BY PATRICK MacDONALD
So did you hear? Monterrey repeated as CONCACAF Champions, defeating Santos Laguna 3-2 on aggregate in the third all Mexico final since the Champions League adopted its current format. Despite Santos Laguna featuring one of the United States’ hottest players, Herculez Gomez, you’d be hard pressed to find a whole lot of excitement surrounding the championship among American fans.
Unlike last year where Real Salt Lake made a run to the final, American fans did not have a particularly strong rooting interest without an MLS representative. This past Champions League was yet another missed opportunity for MLS to capitalize on the growing soccer interest in the United States; an interest that could very quickly turn to apathy, if the league doesn’t make some changes.
Soccer fandom is increasing rapidly in the U.S. However, the jerseys worn by American fans often have the names Rooney, Ronaldo, or Messi emblazoned on the back as opposed to Shea, Wondolowski and Kamara. Fans in America recognize that soccer is an exciting sport to watch. They also realize that it’s a hell of a lot more exciting to watch in other countries. The play in MLS isn’t crap, but with a $2.81 million cap in 2012, the investment is sorely lacking.
MLS has combated the notion that it is a minor league by, in part, staging it’s All Star game against top squads from Europe. They’ve also had European teams in to play summer friendlies during Europe’s preseason. Many of those matches featured the MLS sides holding their own or even snagging a few victories. However, fans are starting to see through the facade when it comes to these mid summer tilts. The European squads are in preseason form and often trot out B or B+ teams. These ploys are no longer working for MLS.
MLS Commisioner Don Garber has repeatedly stated that by 2022, he wants MLS to be a top league in the world. It’s already seventh in terms of attendance. MLS needs to capitalize on this interest sooner, rather than later and that means its time to start taking the training wheels off.
The baby-steps this league has taken have allowed it to grow at steady pace without great risk of failure. The league has treated the NASL as a great cautionary tale. Expand too fast, loosen the restraints, and the league is destined to fail.
MLS has applied the NASL expansion lessons well, expanding steadily with each new team debuting with greater excitement than the one before. However, they’ve been far too cautious when it comes to loosening the financial restraints. Sure, the league pats itself on the back every time it makes an amendment to the designated player rule, but what it really needs to do is expand the salary cap. Allow for the teams to sign players of higher quality and improve their bench.
The New York Cosmos and their spendthrift ways are held up as the grand example as to why opening up the checkbook could kill MLS. However, that notion is out of context when one considers that the Cosmos were worth nearly a billion dollars in 2012 money. Expanding the cap to $5 or even $10 million would allow for a vast improvement in talent acquisition while keeping costs modest. The current fans deserve to be rewarded for their loyalty and MLS needs a product that will cause American fans to stop looking overseas for their soccer fix.
This brings us back to the CONCACAF Champions League. MLS teams need to start making regular appearances in the Final and they need to start winning. Proving MLS is a force to be reckoned with starts with beating it’s immediate rival south of the border. This is a goal that’s possible even with modest budget increases. MLS squads have proven in competition that they’re capable of the upset over Mexican squads. All they need is that extra little push. If MLS wants to be a top league in ten years, it better start beating Mexico within five.
Producing a quality product that pays dividends requires investment and risk. The quicker the league realizes that, the better off they’ll be. With television contracts in place ensuring a stable immediate future, it’s time for MLS to take some chances. The rewards are there for the taking.