I still feel that it is behind the big four in terms of stature (American football, baseball, basketball and arguably ice hockey), and I do hold many of the concerns that I have had for a few years now. I do sometimes feel as if there is a requirement for a instant lift in the game but that’s at odds with the progress the game has made over here. There are structural improvements I would make – which I will save for an article later this week – but for now I want to concentrate on the top level of the game.
We’re heading into the 21st year of the MLS and that alone gives you an indication of the progress that has been made, though it doesn’t tell the whole story. There are still franchises that have gone bust, rebranded or relocated and it is primarily with these that the problem lies. It’s difficult to establish an attractive culture for supporters if you’re not giving them a team or a club that they have a local identity and affinity with. I don’t want to see teams simply moved because of financial difficulties – first of all, that does nothing to establish the culture of excellence, secondly, it alienates the supporter base that has been built and has established a rapport with the players of that club, and thirdly, it is precisely that kind of financial mismanagement which led to the demise of the NASL the first time around.
Last year the Portland Timbers won a lot of fans with their progression and, honestly, I feel the North West is the ‘hotbed’ of soccer – there’s a more European climate, a more European culture when it comes to their connection with the game and that played a major part in many neutrals affinity with the Timbers last year.
One of the biggest stories – at least for people reading this back in the UK – will be that of Toronto FC, the club managed by Ryan Nelsen who have made a number of signings from UK clubs. Jermain Defoe is the big name, and don’t get me wrong, players such as Jermain – just like David Beckham and Thierry Henry before him – will do their bit to raise the profile and interest but it’s in players like Steven Caldwell that the reputation of the league will slowly improve.
I don’t mean any disrespect to Steven but his CV is one that represents the lower levels of the Premier League, or a promotion chasing Championship side. Of course, it may well be that Steven came over for the money too, but it will be when players of that standard come over earlier in their career that we’ll begin to see a stronger progress. One such player is Richard Eckersley. He was, ironically, at Toronto, but has just been drafted to New York Red Bulls after some great progress since his arrival in the MLS. Richard is just 24 and a great example to others who might wish to make the same journey.
That’s when the league will begin to establish a stronger reputation rather than being perceived (however unfairly) as some kind of graveyard for over the hill Premier League talents. Jermain has plenty to offer and some raised an eyebrow with his transfer so maybe that, too, might open the doors.
That still doesn’t fix many of the domestic problems over here and no regular reader will be surprised to hear me talking about bringing through young home grown players. I’m as dedicated to that in my work over here as I am back in the UK but as people know, the whole development system is hugely different. This again is for a following article but too many youngsters disappear from the game, too many talented kids are not getting the opportunity. I know people will ask about David Beckham’s Miami venture but that too will be discussed in my next article.
Above I spoke about the foreign influence – people might remember that I spoke last year about how great it was that Clint Dempsey was returning to the MLS with plenty left to offer. The same goes for Michael Bradley, and perhaps even more so – he has done great in Europe and now is back in the MLS approaching his peak years. For $10m, that is a major transfer and showed that a team in the MLS can now pull off such a move. Make no mistake about it; Michael was highly regarded, particularly in his spell for Roma, and there are plenty of clubs that could do with a player of his ability.
People ask me about who the favourites are, and who I fancy for this year in the MLS, and in terms of the squads they each have then LA Galaxy and the Red Bulls rightly stand where they are as bookmakers favourites. I’ll watch, with interest, as I always do, but for me the real story is in the progress made by the game itself.