MLS: Making Little Soccer players? Not yet

The Major League Soccer “State of the League” conference call was predictably professional yesterday. The reporters asked legit questions, something we still don’t quite get in MMA calls. Commissioner Don Garber spoke at length about everything, only occasionally needing correction or clarification from the sharp PR crew next to him.

And the answers were mostly logical:

– Expansion to the South is a great idea, but the prospective groups need stadiums.

– Competition rules aren’t changing much. (Alas for my Page playoff system. We’ll break through one day.)

– David Beckham was great for MLS, but the league is ready to move on without him. (I don’t get the fretting over Beckham’s departure. He seemed more like an afterthought this season than a huge attendance-driver. It’s hard to quantify that, though — the Galaxy’s road attendance was immense, but some of those games were special events, and some were “road” games against Chivas USA.)

– The stadium situation in D.C. seems much better than it did a year ago. I don’t recall hearing the word “Baltimore” on the call this time around.

A couple of things were clarified, including the Beckham Future. He has an option for team ownership at some point, but it can’t be in New York. That would seem to throw a lot of cold water on the Beckham-to-Cosmos rumor, at least in terms of Beckham being a player-owner there.

The pursuit of a second team in New York is clearly irritating a lot of MLS fans and journalists, but Garber stands by it.

So that gets us to one issue that came up in a couple of questions: Youth development.

MLS is spending a lot of money on academies now — Garber tossed out the figure of $20 million, though it’s not quite clear what that entails. Where MLS once had a handful of associated teams playing in top youth leagues, they now have teams playing a full year-round schedule in the Development Academy against all the clubs that build powerhouses up through U18 and then abruptly stop playing. (Quick aside: Does any other country have youth-only clubs that develop international-quality talent? Or is that only an American thing?)

But a lot of the academy alumni come up through the ranks, sit a couple of years on an MLS bench, and quietly disappear. Bill Hamid, Andy Najar and Juan Agudelo are exceptions.

What’s going wrong? How can it be fixed? Yesterday’s call brought up two possible solutions:

1. Require teams to play young players a certain percentage of the time. That started a nice Twitter debate:

I’m with Jeff. It’s one thing to limit the number of international players on a team, as MLS currently does. It’s another to make a coach think about minutes for young players when filling out a lineup. This isn’t U9, where coaches like me carefully track everyone’s time to make sure everyone’s playing enough.

And what’s the biggest complaint about MLS? (If you said “no promotion and relegation,” please put your hand down.) It’s quality of play. Wouldn’t the quality suffer even more if coaches are forced to trot out players who aren’t ready?

2. Some sort of unspecified deal with the lower divisions to give reserve teams more time on the field.

Ding ding ding ding.

It seems pretty obvious, really. The academy teams are playing roughly 30 games a season (though with their giant rosters, some players may get a bit less than that), and then the players that skip college to go to an MLS reserve team play … 10 games?

For once, what’s done in “the rest of the world” (a few parts of it, anyway) makes perfect sense for MLS. If there’s a compelling reason to keep MLS reserve teams out of the NASL or USL Pro, I’d like to hear it. And not from someone who’s just defending someone’s turf in the endlessly frustrating in-fighting that has held back the game for so long.

Getting a suitable stadium site in sprawling, traffic-choked Atlanta may not be easy. Getting 20-year-old MLS players more games is far easier.


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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

6 thoughts on “MLS: Making Little Soccer players? Not yet”

  1. “Getting a suitable stadium site in sprawling, traffic-choked Atlanta may not be easy. Getting 20-year-old MLS players more games is far easier.”

    …really? You say that right after mentioning the endlessly frustrating in-fighting?;)

    I have to say, after watching lower division soccer for around 20 years, I’m not sure which of the two would be easier. But I’m not privy to the details of development politics in Atlanta.

    Still the rumors that have been floating around give me hope that it will happen. The new women’s league happened despite some of those same parties wrestling over that much smaller pie. Here’s hoping we’ll get to see MLS reserve teams in USLPRO or the NASL. I’d love to see some games down this way.

  2. Again with regards to Beckham…

    What MLS got when they signed him was instant media attention and credibility in the USA, “celebrityhood” or whatever, especially important in a place like Los Angeles; something no player in MLS had before signing him and no other player iin MLS currently possesses.

    You can go on about stadiums built and the attendance in Seattle, but you need those players with that intangible “charisma” to be truly “Major League” in these United States.

    Examples are Joe Namath in the old AFL or Michael Jordan in the NBA (it is amazing how NBA Finals ratings went to record highs during his career and then crashed to record lows within a few years of his (second) retirement.).

  3. This might be tough for me to say since I live in the Washington area, but I think there was more hype for Jordan in his years between retirements than there was for Beckham in 2012. Multiple sites, including mine, tracked Jordan’s stats every game. I don’t see people doing that for Beckham, nor have I seen much written about him this year. His impact on attendance is surely several levels below what it was in 2007.

    Personally, I’d rather see Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane. Or maybe De Ro or a healthy Chris Pontius. Or Javier Morales.

    Landon’s name came up once or twice, but it’s older news. And I think a lot of people have given up trying to speculate on what he’s going to do. Garber said he would talk with Landon, and there’s really nothing else to ask.

  4. Michael Jordan was probably a bad example. Joe Namath fits the bill a little better but he was something from the 1960’s and early 1970’s,

    I thought Beckham in Los Angeles was a masterstroke for MLS. I don’t know how much they paid for his services but he was worth it. Not so much for his diminished soccer skills but more for the media attention he drew to MLS particularly in Los Angeles. The deal could have gone real bad for MLS, but I think it worked out as well as could have been hoped.

    Beckham in Los Angeles got played up as this British celebrity and his “Spice Girl” wife leaving London and Europe to live in Los Angeles. Back in the ancient times of the 1960’s they would have been thought of as a “jet set” glamour couple. This was treated as evidence of Los Angeles status as a “World Class” city on a par with New York and London in the Los Angeles media.

  5. “(Quick aside: Does any other country have youth-only clubs that develop international-quality talent? Or is that only an American thing?)”

    They have some of these in Brazil, and I think there are some on other places. The big difference is that everywhere else I’ve seen them, these clubs, even though they’re really just youth clubs, still sign players to development contracts so that they get a fee when the player is signed by a pro club.

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