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How can the MLS catch up with Europe?

The United States has transformed into a big market for the big European clubs and yet the domestic league MLS is still not at a comparable stage to their European counterparts. Ross Bramble and Andrew Thompson look at various issues surrounding the development of the MLS.

It has always seemed peculiar that for a sport so universally adored, football never seemed to quite kick off, as it were, over in the United States. The drama, action and excitement that inspires people across the continents of planet Earth never quite seemed to break ice with our friends across the pond, but ever since the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, the tide has been turning.

2010 was just the start, too – the national team made another strong showing in 2014, a campaign which included a last minute winner against Ghana, an ultimately heartbreaking 2-2 draw with the Portuguese and a narrow 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Germany. The men’s showing was swiftly followed by an even greater World Cup performance by the ladies, who claimed the Women’s World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan.

Kaka 2016

With all this recent international success, and a slew of high profile names taking up residence in the MLS, there has never been a better time for Americans to engage with the beautiful game. Following in the footsteps of both David Beckham and Thierry Henry, Major League Soccer now plays host to world renowned stars such as Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Sebastian Giovinco, Clint Dempsey and others. Football is finally entering the mainstream, but things are still at an early stage.

The MLS is a growing brand, but there is a great distance between the highest league in America and the highest leagues in Europe. But just how great a distance is it? What steps must the MLS take to become a serious, internationally branded football league? With these questions in mind, both Ross Bramble and Andrew Thompson, two Outside of the Boot contributors from England and America respectively, have been reviewing the current structure of the MLS to try and pinpoint the necessary changes the league will need to undergo if it is to challenge its European neighbours.

Promotions & Relegations

Ross: I have to admit that, before this year, I wasn’t au fait with the rules of MLS football. Though there were some differences I could rationalise as cultural eccentricities, like playoffs and inter-season cup tournaments for local rivals, the lack of promotions and relegations stunned me. Naively, perhaps, I had assumed that they were universal principles in league football, and I’ve yet to hear a sensible argument for their omission.

Part of the reason American soccer is so maligned on the continent is the great disconnect between our version and theirs. Why do the Americans need to alter the beautiful game? Why change the name, why add a new playoff system? Adding promotion and relegation would be a great sign of integration. Americans may be surprised how much more they enjoy and connect with the sport when the future of their clubs can hinge on the next result – certainly some of my greatest football memories involve final day survival stories. As a Southampton fan, I recall Nigel Pearson keeping us up on the last day of the Championship season with a 3-2 win over Sheffield United – a game in which Stern John scored twice and got himself sent off. Otherwise, Jimmy Glass and Carlisle springs immediately to mind as an example of a more renowned final day story.

Andrew: As an American who has grown up around sports involving playoffs, it’s interesting that I have always thought that playoffs plus a lack of promotion and relegation in the MLS was quite silly indeed.

As Ross has pointed out, the countless moments of drama on the last day that surrounds both being promoted to the top flight and also succumbing to the drop to the lower division are endless.  What Ross did not point out yet, is that there are plenty of teams in North America in other leagues NASL and USL – one of them is the very popular and historic New York Cosmos, the once home of footballing greats Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. A club with such history, not being able to compete at the highest level, should certainly be deemed inappropriate (think of Nottingham Forest not being given chances to make it back to the top flight). With other cult clubs like the Rochester Rhinos and the Charleston Battery still operating, it may be time for the league to look seriously consider promotion and relegation.

The issue with the smaller clubs who are not in MLS, is financing. Clubs in the NASL and USL have operating budgets that are fractions of MLS clubs, as well as many of their players technically being only “semi-pro”, and often times have other jobs apart from Football.  While Cinderella stories like Gazalez Ajaccio in Lique 1 this season can dispel the notion that you can do wonderful things on a shoestring budget, it’s unlikely that it’ll be a good enough reason for the league to overlook the massive financial differences.

Hire Managers With European Experience

Ross: What better way to capture the European style than incorporating more European managers? Already the league has reached out to stars like David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo, Thierry Henry and so many more to utilise their buzz for the development of the league, but the teams don’t change with one or two experienced players. The way to transition a side from the American style to the European style, is via the manager.

You look at managers suffering on the continent from a poor run at their previous club, or a young manager that can’t get his foot back on the ladder. Why couldn’t MLS sides offer an olive branch to them? David Moyes would surely bite your hand off for an extended stay in the States after his recent woes at United and Sociedad. Steve McLaren, Tim Sherwood, even Paul Ince would surely see the MLS as the perfect platform to rebuild their image, just as McLaren himself did in Holland, and Gus Poyet now hopes to in Greece. You could argue that Owen Coyle hasn’t set the world alight with Houston Dynamo, of course, but there are far better options ready to make the leap should the chance come along.

Andrew: With former France and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira being confirmed as the new manager for NYCFC starting next season, this is, for me, what you want to see.  Vieira has brilliant playing pedigree, and having been involved heavily at Manchester City with the youth setup, he not only brings in a different view and ideology, he will also bring that youth experience to a league that is begging for a stronger reliance on homegrown talent.

As Ross said, there are plenty of managers in Europe, and indeed in places like South America, Africa and Asia that are richly experienced that could bring it to bear on a league which, must be said, really lacks managerial talent.  If you want to build a product the right way, having strong leadership at the head of its major parts is an absolute must, but also leadership that knows the game inside and out.  Apart from Vieira, other names such as Ryan Giggs, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and former MLS star Thierry Henry, all former players at the very highest level and all looking to break into management, could find the MLS hunting grounds the perfect place to hone their skills but also help the MLS brand to grow.

Loaning Players From the Continent

Ross: In addition to adding foreign managers with fresh styles, dipping into the loan market may prove a prudent move for many MLS sides if they hope to gain worldwide exposure. Think of the Dutch model – in Holland, teams like Vitesse are able to challenge a few positions higher than perhaps they could afford alone by their loan recruitment. Holland has a wonderful record of talent enhancement and they have become an enticing option for youngsters looking for a full season. America, with a culture so close to England’s and so attractive to many others in the EU, could be the perfect breeding ground for these younger talents.

Andrew: As Ross brought up, Vitesse Arnhem’s relationship with English giant Chelsea has proven successful for them as, without the ability to bring in players from the London side, they would not be nearly as successful.  With New York being linked with Red Bull (and then by extension with RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg), NYCFC under the Manchester City umbrella and Colorado linked with Arsenal via owner Stan Kroenke, these are clubs that could lead the way in showing how astute loan signings (though the seasons do not run on the same schedule, which is another issue) could not only save expenditures, but bring in players who are desperate to impress and build their careers – in such a scenario, everyone benefits.

Develop Youth Academies

Andrew: The image and story that surrounds the notion of homegrown players coming through the ranks to make it on the big stage is one that is steeped in American sports lore.  Unfortunately for the MLS and its fanbase, it’s a scenario that has not birthed nearly as many success stories as fans would like to see.

Matt Miazga’s recent move from the NY Red Bulls to English giants Chelsea is seemingly what you’d want – a 20-year-old defender coming through the NYRB academy since age fourteen and now moving to one of the biggest clubs in the world. Success? Maybe so, but the issue remains that this is a scenario that just does not happen enough. How many American players have gone from the States, created a large reputation on the domestic front and then garnered attention from a foreign footballing power? The Stars and Stripes have had many players in its history start off at European clubs, but after failing to truly make the grade, they came into the MLS and shone – it’s been the reverse quite often.

While many MLS clubs are establishing their youth academies and making some efforts to rely on them more heavily, the simple fact is that the league still relies far too much on the Collegiate system to keep the young player pool filled – but the standard just isn’t good enough because student-athletes at the end of the day don’t have the time to dedicate themselves in training to reach the level they could if football was their only focus (with school and tutoring being provided by the clubs in a very European model).

At the end of the day, full reliance and financial support for every MLS club to have an established youth set up must be the priority, with the collegiate system providing further support by way of young talent coming through.  Until this happens to acceptable levels across the board, the MLS will still be well behind the footballing world.

Ross: Not knowing the precise structures and pathways open to young American soccer hopefuls, contextually this subject is a little misty to me. From what Drew has told me, however, the structure is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps, with soccer so under-valued in the US, it’s understandable that the youngsters don’t get the same kind of treatment they do on the continent, but as a fan of a club that prides itself on talent development, it amazes me that so few kids get the chance at league level.

Homegrown talent doesn’t just make your league look good. As fans of any sport can verify, a whole new connection, belief and energy establishes itself between fan and player when they come from the same city or love the same team. Just look at Harry Kane at Tottenham, Jack Wilshere at Arsenal, Steven Gerrard at Liverpool. Not only that, focusing on the growth of domestic talent also gives the national team a much needed boost. It would certainly be nice to see one of the world’s great political superpowers establish themselves as more than just a plucky underdog in World Cups.

Direct Links With Foreign Clubs

Andrew: As stated before, some links with foreign clubs are already established in the league in at both New York clubs as well as Colorado…but why not take it one step further and make it a point to have every club in the league have a direct European link?  To go further, rather than trying to establish a link with clubs from only one particular foreign establishment, why not allow the clubs to choose their own based off the brand and image they’d like to build?  If a certain club wants to stress the mental side of the game, they’d surely be going after a Belgian club to link up with, while a club that may want to stress technical development would target a Spanish side for example.  There are plenty of options, and it may not necessarily be the way the league wants to build itself in regards to relying on outside help, but success can be found in many ways.

Ross: I’d have to say that, like Drew, I can’t see this notion being too popular with the guys at the top of the MLS. No-one really wants to drink the blood of the bigger leagues to that kind of extent, but why shouldn’t it be a consideration? MLS football can be a hugely commercial brand if its reach extended beyond its shores. Think of it like local clubs in England – thanks to the links established with Southampton, I became aware of Eastleigh FC a few years before their ascension to the National League. It’s not a perfect plan, but if the league wants to grow, it could do far worse than this.

End the Reliance On Older Talent

Andrew: The MLS has had a long history of reliance on older talent.  From the age when David Beckham came till now, we’ve seen quite a few former elites of the European game come to the MLS, but it did exist before – the aforementioned Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Valderrama, Jorge Campos, Hristo Stoichkov, Roberto Donadoni are just a few players who graced the pitch in the states in the league’s existence who once starred elsewhere.  For me personally, this boils down to the American mentality.  Americans do love a show, they do love sporting talent, and truth be told, much of the crowd size the league has drawn has been because of those former standouts.  That may bring temporary popularity, but those players will not be the future of the league, homegrown talent will, and even if it means a few years of lesser talented players but ones that come from the area and learn their trade as they grow, the idea of the hometown hero, another notion thick in American sports lore, would rise dramatically in importance (see: Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore as recent examples) and thus league popularity is still improved over time.

Ross: While it’s true that players like Pirlo and Kaka can draw the crowds, MLS sides need to continue the slowly emerging trend of picking up experienced players that aren’t household names among American fans. You might go to see Thierry Henry or Steven Gerrard, but it’s players like Bradley Wright-Phillips, Giles Barnes or Sean St. Ledger that show a consistent quality that win games when the big names don’t turn up. There’s talent across the world waiting the wings at their clubs deserving far more many minutes than they’re afforded, that could walk in to the starting line-ups of the majority of sides in the MLS. Why not take advantage? I’m sure Ron Vlaar, Karim Ait Fana and others would be straight on the plane should someone give him the chance.

Continental Friendlies

Andrew: It’s brilliant to see many big European clubs coming to the states for small pre-season tours.  But what about MLS clubs going to Europe?  Scheduling could indeed be difficult, but if there could be a reasonable way to get MLS sides to tour parts of Europe and South America, the exposure alone for those players against the parts of the world who excel at developing quality leagues would be massive.

Additionally, it gives those players and teams a greater chance to be seen by scouts.  It’s unlikely that scouts from Europe will be spending a lot of time in the States as the standard isn’t nearly as high, but if you go to where the scouts are based, logic dictates that your chances of being recognized are indeed increased.  Take for example that MLS pre-season begins January 22nd, and the Austrian Bundesliga winter-break ends on February 6th – what is wrong with MLS clubs scheduling pre-season friendlies against Austrian sides?  Even if it had to be in a neutral location, that exposure would help even just a little.  It would naturally take time, but little by little, the more exposed to a higher standard of football these players are, and the league as well, the more can be absorbed and hopefully learned from.

Ross: To me, this idea benefits the league and the squads in two different ways. In terms of the league, continental friendlies give teams the exposure they need to attract new business and grow as an enterprise, as well as showcasing the talent on offer in the MLS. In terms of the players, there is a school of thought that I’m very fond of that would have you believe the best way to get better is by competing against/working with people who are better than you. While teams in England and Spain may be ready to rotate their squads in friendly matches, especially against American teams that some might not expect as much from, the opportunity to defend against Dybala, martial Ozil or wriggle past Varane can only improve those tasked with such duties. Not to mention, with soccer on the rise in the US, it could be a prudent little money spinner to get these clubs over for a few more friendlies, as proven by the recent uptake in tours of the states by Manchester United, Tottenham and others.

Written by Ross Bramble and Andrew Thompson

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