Over recent years, football (or soccer) has come a long way for the United States. The national team is consistently performing, not only reaching major tournaments, but impressing in them. They reached the last 16 in this year’s World Cup and even more impressively the quarter finals in 2002. They have been bringing through top class players such as Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, who have each had success in European football, and things are looking bright for their top tier league, the MLS.
David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Alessandro Nesta, David Villa, Frank Lampard. Some would argue that the MLS is fast becoming where once football giants are going for one last pay day, to see out their illustrious careers in a lesser league, with less pressure and bigger wallets. I would disagree. As a follower of the MLS, I have watched it develop over the years and become a shining example of how a football league should be. Yes, these aforementioned players (and many others) are taking home massive wage packets, but what were they getting paid in Europe – Buttons?
Generally speaking the league has all the attributes of an organisation that knows what it is doing. There are no monopolies, there are no financial bullies and there is wage equality among the majority of the players. It’s about as honest as a football league can get, and considering it was only founded 20 years ago as part of the USA’s pitch to host the World Cup, this is extremely impressive. The league is in profit and the attendances at MLS games are exceeding those of the much more established NHL and NBA leagues. At this rate, it won’t just stars who are at the end of their careers who will be clamouring to play in the MLS.
Let me explain some of the processes of the MLS for those who aren’t familiar:
At the moment there are 19 teams (soon to be 21) divided into two conferences, with the team with the most points being awarded the Supporters Shield. This is followed by the Playoffs (it wouldn’t be an American league without the playoffs!) where the top 10 teams will compete to reach the MLS Championship Final, essentially being crowned MLS winners. Not as straight forward as the standard European league, but straight forward enough.
Now, the interesting thing about the MLS is that technically all the players are assigned to the league, and the way they come through the ranks so to speak is by means of the Superdraft. This takes place before the start of each season and is the best example of transfer fairness that I have come across.
Players coming out of college who are deemed good enough to play in the MLS are put on a list, along with a smaller amount of players coming from elsewhere. The clubs then get to pick who they want to play in their team, but the ‘worst’ team from last season gets first pick, so they can take whoever is considered to be the best player. The second worst team gets second pick and so on with all teams getting an equal number of picks.
This promotes growth for each club as the league is recognising that certain teams need to improve, so, they get the first pick of new players. Not only does this promote equality through the league, but it essentially enforces a successful youth system. With the exception of a few top clubs, this is becoming less and less recognisable in European football. This of course is just the college draft, clubs are still able to bring players through their own ranks as often as they wish.
Another great aspect of the MLS youth system is the partnership they have with Addidas, called Generation Adidas. This program allows the better players who have caught the eye of the MLS and Addidas early entry into the MLS, allowing them to skip or postpone college to pursue their footballing careers. However, if their career does not work out the way they had hoped or if they are injured, they are guaranteed to be able to continue or start college later on. Players who have came through this system include Tim Howard; Clint Dempsey; Carlos Bocanegra; Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan.
The league also has a wage cap meaning that the entire salary of the team, with the exception of 3 players, has to be under a certain amount, showing the wage equality throughout the majority of the players. The 3 players who do not have to be included in this cap amount are called Designated Players. This rule is nicknamed the Beckham Rule as it was first established when Mr. Beckham himself became the first star to move to the MLS. However, I do see this rule being increased to allow more designated players as the popularity and standard of the league progresses.
So, that’s the MLS in a nutshell. A league that helps its teams whenever it can. A league that not only promotes youth development but essentially enforces it; making for a ever improving national team. A league that allows the teams who need them most the first option on the highest rated youth prospects. A league that takes care of the players who don’t quite make it by guaranteeing them a college education. The list goes on.
With their system gaining more credibility and attention as time goes on, and with the undeniable money that is available to the teams and the league, then I’m sure it won’t be long before the MLS stops being the ‘one last payday’ of the footballing world and becomes a major player in world football.
What are your thoughts on the MLS? Do you think it is going to continue to grow, or is it just a passing fad? Let us know in the comments below.