I got married recently. The first stop on our honeymoon was northern California, and one crisp, mid-January morning I found myself at a wine collective in the Napa Valley. Between the swigs and the swishes, there was some chat with the young man doing the pouring. He was a soccer fan. He asked what I thought of Major League Soccer.
“I can't stand it,” he said. “It's where players go to die.”
It's 20 years since it all began but MLS remains a tough sell, and a curious place with quirks and idiosyncrasies like no other. It's single-entity, there's no promotion or relegation, salaries are capped and terms like “waivers” and “allocation money” feature far too much in a relentlessly confusing transfer system. It's very tightly wound.
My reply to my newfound Californian friend was brief.
“It's a league that still has the handbrake on,” I said.
Still, it's hard to be too damning. MLS is in its infancy and has learned a lot in just two decades of being in operation. North America had to start from scratch when the league began in 1996. It's worth reminding ourselves that, at the time, a U.S. businessman was shopping around his idea for “League 1 America” – a bizarre, radical new version of soccer designed to make the sport more accessible and entertaining. As ridiculous as that sounds, such an attitude still permeates even now among influential figures.
When I moved across the Atlantic in 2009, I worked with lifelong sports reporters in TV and radio who would passionately ridicule soccer's arrogance. At times, I genuinely felt like I was on a hidden camera show. How, they would ask me, could a soccer game end in a 0-0 tie? For the sport to ever catch on in North America, they warned, the rules would have to change.
So the league remains surrounded by a worrying and confidence-sapping ignorance to the sport. Coupled with how the NASL's demise still casts a shadow over 30 years later, MLS errs on the side of caution. It panders to lowest common denominators and fails to take big risks. Ultimately, it's caught in a no-man's land.
The strategy to lure some of the world's most high-profile names is flawed. Very rarely has the league signed any player at their peak. As a result, it's easy to criticize when expensive acquisitions are paid a fortune to go through the motions 25 times and then disappear into the night after a single season. New players don't even talk about legacy anymore because they're so aged when they arrive in MLS. We're all in on the joke. What continues to make MLS attractive to big-names is an equally big paycheque and two years in the sun. Even the idle (idol?) chat about trying to grow the league and having a wider impact is no more.
MLS is very much complicit in this. In 2014, they were willing participants in a humiliating debacle regarding Frank Lampard's non-signing signing for New York City FC. The league spectacularly celebrated his arrival but it was all faked. They knew he'd actually spend the following season playing for Manchester City in the Premier League and would only join NYC in the summer of 2015. The whole sorry saga showed the league up for being lowly, two-bit and desperate.
More recently, fading former England star Ashley Cole had his contract terminated early by Serie A side Roma when he failed to take a hint and leave of his own accord. With the 35-year-old failing to see the wood for the trees, he was offered a golden ticket by the Golden State: a nice 'n' easy retirement package by the LA Galaxy. Roma were so desperate to get him out of their club that they'll still pay the majority of his salary.
Of course, many look upon the deal as great business by MLS and the Galaxy – getting a player of Cole's calibre for very little expenditure. But the cost is never only financial.
When signing for Roma in 2014, Cole revealed why he had turned down offers from MLS teams.
“I'm not ready to give up and just enjoy the life and sit on a beach and play,” he said.
When he was unveiled by the Galaxy, Cole blatantly lied and said the comments were taken out of context.
Actually, what he said was that his words were “taken out of content” but we'll forgive Cole's linguistic shortcomings. We'll just link to the actual Roma interview instead.
These are backward steps. Earlier this week, Robbie Keane revealed Premier League players were “desperate” to come to MLS.
“They can see how much the league has grown and because of the lifestyle as well,” he said.
Not true. They can see that MLS is the league that hands out massive salaries to players who are past their best.
In the Premier League, it's normal practice for those over 30 to be awarded one-year extensions to their contracts each season. In contrast, MLS preys upon the veterans and dishes out lucrative deals.
Kaka, who turns 34 next month, rakes in over $7 million per year. Lampard, who's 38 in June, gets $6 million while 35-year-old Steven Gerrard earned $6.33 million in his first campaign.
There's minimal return on such wild, controlled investment.
And this is becoming an issue for MLS now.
Chinese soccer is booming, though it's a country-wide and state-managed investment. There is collective interest, and high-profile names are being enticed to all corners of the domestic market.
Money is not an issue and, of greatest concern for MLS, the Chinese Super League is signing the most sought-after talent at their peak.
Players like Alex Teixeira have gone from being linked with lucrative Premier League moves to joining Jiangsu Suning – China’s ninth best team in 2015. Can you imagine him agreeing to a deal with D.C. United or Sporting Kansas City? If Liverpool and Chelsea are struggling to compete financially with the No. 9 team in China, MLS has no hope, especially considering how the league is structured and how each franchise has such limited power.
So, 20 years on from its inception, where is MLS? Well, it's safe. It's nice. It's pleasant. But what's the end goal? There's been constant talk of it becoming one of the best leagues in the world by 2022. But what defines a “best league”? Attendances? Quality? Players? None of that. It's interest. And by playing it safe so often, the league is in danger of blending into the background.
It's time to take that handbrake off.