First off, like my title may suggest, I think this is a bit of a stretch for the MLS to reach for. In the next 7 years, the MLS really needs to go from being a NCAA mid major to a major conference. As much as I love watching the MAC play football, they aren't going to become the SEC in the next 7 years. I think the level of play keeps improving in the MLS and in 7 years the league will be much higher quality than it is playing now, but several things need to happen for the league to make the next step to being a league that attracts the best in the world.
Part of the initiative put forth by the MLS is to get the number of teams into the MLS to 24. If you missed the post yesterday by the Marris Minute, you should check it out as it hits on this issue very well. Like Marris, for the league to reach the top tier leagues of the world I think the MLS needs to incorporate the NASL and other lower American leagues into a more incorporated system, much like the leagues in Europe. Most coaches will tell you competition breed success, and having the threat of relegation in the back of the lower teams minds will prompt teams to be less content with having a rebuilding year.
Another key step to helping the league develop would be to remove all of the complex rules surrounding the importing and development of players. The MLS is trying to walk a difficult line of being part of the worlds game, but at the same time trying to play by American sports systems. In leagues across the world. The USA requires all international players to go through an waivers type system as to who can have the player. Also, the MLS is one of the only teams in the world that has a sort of draft system. A large majority of the teams also do not have development teams, which every major league in the world has. The MLS is working on this latter problem by requiring teams to have partnerships with teams in the 3rd league, where they can have a sort of minor league system to promote from, but that said, the MLS encourages players to go play college soccer and then enter the draft, even after being developed in these teams systems. Most teams are reporting their first or second players coming through their systems this season! This is the 18th season in the league and some of the founding teams are just now developing players from their systems. Likewise, teams should be able to bring in any International players they can afford. I understand that the league wants to maintain a balanced league, but if you want to bring in the top talent in the world, you need to let them pick where they play, not scare them off by making them think they may be stuck in a city or team they have no desire to play for. I know this is harsh to say, but some players are not going to want to play in Portland or Columbus or even Indianapolis... whether it is a style issue, or the fact they want to play in a major market, if you tell a world class player he can't play where he wants... he will take his services elsewhere. Likewise, it is ridiculous to have a limit on players that can earn more than $300k on a team. The league needs to rethink these rules if it wants to be competitive on a global market.
Another area that the MLS is lacking in is the timing of its season. While they have their schedule set up so that they do not compete with the NFL, which makes a lot of sense, but they end up losing their best players most summers for international tournaments. While this doesn't hurt the recruiting of players from over seas, it lowers the quality of the players playing in the game. For the better part of 2 months, players from the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean) were involved in world cup qualifying and the CONCACAF gold cup. Some of the best players in the league were pulled off to serve their country. This looks good for the league in that players are being asked to play on the big stage, but some teams were losing 3-7 players for 2 months of the season. This lowers the quality of the play in the league (which loses casual fans) and the teams with the high talent (the ones who were losing the most players) are likely to suffering in the standings as a result. I know no league wants to compete with the NFL right now for TV time, but playing games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights when the NFL doesn't play would allow the league to play during the fall and even winter (like teams in most countries do) rather than the summer.
Like I said at the beggining, I think the MLS is making strides and becoming a more respectable league in the eyes of the world, but when the National Team coach even believes that his best players are better served overseas, you can see how far this league still has to come. Removing the complex well intended, and, honestly, a little stupid rules will help the league as a whole. Along the same lines, the league needs to invest more in its developmental system and look at its relationship, and a possible relegation system, with the lower American Leagues. Finally adjusting the schedule to match up better with the international calendar will help the quality of play in the league.
Thanks for Reading,
-T.O. signing out