MLS Year Three – A Review of the First Two Seasons of MLS and Where We Should Head For Year Three.

Ed note: this is the first commentary I ever wrote for 3rd Degree. It was posted sometime in late 1997 shortly after creating 3rd Degree. It’s a little rambly and not very tight. I hadn’t developed a voice yet and was still learning to focus. I particularly did a poor job explaining camera angles in the TV section comparing soccer to basketball. Again, I have only edited this post here for some light spelling and punctuation; and to fit the new site’s format.

We have had a fairly successful first two years of MLS.  The first season MLS lost something like $25 million and the second season it was down to $14 million.  You’ve got to consider that an improvement.  I guess the real way to determine if MLS is a success or not is if they ever make money.  What was the original projection?  Oh yeah, make money in year five.

Ok.  Check this space after year five and we’ll see if MLS is a success.

That being said let’s look at MLS from an aesthetic point of view, in three different areas:

1. Level of play
2. Broadcasting
3. Attracting Fan Interest

Level of Play

The first year wasn’t bad.  I think we could have hoped for more, but it was better than anything else we’ve seen in this county and I’m including NASL.  I don’t care about the talent level of NASL with Pele and such.  As a collective league, it was a farce.

The second year was better.  We’re not Siera A yet, or perhaps even the Portuguese or Greek leagues.  But I’ll bet we can compete with any third-tier European league.  More than anything else, I would like us to be able to compete on an even footing with Mexican teams.  That means winning one of the North American (CONCACAF) championships; either the Cup Winner Cup (Go Dallas!) or the Champion’s Cup (GO DC).  Until we do so I think we’ve got to improve.  So right now you’re probably saying “All right, smartypants, what can be done to improve?”

Obviously the College game slows us down because college players aren’t playing enough.  I suppose that the USSF developmental Project 40 is going to help.  But I can’t help feeling that Project 40 won’t be enough.  I think the relationship with USISL teams has got to deepen and MLS teams need to have the rights to players longer.  Retaining a player’s rights would encourage each team’s interest in developing its own players.  Plus MLS teams need to invest in developing their own talent before College age.  I don’t think we can afford reserve teams right now, but how about soccer schools, or at least clubs.  An MLS team could easily operate a select team in their area that could compete like all other regional youth teams.  How about starting a private school that high caliber soccer kids could attend, like the legendary academy of Dutch soccer giant Ajax.  Academies are probably is a few years off but a school age, select soccer club would be easy to operate now.

Broadcasting

Wow, some of these television broadcasts are terrible.  I understand the need to watch the budget, but there’s a long way between having thirty cameras and some of the stuff we have seen.

First off, broadcasts should quit trying to play to the least common denominator.  Let the game of soccer succeed or fail on its own merits as a game.  In other words, quit trying to “Americanize” the game.

For example, the “In the Box” stat.  I realize what you’re going for here, an NFL “Red Zone scoring” type stat.  However, most quality shots are taken from outside of the box, not inside the box.  By the time your average MLS team has worked the ball into the box, all eleven opponents are already in there too.  So any possession in the box is almost meaningless.  Granted deflections happen and players get fouled for PK’s or even score goals, but I bet most of them were a breakaway, crosses for headers, or rebounds given up by the keeper.  Very rarely does a player gain a real quality possession inside the box.  Therefore the “In the Box” statistic is ridiculous and will tell you nothing about the real game.   For example, look at both of Preki’s recent goals in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, both shots were from well outside the box. Much more important is time of possession (although that can be misleading too, as demonstrated by the US win over Brazil) and scoring chances.

Ok, now for something that has been an area of discussion before: the primary game camera coverage, or play by play camera.  Many soccer purists will tell you they want to see the whole field so they can follow the buildup, etc.  If you want to see that, go to the game.  In my opinion, the play by play camera should cover the four or five guys closest to the ball. If we can’t read their numbers on TV, it’s too wide a shot.  If we can see both sidelines, it’s too wide.  In basketball, the camera coverage uses an hourglass pattern; wide near the basket and narrow near mid-court.  Soccer should be the opposite approach.  Near midfield, we need to see a wider shot because the ball will go from sideline to sideline faster (this does not mean we need to see both sidelines).  Near the goal, we need to see the goal and the piece of the field the ball is in.  If someone has the ball by the flag we don’t need to see past the far goal post.  If the ball goes all the way by the goal – then we can move the camera to follow it; until it does – we don’t care what’s there.  Sort of like the NFL where we don’t see the other receivers, only the receiver who catches the ball.

And lastly, the lineup should reflect the positions of the players on the field, not just defense, midfield, and forward.  I realize the lineups indicate the positions now, but a graphic that looks like a field with names superimposed is better than the current system of three separate pages with pictures of the players.  Originally the pictures were important because the fans didn’t really know who many of the players were.  I think that in the third year of MLS it is safe to lose the pictures from the lineups.  The full-page filed graphic would give us the starting eleven and their position, and plus some idea of their tactics by showing the differences between the various lineups (4-4-2, 3-5-2, etc.).  Unfortunately, this would require greater communication between clubs and TV.  Many coaches are reluctant to reveal their lineup and formation before a game, so strict confidentiality would have to be enforced.

Attracting Fan Interest

First off I think the league has done a good job trying to appeal to certain demographic characteristics of the US.  I also think that MLS has done a good job of attracting the new fan to soccer which is so important to the future.  But in doing that MLS forgot about the most important part of the audience as it exists now, the traditional soccer fan.  Here are some examples.

The name DC United is a great traditional soccer name; the Burn, Clash, and Wizards are “hip” (read “bad”) names.  Although the FC at the end of Miami Fusion FC is a good attempt at a compromise.

The shoot-out.  Good effort.  I get the idea: no ties.  Unfortunately, ties are a part of soccer worldwide.  Since everyone else in the world uses them in the regular season, we should too.  I know why MLS didn’t want them, but it again was to please some mythical US fan.  The traditional soccer fan appreciates a good tie, and the new fan can learn to appreciate it too, just like they learn to appreciate the other differences between soccer and other US sports.  And please, if MLS is going to keep the shoot-out, take shoot-out wins out of the “win” column in the standings.  Put them in a separate column from regular wins, the combined standings are stupid and aren’t fooling anyone.  In fact, they are just plain confusing.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain the standings to someone, usually a new fan.  They can’t understand why teams with the same amount of wins have a different amount of points.

I definitely think that MLS is not a place to experiment with rules.  The last thing we need is experimentation that could foul up the game and hurt MLS’s chances for success.  Go experiment in an established lesser league, like Switzerland or something.  Let Grasshoppers play with kick-ins, instead of us. (Grasshoppers is a Swiss soccer power often appearing in the UEFA Champions League for a short period of time)

Lastly, allow teams to peruse their own players, rather than the league office. Under the current setup, MLS negotiates and holds the contracts of players, not the teams.  There is a distinct impression that the policy the league uses to assign players to teams is unfair.  Fans love to talk about “what if’s” and discussing who their team is pursuing is one of the favorite activities of fans, especially in the offseason.  Just look at the craziness of offseason baseball or the amount of talk generated every time someone says Baggio is coming to the Metros.

The Goal

All right that about does it for today.  Please feel free to send us your comments, and please remember that these are my opinions and are intended to start a debate, not be a cure-all for MLS.  Even though we all cheer for different teams, the most important goal is to create a self-supporting, successful, professional soccer league.  And of course for the US to win the World Cup.

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