If soccer fandom in the United States was looked at the same as growing up was, we would be in that awkward early teen stage. Crazy things start happening, confusion sets in and you really don’t quite know what to do with yourself. Every four years we come together to support the same country, but when the World Cup is over and all the dust settles, there is this odd bucket of mixed feelings. Even the biggest Team USA fans end up talking down the MLS regardless of its extraordinary growth since 2009 and rather than get disappointed about losing our young American stars to Europe, we actually welcome it.
I tend to be on the opposite side of the fence. Don’t get me wrong, I love European football and trust me, I understand that the talent level playing for top European Teams is heads and tails above the rest, but we’ve all heard the term “buying a championship” and is a league with that mentality really what is best to grow young players?
The first thing I tend to hear from soccer fans here is that the MLS will never be a serious league unless it does away with the salary cap. The way most fans see it is that if a brand new team like New York City FC can flash dollar signs at the world’s biggest names, we might be able to steal some players from heavyweights like Chelsea FC or Real Madrid simply because we could offer a higher payday.
I see it a little differently however. So yeah, a team like New York City FC with ownership from both the New York Yankees and Manchester City could have the change lying around to theoretically land a name as big as Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic, but what happens to the Colorado Rapids? What happens to Real Salt Lake or the Columbus Crew? Seattle has deep enough pockets where they could give it a go against a team like New York City, but is that what we want to see? Complete domination by maybe three teams if we’re lucky?
La Liga had three teams this year who challenged for the league title. Once you get past Barcelona in third place, Athletic Bilbao was a full 17 points behind in fourth place. The difference between third and fourth place was nearly a 20 point drop. Bundesliga was even worse, Bayern Munich had won the title well before the season was nearing a close and their closest competition (Borussia Dortmund) was nearly 20 points behind in second place. Third and fourth place Schalke 04 and Bayern Leverkusen finished 26 and 29 points off the leader. Both Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco relaxed at the top of Ligue 1 for the majority of 2013-14 and even in the relatively competitive Premier League, the drop from fifth to sixth place and lower was substantial. The race to stay above relegation ends up becoming the main event for teams like Sunderland, Hull City and West Bromwich Albion, as their fans know that their small market team will never be able to compete with the diamonds and gold at the top.
Is that what we want? Do we want to get excited about staying out of dead last?
The New York Red Bulls finished last year’s MLS Season with 59 points. That was enough to win them the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Following them was Sporting Kansas City with 58 points, Portland Timbers with 57 points, Real Salt Lake with 56, LA Galaxy with 53, Seattle Sounders with 52, and then New England, Houston, Colorado and San Jose all with 51 points. Nine teams within eight points of each other. Even FC Dallas who finished second to last in the Western Conference still had 44 points. Besides Toronto, D.C. United and Chivas USA having rough seasons, every team in the MLS last season had over 40 points.
I know my opinion isn’t the most popular one, but I have seen too many young Americans go to Europe only to be benched and in some cases it could be argued that it had little to do with the player’s talent and more to do with their place of birth. And I totally get that, why shouldn’t Europeans trust what has worked best for them over the last century? Why shouldn’t we take a little more pride in what we can offer here? Maybe not the highest talent pool in the world, but quite possibly the most competitive top division league in the world.
As I said, I don’t believe taking away the salary cap is the solution. That won’t help us grow our young Americans, it will only help us challenge Europe in snagging their players. However, with young stars like DeAndre Yedlin making waves out of Academy programs, perhaps the MLS can offer a modified version of the Designated Player rule for Homegrown players. If the league makes it financially enticing and possible to both grow and then keep young stars, that is where I believe we can start to make a stand as a soccer nation. Do I believe the MLS will ever be surrounded by the pageantry that European Leagues are surrounded by? No, I don’t. We have multiple interests in this country. Even a soccer fanatic like me still loves the NFL, NHL and MLB. We have to find an American way to grow soccer here rather than try to copy what Europe does.
Although my thoughts may simply be pipe dreams, I do believe soccer can be successful here and I do believe that we can win the World Cup with players who primarily play on American soil, but we need to do it our way. Go back in history and you will see we have always found a way to be athletically superior in this country. With love for soccer at an all-time high, now feels like a good time to figure it out.