Major League Soccer has made great strides since its inaugural season in 1996, but still finds itself stuck between a traditional American sports league and a European football league.
MLS’ lack of a true identity could be the last thing holding it down. Recent changes in MLS shows there is a desire to shift towards a more European-type format, but more work needs to be done.
The most striking difference between the MLS and world football is the difference in the season calendar.
While the standard FIFA calendar runs from August to May, the MLS season runs from approximately March to November. This means that MLS plays through major summer tournaments such as the World Cup, and also the summer transfer window. In the States, this might appear to work because the league is playing when no other major American sports leagues are, but the MLS is failing to sync itself with the rest of world football.
One aspect of MLS that is truly stuck in limbo and confusing to fans is its club names.
At first, MLS clubs were named in the style of traditional American sports teams, e.g., Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, and Los Angeles Galaxy. These teams remain, but clubs with European-style names have since been added, e.g., FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and Sporting Kansas City.
It just doesn’t make sense for a team playing in the land where they call the sport ‘soccer’ to include ‘Football Club’ in its name. Consistency is a must for a league still trying to find its way into mainstream American sports.
MLS also has an issue when it comes to the balance of power. The problem is that there is far too much of it.
The successful European leagues all have their big, powerful clubs and their smaller underdog clubs. The MLS ‘SuperDraft’ and salary cap, two systems that are common in American sports, prevent the shifts in power, eliminating the intriguing storylines that go along with it.
The MLS SuperDraft occurs every January. The best players coming out of college, as well as other signees, are combined in a pool for the clubs to make selections. The balance of power is ensured by this system because the selections are performance-based, with the previous year’s worst teams able to choose the best players first.
The salary cap is misused in Major League Soccer. The best thing the league did for itself was incorporate the ‘designated player’ rule, which allows each team to sign two players for higher salaries and count only a percentage of that salary towards the team’s cap. It was the first rule that allowed MLS clubs to compete for star players on the international stage.
The designated player rule, nicknamed the Beckham rule, shows the desire and ability of MLS to get involved at the next level, but still limits what each club can do.
Without more high-profile players and clubs, MLS cannot thrive the way it should be able to.
What changes do you think MLS can make to improve its domestic and global significance?
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