01 May 2014
MLS has come a long way since it's inception in 1993 and it's first league match in 1996. When league action first started in 1996 there were a number of things that made MLS stand out as a totally different league from most of the other soccer leagues in the world. There were several rules that were implemented that were meant to attract the average American sports fan. Since soccer was still relatively unpopular among the American public, the rules of the game weren't very well understood - so MLS tweaked these rules some to try to make the game more appealing to the American public. Some of these changes have since made way for more traditional soccer rules, and some haven't. There are still a few remaining rules and traditions that MLS needs to leave behind in order to usher in a new era where MLS continues to grow both here and abroad.
Recently the LA Galaxy announced the signing of Ireland national team captain, Robbie Keane from Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. MLS is growing in the world's eye. Little by little, international stars are leaving big name clubs to come finish their careers in MLS. Now, at first it may have been that these stars wanted to come here for a little easier competition in their old age, or maybe one last chance to be the star that they couldn't be at their old clubs anymore, but whatever the reason the more of these players MLS gets, the better the league will get. The better our league gets, the more it will continue to grow in popularity both inside and outside of the United States.
In the open I mentioned that there were several rules implemented in the initial MLS rules that were meant to appeal to American sports fans. Many of these have been changed, but let's take a look back and see just exactly what rules we're talking about.
Where have we come from?
The most notable was the use of the clock in the early MLS days. American sports fans are used to a clock that ticks down toward zero to signify the end of periods and www.pacelabdc.org pauses when there is a stoppage in play. This is not the case in soccer. As you all know, soccer uses a clock that starts at zero and continues to run even during a stoppage of play (hence the need for stoppage time). The early MLS clock was a more American style clock and ran backwards from 45:00 and pauses during the stoppage of play. There was no stoppage time, and the halves ended when the clock struck :00.
As most American sports fans know, the shootout is an exciting -albeit completely stupid - way to decide a winner in tie games. Soccer rarely uses the penalty kick situation to decide games. The World Cup 2014 does it when the games have to have a clear winner and loser, and only after an additional 30 minutes of extra time. However, the more common approach seems to be using the aggregate score between the two teams during their match-ups in the competition like they do in the UEFA Champions League knockout stages. (Championship games also can use penalties)
All that being said, most regular season soccer matches around the world end in a draw if the two teams are tied after regulation. That was seemingly unacceptable to American sports fans, so MLS initially used the shootout to help decide games.
These two rule changes really turned off traditional soccer fans, and failed to draw in average American sports fans as planned, so they were abandoned after the 1999 season. (MLS did try to use a 10 minute golden goal overtime period until 2003, but this was ultimately nixed as well)
This is not so much a change in the rules over time, but a change in the culture. When MLS started it was marketed to two target demographics. The average American sports fan, and families with soccer moms and mini vans. The culture of the
match was made to be family friendly. Now, there is nothing wrong with a family friendly atmosphere, but look at soccer matches around the world. Supporters groups are crazy. It's part of what makes soccer such a chilling experience at times - an entire stadium of people standing, yelling, jumping, and singing all in unison. It's perfect.
Once MLS realized these target demographics were not necessarily showing up, and that they were alienating the traditional fans that they would need to rely on to make this league grow, I think a shift occurred in the front office culture. We moved away from a juice box and orange slice type atmosphere to an atmosphere that is more in line with what soccer is around the world. Save for New England where the FO still wants to try to target their supporters group, MLS front office's have really begun to embrace the true soccer atmosphere, and it has started to develop around the league. Look at Section 8 here in Chicago (at times we can be electric), or Timbers Army up at the expansion Portland side, or any one of the other supporters sections around the league.
Where do we go from here?
The Playoffs and the Table Structure
The biggest thing that continues to separate MLS from a lot of the other top leagues around the world is the playoffs and the structure of the table (standings).
Let's take the English Premier League (EPL) for example. There are 20 teams in the league every year, with every team playing once at home and away against every other team. This makes for 38 matches in an EPL season. That's it. There are no playoffs. The team with the most points at the end of the season is the league champion. There are no divisions or conferences. Their table is just a straight list of all 20 clubs and they all compete against each other for the title.
This is the kind of structure that MLS needs to go to. No more conferences. No more playoffs. No more Supporters Shield winners and MLS Cup winners and blah, blah, blah. One champion. One team at the top of the pile at the end of the season. Most American sports fans love the excitement of the playoffs, and for most other sports - so do I. But not soccer. It's just wrong.
In the 15 full seasons that MLS played through 2010, only 5 of them ended with the same club winning both the
Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. I'm sorry, but in soccer if you're the best team through a full season - you are the champion. No playoffs. End of story.
Promotion and Relegation
The rest of the world uses a promotion and relegation system to encourage clubs to field competitive teams each and every year. Now, in the United States we aren't yet in a position where we can do that, however, we need to take steps to move towards that system. When the 2012 season starts, MLS will have 19 teams. (Montreal Impact are a 2012 expansion side) First off, Commissioner Don Garber needs to work to bring in a 20th and final expansion team to the league. After this happens, he needs to work with the commissioners of the other soccer leagues in the country to try to come up with a solution. Whether it be the consolidation of these leagues into one or two more 20 team leagues that could play as the second and third tier of MLS for promotion and relegation, or however they can do it. This process would take some time, but it is something that should be done.
What's Your Point?
My point is simple. MLS has had 15 full seasons and look what it has already grown to.
- We have fallen in line with most of the rest of the world on most of the rules.
- MLS has begun to gain some major popularity in the USA and abroad. (Don't believe me? Look at the average attendance of a Sounders match)
- MLS is bringing in big name stars from Europe and elsewhere. MLS has also sent some big name stars to go on to play in other, more prestigious leagues around the globe.
- NBC and MLS have signed a TV deal that will televise 30+ MLS matches on NBC and it's affiliates next year.
Couple this with the recent success that the US Men's National Team has had, and soccer is growing in America. There is a new generation of young, die-hard MLS supporters, and that number will continue to grow as this generation grows up and has children of their own. This league is full of endless possibility. These changes need to be made to the setup of the league, other than that, the league just needs more time to grow and develop. We could be on the verge of something great, and for the first time in America - soccer could become a mainstream sport.