’s this idea that MLS is different, and does what it does, because Americans are arrogant and they reject the world’s version of the game. A version, so the narrative goes, that works for everyone else, so why not us? “Stupid Americans! What makes them think they can add penalty SHOOTOUTS! Why do they think they can improve something that’s owned by the rest of the world?” (Keep in mind that some of the folks saying this ARE American)
In reality there was grain of truth in this argument, but it’s not really relevant anymore. Once upon a time there was a thought that Americans wouldn’t accept the version of the game played in most of the world’s leagues because there was something different about them and about the American sporting landscape. The results are infamous now: the shootouts instead of ties, the countdown clock, 1.0 names (and uniforms) for teams, and even the considered but thankfully discarded idea of having playing area that extended behind the goals hockey-style. As it has matured most of those have been left in the league’s past, and the few that remain are less products of the view of Americans as different and more from the way the league approaches finances and attempts to maintain parity.
But what the staunchest critics really want is an all-or-nothing shift to look just like a European league–no salary cap, promotion/relegation, and arguably biggest of all the scrapping of the playoffs and the creation of a single table structure.
You could say that the playoffs are the last great hold over from the “American’s need something different” sport mentality that existed at the beginning of the league, but really the playoffs exist because the single-table simply wouldn’t work. The travel and difference in geographical locations in the United States and Canada (remembering that the league is multinational now) are far greater than anything any of the European leagues face. The United Kingdom is smaller than the state of California alone. Spain is just a little bigger than California, closer to the combined size of Nevada and Utah. Italy falls in the middle of those two, and Germany is a little smaller than Montana. One of the things that foreign players always mention as being hard about MLS is the travel. That geographical reality means that there’s simply no fair way to create a single table. Yes, each team would face the same travel, but the rest and recovery required to have teams travel across the continent multiple times, potentially in close succession due to the random nature of how a single table schedule is created, means that results and conditions faced would be wildly uneven. The conference system, and as a result the playoffs, is the way that MLS addresses this. Yes the playoffs are a part of all major sports in the US and Canada, but it’s more necessary because of the nature of the geography of the countries involved.
Besides, if you really wanna be technical the US isn’t the only country that uses playoffs in it’s soccer leagues. Mexico, as well as the English Championship, all use some form of a playoff system in the existing league format.
Most of the criticisms that relate to the single-entity structure would be fixed with support rather than disdain. Everyone hates single-entity really. Most all of us, critics and fans alike, understand why the decision was made to go that route in the early days of the league (thanks, COSMOS), but it can sometimes feel like it’s continued use is more about power and control. It’s quirky and creates for some strange moments, and many of us who are fans of the league don’t really like it. I have the same thoughts about single-entity at times as those who hate MLS for having it. But I would point out that a much better way to go about hating the single-entity structure is to support the league rather than criticize it from the shadows.
See, single-entity is about league health and longevity. The systems designed to clamp down on any team growing into a super club are really only there because the central office has so much power. And the central office has that power because of the single-entity structure, which is only there because the early days of the league were almost solely about making sure the league still existed the next season, and then the next. Yes there may still be a salary cap in place if MLS wasn’t single-entity (like many US sports leagues), but other things like free agency, teams owning their own contracts, eliminating extraneous drafts and possibly even the college draft would have much more space to exist and flourish if it was a healthier, wealthier league. Even pro/rel, the favorite hot topic of Europhiles who spew hate at MLS, is potentially more palatable to investors if there’s more money in the league and in soccer as a whole in this country. This means butts in seats and viewers in front of their televisions. If you want to know why MLS insists on being “one giant team, scrimmaging itself” instead of multiple franchises or individual teams it’s because soccer is still growing in this country. It’s because there is a very real history of teams struggling to draw spectators, overspending to try to compensate, and folding as a result. That scares away the people who would invest in the game. MLS had to reassure them that it wouldn’t happen again. And the modern sports landscape in the US is even more cluttered with options, and the ability to obsess over those options, so the noise through which MLS must cut is greater. We’ve absolutely made progress. But that fear, as well as the current reality for some teams, is what prompts the central control in Major League Soccer. If you want that to go away and for MLS to look like a more traditional world soccer league then you have to quit turning your nose up at it and go to games, watch on TV and support rather than stand outside and shout insults.
Sidepoint: even if single-entity stayed, more supporters = more money in the game, which in turn means higher salary caps, which draws better players, which means better soccer.
But those folks don’t actually seem to want MLS to be better. They want a premade league that meets all their expectations, and no other country anywhere should join the party. If MLS had started and continued as an exact carbon copy of England, Spain, Germany or Italy these same people would criticize it for being a poser league. They want to sit at the table with the cool kids, not be part of growing something from the ground up.
The reality is that the only people among the league’s supporters who don’t have a sense of humor about MLS’ flaws is the league executives. All the rest of us, from casual television watchers to the most dedicated season ticket holders, know it’s not a perfect league. We know it has it’s rough moments and highs and lows in standard of play. We lament the moments where good players use coming to MLS as a bargaining chip when we know they have no intention of ever coming here, and most of us cringe just as hard every time a 35 year old established player gets signed as much for their ability to sell shirts as their play on the field. But we accept it warts and all because there’s something very authentic about supporting local soccer. We want to see the game grow here because we’re fans of the game as much as anything. MLS is getting better as it matures, and we’re thrilled to be along for that ride and part of that history.