Normally, in this space, I would be writing about English soccer. But today I want to write about American soccer, and in particular the ongoing downfall of it.
Wait, downfall of American soccer? How can this be? Everybody knows that soccer is booming in America!
In many ways, it is. Just check any media outlet, and they’ll tell you: attendance, revenue, TV ratings, all up. But in the ways I care about it, it is falling apart.
Here’s what I care about: competitiveness, balance, fairness, parity, the fans, and the rule of law. Here’s what MLS, the TV networks, advertisers and players care about: money.
Obviously, money is what this whole Gerrard-to-LA thing is all about. Getting paid as much as you can, and playing for a winner, is like dating the prettiest girl you can, or bagging the richest guy you can, or flying first class if you can; wanting more is human nature. So it makes perfect sense, in today’s world, that a sought-after player like Gerrard goes where he can win and make the most money.
So what am I complaining about? Well, for one thing, you can go ahead and leave the MLS Cup in LA for at least two more years. And I hate dynasties. I also hate LA, because I love the Timbers, and I really hate the Seattle Sounders. But we’ll get to them.
When I say “falling apart,” here’s what I mean.
Who Has a Chance to Win?
There are two fundamental differences between how the big American sports — football, baseball, basketball and hockey — are organized, and how the world of soccer is organized. One is that we have franchises, so when you buy into the NFL, you stay there, no matter how shitty you are. In fact, in the NBA they reward failure by giving the shitty teams the best draft picks (see “tanking.”) The soccer world has promotion and relegation, which means the shitty teams have to drop down a level for the next season, then earn their way back with results.
I actually dislike that aspect of American sports, but we’re off topic here. The great contribution, in my opinion, of American sports to the world, other than that spray foam for free kicks, is the salary cap. And that is what is dying in the MLS.
What a Real Salary Cap Gives You
A salary cap just means that the total amount of money you pay your players in salary each season is capped. In the NFL, you cannot go over it, period. In baseball and basketball, you can go over it, but you have to pay dearly. These rules are clearly and fairly enforced, to the point that the league has final approval over every trade and every contract. If it doesn’t work with the cap, it doesn’t happen. End of story.
And what has been the result of this? Other than the rule of law, transparency, and fairness, we have also had unbelievable parity and competitiveness.
Over the last 20 years, here are how many champions each American league has had:
NFL: Seattle, Baltimore (twice), New York (twice), Green Bay (twice), New Orleans, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh (twice), New England (three times), Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Denver (twice), Dallas, San Francisco. That is 13 teams to win the title in 20 years.
Baseball: San Francisco (three times), Boston (three times), St. Louis (twice), New York Yankees (five times), Philadelphia, Chicago White Sox, Florida (twice), Anaheim, Arizona, Atlanta. That’s 11 different teams.
NBA: San Antonio (five times), Miami (three times), Dallas, LA Lakers (five times), Boston, Detroit, Houston, Chicago (three times). That’s eight different teams. And I’d like to point out, while we’re here, that Chicago won its three and LA its five because they happened to draft Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Hockey: Who cares? Okay, sorry. Los Angeles (twice), Chicago (twice), Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit (four times), Anaheim, Carolina, Tampa Bay, New Jersey (three times), Colorado (twice), Dallas, New York. That would be 12 teams.
And Now, the Alternative
Now let’s look at a world where there is no salary cap: basically, every other place in the world. And we’ll focus on the top domestic soccer league in the biggest European countries. I know this is culturally biased, but all the money is in Europe, and this post is about money.
England: Blackburn (no, really), Manchester United (11 times), Arsenal (three times), Chelsea (three times), Manchester City (twice). So, tossing out the one Blackburn win in 1995, that would be four teams to ever win the title in 20 years. Now, want to guess the top three teams in the league right now? Here you go.
Spain: Real Madrid (seven times), Atletico Madrid (twice), Barcelona (eight times), Deportivo La Coruna, Valencia (twice). That’s five different teams, but for 12 of the last 13 years only Real or Barcelona won it. In all but one of those years, they finished 1-2. Again, see if you can guess the current top three.
Italy: Milan (five times), Juventus (eight times), Lazio, Roma, Inter (five times). That’s five teams, two of them only once. Your current leader? Eight-time champ Juventus.
Germany: Borussia Dortmund (five times), Bayern Munich (11 times), FC Kaiserslautern, Werder Bremen, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg. A total of six teams, but four of them only once. Otherwise, if you ain’t Bayern or Dortmund, you’re playing for third. Current leader? Bayern, going away.
What is my Point?
Before we get there, take another look at the list of cities winning more than one title in Europe: Manchester, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Turino, Munich, Dortmund. See the pattern? Really big places. As opposed to the US, where cities like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, and Denver all have multiple championships.
The bottom line is, well, the bottom line: If you don’t have some kind of system in place to provide parity, then the players, and the championships, go where the money is — and they go to the big cities.
What MLS Could Have Been
When MLS got started, it had a salary cap, and the result was six different champs in 10 years. Then this guy named David Beckham decided to come to MLS — but not just to MLS. To Los Angeles. The problem was, LA was at their salary cap, and anyway, it would take more than the whole damn league’s cap to pay David Beckham. So MLS changed the rules and allowed a Designated Player per team — somebody you could pay as much as you want. They changed the rules so Beckham could go to LA.
Now there are three Designated Players per team, and for obvious reasons: MLS knows it needs stars. But stars like Beckham or Gerrard or Thierry Henry don’t want to play in Columbus or San Jose or Portland. They want to play in New York, LA or Toronto. And they want the money. So the league makes sure that’s where they wind up.
Note: After Beckham landed in LA, the Galaxy have played in five of the last eight MLS Cups, winning three. And now they have Gerrard.
Second Note: I realize that, had the salary cap been kept, Beckham et al would never have come here. And maybe MLS would have suffered for that. So I understand the motivation for it. I just want to point out where we’re headed with this.
Americans Coming Home
There is another issue here, with regard to fair play and transparency, and it has to do with American national players coming back to MLS. The way it’s supposed to work is that teams get first shot at these guys, based on last year’s results. Unless, of course, money is involved and the league wants something else. This is what happened when Clint Dempsey decided to come back to the US, but he made it clear he would only play in LA, Toronto, or Seattle. According to published reports, the league “convinced” Toronto it was “in everyone’s best interest” to not have Dempsey playing in Canada, and even MLS realized the negative PR that would result from Dempsey landing in LA. So, Seattle it was (their GM actually found out about it from the league), and the league made it easier by paying the $11 million it took to get him here. Nice of them.
Problem was, according to the rules of the time, Dempsey was supposed to go to … my beloved Portland. But he didn’t want to. And the league wanted him, plus they wanted him in a big market, so, … Seattle got him.
Where Is MLS Headed?
Obviously, if you’re a Galaxy fan, lucky you. Same for Seattle. And now we have New York FC coming in, with Manchester City money buying Frank Lampard and David Villa. Sure, these guys are past their prime, but are they better than almost everybody else in MLS? And where are they winding up? Columbus, San Jose or Portland? Hardly.
MLS is clearly giving up on the ideas of parity and the salary cap – because money talks. And so MLS is becoming more and more like the rest of the soccer world. Financially, that will work out well for them: star players winning titles in big markets always leads to good TV ratings. And I will remain a fan of the Timbers, whether they win or not. And I’ll always hate Seattle, even more so since the Dempsey deal.
But ask yourself this: Would you rather watch a league where only a few teams in big cities have any chance of winning the title, or one where the size of the city and payroll don’t matter? Why do you think the NFL is so popular? Could it be because everybody believes they can win? Setting aside your sports preferences, would you rather be a Denver Broncos fan, seeing your team play for a title once or twice every 10 years, or a Newcastle United fan, knowing you will never in a million years win the league?
If 90% of the teams will never win a title, and the system is stacked against them ever doing so, then what are they playing for?