Why American Major League Soccer still has a long way to go

The Designated Player Rule, aka the “David Beckham Rule” helps the MLS teams bring in players from abroad. (AP)

A young league, established in 1993, now wants to put its nose up there with the elite. American Major League Soccer (MLS) still has plenty of little things that could and should be fixed in order for it to count among the top leagues in the world.

Many questions can be asked when thinking about the MLS, some of which are: Why don’t younger players come to the MLS? Why don’t MLS youth have a larger success rate in Europe? Why don’t the teams look past these stars who are nearing retirement, toward the coaches that they should bring in to help develop the league?

To become an internationally recognized league, the MLS should consider these questions. Bringing in younger players will surround the league with additional hype, while making it more competitive. More importantly, the influx of top managers will give the league some experience and will alter the playing style to match that of the top European teams. For example, the New York City Football Club (NYCFC) has the right idea, as they brought in world renowned Patrick Viera, who previously played for AC Milan, Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan and Manchester City, to be at the helm of the team.

Although the MLS is treated as a business, it does provide security for young players who might not make it. Regardless, there is a problem with this point of view, especially with the fact that it is a single-entity league, meaning that the league isn’t made up of independently owned teams.

As much as the league has improved since it’s conception, there is still one major obstacle that they have yet to overcome - and that is the geographical size the league covers and the small amount of teams to fill this vast space.

MLS Eastern Conference - Western Conference tables (Screengrab: ESPN)

MLS Eastern Conference - Western Conference tables (Screengrab: ESPN)

Tangible obstacles

The MLS covers teams from both the US and Canada. This gives a total area of around 20 million km2, filled with only 20 clubs. England (130,395 km2), which is smaller than both California (423,970 km2) and New York (141,300 km2), hosts 20 teams. In this respect, each state should be considered a country, and have its own league (maybe even two divisions). That way, fans won’t have to drive hundreds of miles to see the nearest football game and the top of each would make it to a national league or cup. There has to be some sort of relegation-promotion system. Can you imagine for a fan in North Carolina (this state doesn’t have a football team yet), the trip to Washington DC (DC United) is around 480 km. Going from London to Paris is even shorter, coming in at 456 km!

Another issue is the timing of the league, with respect to the other sports in the US and the leagues abroad. At the beginning of the soccer season, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) are both in their playoff rounds and being more popular in US/Canadian popular culture, more eyes will be on that than on the soccer. In addition, Major League Baseball runs all summer as well, which also takes attention away from the MLS. At the end of the soccer season, the NBA and NHL start, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the MLS Cup is played throughout November and December, when all the other sports are in action, except baseball.

As for foreign discrepancies, all the leagues are on summer break when the MLS is in action, and to add to that, MLS teams are usually involved in the European teams’ preseason tours. This just adds games for players in the middle of their league, making for a tired, more injury-prone and stretched out team. In addition to the players’ stamina, the MLS clubs miss out on the winter transfer window, because it starts too late, after the other countries have stopped transfers. For example, Italy, France, Germany, and Spain can buy and sell between January 1 and February 1, England between January 1 and February 1, while the MLS comes in late from February 18 till May 11.


The MLS also hosts a number of odd rules, which removes some of the competition from the game. To begin with, the MLS is based on a single-entity ownership model. That means that it owns all the teams and gives each an equal, specific amount of money every season to use for player salaries (salary cap). That way, teams aren’t in risk of going bankrupt. This is safe for the business, but it does add a certain dullness to the league, with only 20 players worth more than a million dollars, while in England, you have players like Rooney and Pogba who make around $320,000 and $360,000 a week, respectively.

Another rule is the Designated Player Rule, aka the “David Beckham Rule”, which does, in fact, help the MLS teams bring in players from abroad, but at the same time, limits it. Each team has a limited amount of roster places for designated players. The way this works is that the MLS pays the typical salary of a player, and the “owner” of the club (which is just an investor, because the MLS owns all the clubs), pays the rest. It started off as one per team, but now each team gets two, with the option to buy a third for $150,000. This way, they can compete for star players internationally, but to their dismay, the star players now cost a lot more than anyone in the MLS has been willing to spend. This is why they’ve been stuck with elderly stars, looking to cool down after tough careers in Europe’s more recognized leagues.

New York City FC midfielder Andrea Pirlo (21) controls the ball in front of Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio (21) during the first half of an MLS soccer game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, March 13, 2016, in New York. (AP)

New York City FC midfielder Andrea Pirlo (21) controls the ball in front of Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio (21) during the first half of an MLS soccer game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, March 13, 2016, in New York. (AP)

On the other hand, the MLS is doing something right by giving extensive chance to those who come up through youth academies and Generation Adidas. The Homegrown Player Rule allows players to be signed directly from the teams’ development academies to the first team. Before that, they would have to wait for the MLS SuperDraft, and could’ve been picked by a different team. Generation Adidas, on the other hand, is also a developmental program, which scouts players from high-schools and colleges to give them a shot at professional football, and ensuring them with a college scholarship in case they don’t make it to the MLS.

This dependence on homegrown players and close-to-retirement stars will not give the league the attention it needs. The MLS should focus on selling homegrown players to Europe, that way they can make real money and buy European talent in exchange. Also, managers should be picked up from Europe and that way there will be an interesting and competitive league that can keep up with the rest of the world.

Money, money, money

As much as we’d like to keep it about the sports, it all revolves around money. The MLS is playing it safe, making sure the league doesn’t lose money, but at the same time they have created a stale, stagnant league that lacks much excitement. Although they’ve spent on marketing, and are making money from TV deals and such, there should be a greater goal. Money attracts attention, and greases the operational wheel and this is what the MLS needs.

Members of the Emerald City Supporters and and other fans cheer at the start of an MLS soccer match against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Sunday, July 31, 2016, in Seattle. (AP)

Members of the Emerald City Supporters and and other fans cheer at the start of an MLS soccer match against the Los Angeles Galaxy, Sunday, July 31, 2016, in Seattle. (AP)

It would only take a few moves to begin a large chain reaction. The introduction of more teams, and possibly more leagues, would add to a bigger and more specific fan base, leading to more loyalty, more viewership on TV and bigger ad deals - all bringing in more money. That money could then be spent in Europe to buy upcoming players, creating more buzz and excitement around the MLS. Then, once American clubs start selling to European clubs, even more money will come rolling in, and more importantly, recognition.

Although it is not as experienced as other leagues, the MLS just needs some tweaking and it’ll get its name up there. They just need to take a few risks, give some freedom to the clubs and put some trust into the sport. Following the FIFA calendar would be a plus, that way they could benefit fully from both transfer windows.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 13:59 - GMT 10:59