First Touch

Major League Soccer Getting The Balance Right

This is around the time of year, as we tend to do every year, with the European seasons getting ready to fire back up, that we implore you in our refined and understated American way, not to give up on the game as it is presented in the United States. This, more often than not, takes the form of extolling the virtues of Major League Soccer and reminding you that you don’t need to pour yourself out of bed at 6am on your day off just to watch a match on television, when you can sleep in and see one in person with your own two eyes at 7pm or so.

Wayne Rooney in action
Probably not what he signed up for Wayne Rooney gives blood for the cause at DC United vs Colorado Rapids Photo Brad Mills USA TODAY Sports

Tim Hall’s View From 101

Usually, this case is made much easier quadrennially by the appearance of the United States Men’s National Team in the World Cup. The accompanying pitch tends to go something like this: if you liked them, if you supported those scrappy try-hards who ultimately came up short, then maybe stick around to see where many of them did or still do ply their trade, and check put the players that may replace those guys in four years’ time, and maybe won’t come up short.

Of course, you know by now that we don’t have that ability this time, the US Men’s failed to make the World Cup. And it probably wouldn’t do anyone too much good to say “Hey, remember Panama, they had loads of Major League Soccer players!” when they also got tossed out of the tournament in a flash.

Next Generation

And the promise of ‘tomorrow’s stars today!’ falls flat when you come to realize that the next generation of US talent isn’t cutting their teeth in Colorado or Utah but in Germany, France and England. The virtues of almost all of the good young talent has to offer being sent to far-flung locales can, and will, be debated ad nauseum.

But for the purposes of the discussion, it doesn’t help Major League Soccer’s case very much that, of the team selected to act as sparring partners for teams that actually got to go to the World Cup, only four of the twenty-four still have a US address, and if one is to believe the rumor mill, some of those four should make sure they have their documents in order.


But that is the reality of American soccer and Major League Soccer in 2018. The system is working the way it was designed to work. Finally, the academy systems are finding and training the top talent from around the country, those players are getting minutes in all the youth levels before getting on to the MLS reserve teams and then the grownup sides. Then the cream of that crop catch the eye of a scout for a team in Europe, and off they go.

It is important to point out that this isn’t just happening to the players. Just this year, the coaches of both New York teams – Patrick Vieira from New York City FC and Jesse Marsch from New York Red Bulls –   have been poached by European sides and just up and left a title race midseason. So much for loyalty.

But enough about Europe, let’s focus on domestic shores. For those players who do not draw the attention of Europeans in tracksuits, what remains here for them? Well, in many cases that comes down to where they had the fortune – or the misfortune – of being born. There are a few teams around the league who believe in progressing their kids through the system and building a core of young domestic talent around which they can parachute in some international signings to fill in whatever perceived gaps in talent there may be.

Salary Cap

This is both the means and the end. MLS roster rules, in terms of both salary cap and with regards to international signings, forbid overloading a team with all pricey international signings. Despite being as strong or stronger than it has ever been financially, Major League Soccer still wisely operates on a budget to prevent rampant overreach and runaway spending that could doom the league to failure. But, also, a 23 year old American still living with his parents can be paid a lot less than a 33 year old coming over from Europe for one last run.

The problem is that some native players will get caught behind one of those glitzy international signings on the roster. While the signings of the Rooneys or the Zlatans are still the ones that generate headlines and buzz, they come at the expense of a domestic player not getting first team minutes. That’s fine, provided MLS is just out for TV ratings and attendance numbers.

But they aren’t, they also see themselves as a developmental program for the world, a selling league, if you must. There’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of leagues around the world are viewed as second-tier, filtering players up to the big clubs and using the transfer fees to restock their academies and start the process over again.


In a perfect world, the big ticket signings would not only be responsible for media tours and putting more people in seats, but also for passing on their knowledge and wisdom to those young Americans they relegate to the bench with their presence. Do they?

It’s impossible to know. Any young kid in Washington DC who values his contract will volunteer the fact that they’re learning oh-so-much sitting at the wisdom tree of Wayne Rooney, whether or not that is the case. And there is something to be learned by osmosis just from being around a guy with that much experience. But – and we’re not picking on Wazza alone here, he’s merely the most recent avatar – is he pulling young players aside for a bit of exposition? Is he staying late after practice to actively pass on that knowledge?

Or does he curse the midsummer heat in our nation’s capital and head straight for the Range Rover to blast the air conditioning?


So MLS gets caught between serving two masters. On the one hand, MLS still craves the mainstream attention and eyeballs, and still, for as much progress as they’ve made, needs to improve attendance and television ratings, and sad to say but any advertisements plugging a game as featuring the future of soccer in America is not going to move that needle.

On the other hand, MLS is still as a significant means of progress for young players, and as an advertisement for those players to the teams they will eventually call home, and you can’t sell players that nobody sees.

So perhaps the greatest advertisement for Major League Soccer right now, at least, is that it is all things to all people. Yes, it’s still the league of the aging European star wringing out one last good payday and maybe taking it easy, but it’s also the league of young players that will eventually find their way to the biggest leagues and to the national team. It’s all things to all people, but not enough of any one thing for anyone. But, at least it’s ours.

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