A Bridge Too Far?
Don Garber’s comments this week in a meeting with journalists indicated that the league will be aggressively working to improve the quality of its product. But at what cost to the development of the American player will this be achieved?
Garber has stated the league is seriously considering adding another DP slot per team and more foreign player spots. I find this particularly disturbing considering most MLS teams have not used their first DP spot, and have continued the fiscal prudence that brought the league to this point.
The reason MLS is still in business and thriving in some markets is the smart but tough decisions the league made after ousting Doug Logan and Sunil Gulati both of whom had made signing marquee foreign players a priority. Don Garber led this turnaround on a slimmer, less formidable MLS from a playing standpoint, but a smarter MLS from a fiscal perspective.
I’ve often argued MLS’ top teams were better in 1999 than they are in 2009. But I have NEVER argued once that MLS was in better business shape ten years ago then today. MLS’ decision in the 2002 to 2006 time period to focus on home grown talent, while limiting expansion and foreign player signings reaped immense financial benefits. The shrewd management of Garber and Ivan Gazidis also yielded MLS for the first time a TV rights fee from a major network and its first ever profitable franchises.
Secondly, adding more foreign players in a domestic league may be great for the league’s business but it is not great for the US National Team. MLS was after all founded by Alan Rothenberg to promote the AMERICAN player and the AMERICAN game.
Two examples of this are front and center: Mexico and England. Mexico’s Primera Division is the best league in the Americas as far as competitiveness, and quality. But Mexico’s top teams, save Chivas of Guadalajara have become addicted to foreign players. As Atlante closes in on the CONCACAF Champions League title, they could become the third successive side from Mexico to win the Continental title with foreign players filling most of the key roles on the side.
Mexico’s National Team at the same time has hit its worst patch since perhaps the early 1980s before the FMF was substantially reformed. El Tri has now even had to depend on naturalizing foreign players, something the US needed to do in the early and mid 1990s but has since avoided because we have developed our own excellent developmental infrastructure.
England’s problems speak for itself. In 1990, England’s clubs were just finishing a ban on European competition and the league itself was beset by problems of hooliganism. Some of England’s best players ditched the domestic league to play in Scotland or in Europe. Yet England had its best World Cup that was not held on English soil that year with a team made up largely of players developed at home as English football assessed itself internally and improved its national team.
But now with England’s league the most popular on the planet, and filled with foreign players, the Three Lions have struggled of late. It’s been so bad that England has had to often field players in a starting XI that do not feature for their club sides.
Is this really what we want to happen to our national team? MLS has been a important boon to our national team now for years, but its effectiveness developing players and feeding the national team player pool has already been affected by the jump to eight senior internationals two seasons ago in MLS and will continue to be detrimentally affected by an invasion of foreign players.
MLS needs to decide if it wants to be a global player in football or a good development league for American talent. I don’t think it can do both. If MLS wants to be top worldwide league, the salary cap will have to be eliminated, squad limits obliterated while transfer fees paid by the league for players reach into the billions.
Or MLS can return to its course of 2002-2006. Phase out the Designated Player rule, refocus on the American player, and reign in expansion.
Two divergent courses which cannot in my mind be reconciled. I know what my choice is, but ultimately it is up to Don Garber and the owners/investors in MLS to make the right choice.