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.