Formatting MLS, Part 4: Global Tradition, American Appeal

The debate between the so-dubiously-called “Euro-snobs” and the more “nationalistic” American soccer fans has created a clash of philosophies about the sport. Should we become more like Europe and adopt the Old World system of the game completely, or should we build our own version within the framework of the IFAB-approved rule set? The funny thing about this conflict is that it has existed since the first foray by America into the realm of a professional soccer league.

The era of professional soccer in America did not kick off with the North American Soccer League in 1968, as might be commonly believed. In actuality, there existed two precursors to the NASL — the United Soccer Association, and the National Professional Soccer League, both founded in 1966 and playing their only seasons in 1967. These two leagues eventually merged after their one and only seasons to form the NASL in 1968. For time’s sake, you can read about all three of these leagues by visiting the linked wiki entries above.

What set these leagues apart from the rest of the world’s leagues were the rules they adopted. In order to successfully appeal to a country without solid soccer lineage, America’s first leagues offered modified rules in some capacity or another to the following facets of the game:  a countdown clock like other timed American sports; an offside line at 35 yards instead of half field; shootouts to avoid draws; a year-end playoff format to decide the league champion; and a league-wide draft for college players. Many of these rules have arguably been used as reasons for the demise of the USA, NPSL, and NASL; rightly or wrongly so.

When MLS was erected in 1993 ahead of the US-hosted 1994 World Cup, administrators of the newly-formed league took a couple of odd steps in their infancy. While the creation of a single-entity structure (a la the franchise systems of other American sports) was put into place to guard against some of the financial situations that festered throughout the old NASL days, the League opted for many of the yester-year rule modifications. Among the resurrected changes were the countdown clock, the shootout, playoffs, and the college draft. On top of the three normal substitutions that IFAB allows, MLS teams were also awarded a “goalkeeper-only” substitution.

Why MLS chose to go this route immediately from inception I have no clue. Maybe it was to “bridge the gap” between the old and new. Indeed, most of these rules were phased out by the 2000 season (the fifth year of existence), with the progressive clock replacing the countdown clock as well as the shootout being abolished after the 1999 season. A “golden goal” extra time period was used in the interim until 2005 when MLS adopted complete IFAB rules. The goalkeeper-only sub was relinquished after 2003.

While the NASL and its predecessors used these modified rules to appeal directly to an American public that both needed a rule set that was in the context of their other sports but also to present a very  new and unfamiliar game to the populous at large, MLS needed none of these. By 1993, the US and Canada were well on their way to nursing the fledgling soccer players in their youth programs who had been playing nearly all their lives. Both countries’ national teams were developing into quality sides (with arguably much room to improve), and US stood poised to welcome the entire soccer world into their lives the following year at United States 1994. This was not the same market as before. We were infinitely interested in this game; we were well-informed of the rules the world played by; and we welcomed it with open arms.

It’s my belief that which way the clock counted, or not ending games in tied scores would’ve ended one way or another. I cannot see how the early administration logically thought these modified rules would last more than five years in a market that had spent the last decade or more adopting the beauty of the game from the rest of the world. Whatever reason MLS chose to kick off with these alternative rules, it matters not. MLS is an IFAB-following league in 2012; and has been since 2005.

But two hold-outs of this American soccer tradition remain:  playoffs and the college draft. While how we handle both topics are critical to the success of the league, my focus here will be on the former. How the college draft should fit into MLS will be a topic for a future article.

The former of these hold-outs may be the biggest difference between American soccer and most of the rest of the world, especially today. It is not a rule, per se, but a format for competition. Its effect is not only how the league champion is awarded, but what aspect of the game is deserving of the most emphasis:  the 30-some odd games that constitute a “season”, or a year-end playoffs that constitute a “champion”.

Playoffs are apart of every American sport. In fact, I would go so far as to say that (to Americans) it’s the crux of the entire competition for an entire season. While fans attend individual regular season games, and while those regular season games provide the overwhelming bulk of games played during the course of the year, no American sports fan would disagree that the “real” competition starts in the post-season. Seemingly defying logic, people will argue that it doesn’t matter what happens in those first 16, 34, 84, or 146 games… it’s what happens in the last one, two, or four games.

From this rationale, we’ve forged the mentality of “Playoff Hockey”, “The Big Game”, “March Madness”, best-of-seven series, do-or-die matches, and an incessant desire to format any other non-sport competition into some sort of knock-out game. And rightly so. No sports fan in any country can deny the energy of two powerhouses colliding with only one of them moving on to inch ever-closer to a title. If you disagree, you apparently don’t follow your region’s champion’s league tournament… or watch the Olympics or the World Cup. Indeed, look at the closing day kerfuffle in the English Premier League last year which saw Manchester City win with two last minute goals and clinch their first title in 44 years while simultaneously Manchester United fans watched in horror as their championship hopes were dashed to bits. This is the playoff excitement that Americans crave.

This is undoubtedly a paradox. If a regular season decides who enters the race to become champion, then isn’t the regular season just as important as the playoffs? Chicken, meet Egg. But, nay!, says the American sports fan! Those countless games that we attend every year (sometimes all of them) are meaningless once the post-season starts. We worry about what’s directly in front of us, and right now it’s the playoffs!

Now, to be fair, MLS is not the only soccer league to have a playoff format to decide a league champion. Mexico’s Liga MX has had its la liguilla since 1970, Australia’s A-League has its Finals Series, and even Argentina’s Primera Division has a pseudo-playoff between its Inicial and Final winners to contest the league title.

Additionally, I believe it’d be difficult to argue against playoffs being a key component of the sport in general. In fact, I would argue that playoffs (by another name) has always been integral to the sport of soccer, and this is especially true since the international game first kicked off.

I say this because the very format of every regional and global competition for the last 80-odd years has been the knockout style tournament. Every soccer fan knows the basic concept of a tournament. Briefly, it requires a pool of teams to play a round-robin series with the winner (and maybe the runner-up) to move on from the pool to the next round. Whether this is done in groups of 3, 4, 6, or more teams; whether this is a home-and-home format; whether this is a quick semi-final/final or quarters/semi/final progression… the truth is that a tournament equates to playoffs. The crux of both of these terms is that the duration of the competition is played over a relatively short amount of time (usually a month or two) with a very high probability of teams being eliminated relatively early. The knockout style is key to the clinical nature of the event because it produces winner’s in a very short amount of time.

Every single confederation under FIFA uses some type of tournament to decide both club and national titles. And the pinnacle of soccer trophies, the World Cup (and all its preliminary qualifying rounds), is played this way. Could you imagine if these tournaments were played in a format other than knockout-style? That all 200+ countries (and all of its subsequent clubs) played in a season of home-and-home matches that essentially echoed how many other leagues around the world determine their champions? That is, a “single table” model with even games between teams and the winner at the end takes home the crown. This is a preposterous idea, and to say that soccer should be played in this way regardless of what kind of competition is being played or what part of the world it is played in is just as asinine as Sepp Blatter saying that no league should have more than 16 or 18 teams. It’s a blanket statement, and it leaves many places, people, and events in its margins.

From this, I reach the conclusion that knockout-style competition (whether it’s called a tournament or a playoff) is part of the world game on virtually every level. This is not an American-originated idea, nor is it unique to the American sports scene. Thus I maintain that the American appeal of the knockout-style format and the emphasis that is placed on it is all the better in our neck of the world. It not only has a crucial presence in our history of the sport, but adds much excitement to the end result of the game.

So, the aforementioned battle American soccer fans fight is this:  which aspect of the year-long campaign do we place the most emphasis?

Because playoffs force us to award a champion that is not necessarily the same as the winner of the regular season, it can be (and, in fact, it is) extremely easy to overlook one in lieu of the other. The common debate amongst MLS fans now is how much clout the Supporter’s Shield (regular season champion) winner holds over the MLS Cup (playoff champion) winner. One side contends that a playoff is the best way of ensuring the best clubs have a shot at winning a championship while allowing for a certain amount of “Cinderella-ness” for a bottom seed to steal the title. The other side argues that playoffs highlight only teams that peak at the right time, namely during playoffs, and that consistency over the course of a season is a better gauge of which team is the best. They point to Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids in the 2009 and 2010 seasons as examples of this (both were bottom seeds that barely sneaked into the playoffs.

This debate has been re-ignited in 2012 with the return of an unbalanced schedule. And certain personalities like Jason Kreis have made comments detracting from the importance of winning the Supporter’s Shield.

Currently, both MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shield winners have a common incentive:  a berth into the CONCACAF Champions League. This competition, especially in the last two years, has garnered more support among MLS clubs. It seems as though everyone is gunning to knock off the perennial favorite Mexican sides for a chance to play in the FIFA Club World Cup. Some analysts propose giving even more incentive to the Supporter’s Shield winner. But regardless of which side you argue for, the basic problem is that lack of emphasis on each aspect of the game. Each deserves attention, but for very different reasons.

Consistency over the long-haul needs to be rewarded. But there is no doubt that the excitement from the playoffs is great for business and for fans that enjoy do-or-die situations. Is there room for both of these to have equal standing in the world of MLS, and if so how do we go about doing it?

Before we get to how playoffs and the regular season should be formatted (which will be the subject of Part 5:  The General Plan), there is one last thing about American soccer that differs from much of the world that I have yet to touch on.

The timing of the season.

While this may not seem like a big to-do to the casual follower or layman, the placement of the MLS season (ie, when it begins, when it ends, and how long it takes to play) has been a thorn in the side of many people over the years.  Many commentators and administrators have been vocal about the subject, especially recently, and are not short for words to lay out their argument. Last fall, FIFA president (and blabber mouth) Sepp Blatter called for MLS to adopt the “FIFA schedule” of August through May. This past January at the annual NSCAA conference in Kansas City, out-spoken pundit and former US National Team star Eric Wynalda gave a very vehement speech regarding the state of MLS as he sees it. Not the least of his points was aligning the schedule according to FIFA. And finally, as of February of 2012, USSF has altered its US Youth Development Program season to follow a 10-month schedule between September and June, which starts for the 2012-2013 season.

The key reasons for suggesting a change in season is a matter of synchronizing the league calendar with major events in the regional and world calendars. The two notable events to speak about are the World Cup (held during the month of June), and the CONCACAF Champions League (kicking off in early August with the group rounds, and concluding with the knockout stages in March after a break). And, to a lesser extent, the various events of the international calendar for the national teams usually kicks off during August as well, as is witnessed by the US Men’s National Team World Cup qualifiers taking place now.

Currently, MLS follows a March through October schedule with three rounds of playoffs in November and the MLS Cup Final the first week of December. But, despite what many of the higher-ups suggest, not all of the world leagues follow the FIFA alignment. The chart below shows the same leagues we’ve looked at in the past two articles. While most of them do follow the FIFA recommendation, some (including Japan and Brazil) do not.

* All data is referenced to respective 2012 or 2012/2013 seasons.

It’s true that countries like Brazil and Australia follow an adjusted season based on the fact that our summer is their winter (southern hemisphere and all…), but it’s key to note that Argentina (another southern hemisphere country) follows a slightly modified FIFA schedule of early August thru late June. The Japanese J League plays a similar season to MLS (March to December), and the Australian A-League (which has only 10 teams and 135 total league games per season) plays an October thru March schedule.

One other thing to note from the data above:  the extreme disparity in the figures of number of match days per season and the number of total games played per season between the various leagues and MLS. Only Liga MX has as many match days per season as MLS, while MLS has one of the shorter seasons in terms of weeks played of any of the top leagues.

These two things suggest to me a few things. One, that the complaints from many around MLS about “traveling woes” and “congested schedules” (which, among many places, can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here) may either be misguided and/or unfounded when compared to what the rest of the world faces.

Two, that perhaps the length of the MLS season is too short considering that most other leagues play a month or month and a half longer. CCL competitions started almost a full month before MLS regular season games did in 2012, and there may be room for adjusting the schedule accordingly.

Finally, the figures for total match days per season is a glaring window into what I think is one of the biggest issues regarding the scheduling of MLS games. This is two-fold. Firstly, I believe it shows that MLS is still looking to find the least-competitive match days in which to schedule games as to not go directly head-to-head with other American sports leagues like the NFL (which typically plays on Sundays, Mondays, and now Thursdays).

Additionally, it reveals that the MLS season rarely has a full slate of games on any given day (where all, or darn near all, teams are playing on a single day). This is in contrast to leagues like the EPL, Serie A, and especially La Liga and the Bundesliga, all of which play, on average, over six games per match day. Japan, highest number of games per match day of all those listed above, comes in at 7.5. The average games per match day is 5.0. Compare all this to MLS’ hapless figure of 3.3. Only two other leagues in the above list have a lower volume of games:  Liga MX at 3.2, and the A-League at 1.7. (If you’re curious, you can find out any of these figures yourself by dividing the total number of games by number of match days). Congestion in the schedule may need to be looked at differently now.

What sort of conclusion can we draw from all of this in regards to the placement of the MLS season in the calendar year? When you put it in perspective of the last two articles in this series (Logistics and Market Saturation), it seems to me that one of the biggest detriments to the MLS schedule is the sheer amount of time spent on travel that is necessary to compose an entire season. Not all clubs can be within an hour or two flight (or drive) from everyone else in the league. Traversing those great divides wears on players in ways that can’t be fully measured. Jet lag, the uncomfortable feeling of being on a commercial airline (chartered flights are conditionally restricted in MLS), trying to mentally prepare after a 1,000 mile trip, and then the return trip to do it all over again. American sports are the worst in this regard. But I find it hard to believe that the rigors of travel need to be this intense.

Additionally, the conflicts with international competition (ie, World Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, etc) essentially means that MLS is putting their international players in a position to have to choose between club and country more often than in other leagues. Usually a player chooses his country, but at the expense of his club. Until the depth of talent in the league is such that international call-ups have virtually no effect on teams missing key players, the fact will remain that the league compromises its purpose during international competition.

In the same vein, the staging of the CCL season sets up US and Canadian teams to fail based on the fact that the teams qualifying for the next rendition of the tournament are decided a full nine months before that tournament is set to take place. For example, should the San Jose Earthquakes win the Supporter’s Shield in 2012 (thus securing a spot in the 2013/2014 CONCACAF Champions League), they would play virtually two thirds of the next MLS season before entering the international event. Nine months is a long time in soccer. It’s literally a season depending on where you place it within a year. Asking the best teams in the league to try to hold a roster together not only through an off-season, but through the majority of the next season and still perform at the top of their game for CCL is insanity. Contracts can and do expire. Performance dips. New travel woes are dealt with. And other foreign clubs in the tournament are geared for a fresh start to a season instead of being in the mindset of winding down a campaign with a final push for a title or playoff run.

As more and more MLS squads begin to take Champions League seriously, changes need to happen to accommodate these events. Dually for the World Cup. It’s not a far reach to suspect that the MLS schedule affected the final decision for FIFA to not award the 2018 or 2022 World Cups to the United States. Even if this wasn’t the case, there’s no reason to doubt that it couldn’t be used against the country in the future.

Eric Wynalda made some very good points during his NSCAA speech about why MLS should adopt the international calendar. The same arguments against a schedule change can always be made:  freezing weather in the wintery northern cities; competing against other American sports like football; and even aligning it to the NCAA soccer season for draft purposes. But these don’t really refute the advantages of making the change.

Moreover, all the status quo arguments can be countered with like-minded antitheses:  100+ temps and intense humidity in the southern cities during the summer; competing against the entirety of the MLB season, the NBA and NHL Finals when MLS is just getting started, and the bulk of the NFL season when MLS is climaxing to its Final; and the use of an off-tilt, non-IFAB-playing organization like the NCAA men’s soccer league.

Changes can be made, regardless of the opposing arguments and the nay-sayers. Indeed, they must be made if MLS ever wants to position itself to steal a piece of the soccer pie (so to speak) from the top leagues of the world. If what Don Garber says about wanting to be among the best leagues in the world from a quality perspective, then affording MLS players the same advantages of the predominantly European leagues in relation to the international calendar is paramount to bringing that quality up to its expectation. In addition to that, the effect that travel and excessive match days have on the schedule, player health, and player performance needs to be better accounted for. Adjusting the schedule to consider all of these things (and still retaining the American-ness of the playoff system) will provide those advantages and resolve those issues.

How this all plays into the other issues I’ve raised (searching out more markets and filling out the US and Canada with quality clubs; fixing the problems of immense geographical distances) will all be brought to a head in Part 5:  The General Plan.

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11 Responses to Formatting MLS, Part 4: Global Tradition, American Appeal

  1. Taara535 says:

    This is a very impressive argument. I was one of those who argued that it would be crazy to go to a FIFA – type schedule, but your argument has persuaded me. A large winter mid-season break would still be needed during the worst of winter (Jan to early Feb. would probably do it), and scheduling smartly would be advisable (Southern cities play at home during the months of December and February), but this is certainly do-able and the advantages are too good to pass up.

    • wesbadia says:

      Thank you so much for the comment! I’m glad my writing helped to persuade you differently. I also agree that there needs to be mid-season breaks, probably when you said in Jan/Feb.

      I will be specifying my concept for the format of competition in the final part of the series, so that’s when I’ll get into exactly what and when the season should actually be. Check back for that.

      Also, if you haven’t already, check out parts 1 and 2. It’ll give you a better idea of what my thinking is, plus my main arguments for my plan. And, of course, share it with any other soccer-lovers you know!

  2. thomas says:

    you make a couple of good points and a couple of less good ones.

    competitive integrity is vital to the success of any sporting enterprise to maintain the confidence of the fan, and you hit upon the paradoxic dualism at the heart of the problem – that knockout-style and double round-robin formats represent equally legitimate alternative ways of deciding the better team. So either you can go for a hybrid, or you can offer twin titles.

    I think the question you have to ask is whether placing greater emphasis on a single final match, or spreading the emphasis over a season-long competition of 300+ matches is likely to earn more income, which in turn depends upon an assessment of the viewing public and their cultural habits.

    The international experience shows that the traditionally more successful leagues tend towards the ‘double’ system, where separate ‘league’ and ‘cup’ champions are crowned (providing the opportunity for a season-opening ‘supercup’ highlight, and a historic ‘double’ achievement – so ask yourself, in the case of a double, would the cup runner-up or the league 2nd placed-team provide the supercup opposition?).

    As MLS matures it is easy to overlook the burgeoning USOC competition, which claims history and inclusivity as the markers of relevance, putting questions of ‘play-offs’ in the shade.

    Additionally, it’s worth looking at recent moves within the ECA to investigate cross-border leagues as means to rebalance the growing discrepancy between powerful clubs and powerful leagues across the UEFA region. With national associations expressing concern about a potentially diminished role as league sanctioning authorities (particularly Northern Ireland), the question plays into club-vs-country debates.

    But MLS (and A-League) has already crossed that line, yet USSF and CSA continue to exist as national organising bodies. FIFA is certain to rule that national authorities must maintain some form of integral national tournament, so compromise will be reached requiring the minimum of a national knock-out tournament.

    Logically, if MLS is to retain Canadian teams, then the USOC and Canadian Cup competitions will continue to gain significance at the expense of MLS, and therefore MLS playoffs can only retain relevance by artificially undermining the competitive integrity of the regular season with an unbalanced schedule.

    Because soccer is an international sport, each competition is only one more step within the same global pyramid, and until each step is fully and equally integrated the overall pyramid will lack integrity.

    It’s typical that internal-focussed commentators will not see how the wider soccer environment is shaping the sporting mindest of domestic fans, so I’m impressed that you have begun to do so here.

    My instictive feeling is that because of the international nature of the game the twin-title format will win out for it’s natural advantage of additional flexibility within the global scheme – if the overarching idea is to find the best team in the world, then offering two equally legitimate routes for qualification via twin national and league champions is far more likely to ensure the best teams aren’t prevented from advancing. You want the best teams playing each other.

    As you explain the ‘wrong’ team can win play-offs, and this undermines qualification at the next level of competition. Although RSL in 2009 actually proved a legitimate champion by becoming a real contender for the CCL title, the Rapids in 2010 got lucky (as did finalists Dallas too).

    Finally I remember I once heard Sir Alex Ferguson comment on a radio interview: In football the post-season is next season.

    But more prophetically he also said the best teams are the ones which play to win every match.

    I’ll take his rationale over most others.

    • wesbadia says:

      Again, thank you for commenting, thomas.

      A couple things…

      1) It’s partially apparent that you are missing the point of this series and the intent of each part of it. For clarification, please read the introduction (Part 1). After that, you’ll realize that my conclusion will not be found in any part of the series except for the last (Part 5), which is next to be published.

      2) I find it a tad insulting that you have commented twice now on two different posts that “internally focused commentators” seem to be ignorant of “how things actually work”, and then proceed to label me as such. This is both presumptive and ignorant on your part, for you do not know my background as “amateur” or “experienced” writer, nor do you know if I’m “internally” or “externally” or even “holistically” sourced in my information.

      Telling me that you’re impressed with my conclusions (which aren’t even present yet) because I have a perspective on the macro-pyramid of world soccer proves this. I have this perspective because I love the sport and gobble up info about it from any section of the world that interests me. Which, if you’ve read anything else on my site, you’d know is quite a bit. I’m a Renaissance Man. Jack of All, Master of None.

      Which leads me to a (hopefully) final point: this series which I’m writing is my attempt at actually (partially) mastering something. It’s an attempt at both predicting and suggestion the direction MLS should be taking in the future. This includes all the facets of the sport/league I’ve talked about in Parts 3 thru 4. These parts were written separately because they needed to be. There is much information on these aspects, as I’m sure you’re aware. The “externally sourced” information I’ve read is not sufficient to apply whole-heartedly to MLS, nor is it enough to derive relevant and practical conclusions from as they pertain to MLS and North America as a whole. This is why I’ve chosen to “internally source” information. All the data you see in the charts were collected by me, compiled by me, and arranged and analyzed by me. This data, as far as I’m aware, does not exist in “external sources” which are relevant and up-to-date to use for my purposes. I am an analyst and data collector by trade. That’s how I pay my bills. I’m paid for doing this on a day-to-day basis. Applying it to soccer is only an extension of my trade.

      I’m sorry if this response comes off as blunt and/or hard-edged. But I have a problem with presumptuousness when it’s coming from and obvious ignoramus as it pertains to myself. I felt the need to correct your perspective on me and to “bring you into the open” a bit. After all, that’s what Waldlichtung is about.

      As always, your comments and reading is much appreciated. And I hope you check back again once Part 5 is published. Perhaps some of your concerns will either be dispelled, answered, or found to be irrelevant after having read it. Thanks again.

      • thomas says:

        not at all. I enjoy reading your posts and I wasn’t trying to be presumptuous, rather I was setting up a debating position in order to present certain questions which need to be asked that I felt you may be overlooking. My lengthy comment should actually be taken as a compliment to your contribution, despite any differences of opinion which I think are worth investigating (and I think what I did state was that I’m impressed with your interest in addressing these, not any of your as-yet-unstated conclusions).

        By basic point is that MLS is soccer, and as such operates within a wider international context, it isn’t (nor should it be) the absolute master of its own fortunes. Clearly this a matter on which we agree, but perhaps I was unclear that my oblique reference to ‘internal-focussed commentators’ was not aimed at someone such as yourself who writes posts such as in this series.

        So on the issue about adoption of the international calendar, I don’t think this is absolutely necessary, rather that it would be more advatageous to align more closely with the international calendar for many of the same reasons as you stated – it’s a subtle difference, but one which is capable of over-coming practical obstacles… possibly you were irritated by my hair-splitting.

        Equally I agree about the specific problems of running an equally competitive league in a nation the size of the US, with its obvious travel and climate chellenges

        So, no, it’s not that your response is blunt or whatever, rather that we’re approaching the subject from different angles with the result that we’re seem to be talking at crossed purposes.

        From my perspective the issue of competitive integrity is the most significant – fans need it to grasp the significance of the next match, marketers need it to sell the product effectively, and league officials need it to gain/retain relevance.

        As recent reforms to the CCL format show, the prevailing philosophy of league administrators (not just in MLS) is a zero-sum game, and it is this which needs to change. Every match must matter, winning must count.

        However, and I’ve had similar discussions with a variety of other commentators, the politics within the sport is the biggest blockage on sensible progress. Different interest groups are all seeking to protect their backyards (the ultimate reason why NASL 1.0 failed), and until they all understand how they can coordinate to the greater benefit then discussions will continue without success.

        USSF permanently seems hamstrung by commercial interests, unable to do enough quickly enough to address competitive interests for the sake of the casual and hardcore fan alike, rather than reconciling the two in combination.

        There is a simple reason for this, there is no separation between the the national authority and the league operator while individuals such as Sunil Gulati still wear two hats, creating an obvious conflict of interest.

        • wesbadia says:

          Thanks for continuing this dialogue.

          I apologize if I overstepped my bound a bit. Maybe it was the hair-splitting that I misread and/or caught me off guard. I took it as ignorance about what my goal was here, but I see now that you’ve clarified your points what you were trying to do. So I thank you for that.

          Judging by your last comment, I think we’re closer to the same view point than I originally thought. While I have been swayed during my research that switching to an international calendar is more advantageous than the current one, I don’t think it’s a make or break deal for the success of the league. Obviously it’s not considering how far MLS has come so far. But I would maintain that if you and I (and anyone else involved in the conversation) is intent on retaining a macro-focus on the international level and in that context, that a move to the international calendar would probably be a rather easy and economical way to not only address how American soccer fits into the global game, but also how to address those geographical and climate issues I bring up. With the NASL announcing that the 2013 season will be split up into an “Apertura” and “Clausura” format (essentially establishing it as a pseudo-international calendar), I think that this puts the ball in the court of MLS and even USL-PRO on this front of the sport. How this effects leagues like the PDL which is heavily reliant on college players for their roster (and, in turn, the college season) is to be debated.

          Anyhow, as far as how MLS fits into the global game, I think you’re right with the politics of the confederations and the national governing bodies. The corruption in CONCACAF is just one example, but UEFA has its own share of politicking, too. And, as you say, the dual role of Gulati is an issue that needs to be addressed separately from the issues MLS faces as a league in America. And, if I choose to tackle that beast, it would be done in another article, possibly after I finish this series and start my supplemental articles.

          One thing I must thank you for is that you have caused me to rethink a bit of how I approach this final article and my conclusion. I’ve added issues and topics to address to my outline, and I don’t think I would’ve thought of all those without your input. So, I thank you for that.

          Again, this series is strictly about MLS. But that’s not to say that I don’t consider lower leagues, USSF/CSA, or regional/international competitions. I do, and I will overlap and include those areas when they fit into my vision. Which, if everything works out how I picture, will be addressed during Part 5.

          Thanks again, thomas. I’m sure we’ll continue this once the next article is published.

          • thomas says:

            Thanks, but no apologies necessary. It was at least partly my fault for a hasty (lack of) introduction. I’m better at picking out questions as I don’t have any real answers, whereas, as a more analytical mind, you seem more capable of identifying the relevant points upon which to base a judgement. So I’m already looking forward to the next installments.

            I’m sometimes amazed that commentators try to describe a pyramid, when the reality is that the current competitive structures more closely resemble a mountain range. Obviously the politicking allows for multiple peaks to the competitive system, and I think we all agree the sport will see huge benefits from better integration, but I also think to do so we need to start thinking on a much bigger scale before we can understand what’s possible and how it can become reality… as well as what we want to avoid.

            Is it more important to raise the summit, or strengthen the roots and branches? Or are these two aims inextricably connected?

            In US pro-sports the benchmark outdoor league is NFL, with attendance of 17m per season, and this compares with La Liga, Bundesliga and EPL with 11m, 13m and 13m respectively. There’s huge potential for growth, and that’s even discounting the possibilities presented by the deeper and wider base of professional lower leagues (60+ soccer leagues are in the 1-10m attendance range – MLS should break 6m for the first time this year)!

            So the NASL example to move to a split season offers an intriguing half-way house which could prove a way forward. It’s interesting that different voices suggest preferences for different succesful formats, such as those of Spain or England, but this appears more similar to the German Bundesliga, with its unofficial ‘Wintermeister’ title, being closely modelled on the tropical leagues of Latin America.

            Maybe this could hint at a wider, longer-term trend for international convergence, what do you think? If so, how would this manifest itself – are global rather than regional qualifying groups for the World Cup logically realistic as the extreme extension?

            Could championship tournaments be awarded to cities irrespective of location or national association (as Platini this week suggested is an alternative to a Turkish Euro 2020 bid, rather than the by-now standard dual-nation bid), or would this remove the sport too far away from the fans?

            While I’m at it posing questions to ponder, I guess I’m leading up to the defining test of faith – do you believe in a global soccer league?

            If so, with LA and NY having stated their global ambitions, this must have implications for your view on the domestic game in the US. Finally, within this context, is a regularised international calender possible without a fully formalised season-long international professional club competition, or should we just stick to the current 4-year cycle?

            Erm, sorry if I’m going on a bit…

            • wesbadia says:

              Your compliments are very well received. Thank you 🙂

              You raise some really interesting ideas here. I’ve often thought that the perspective of the global soccer “pyramid” was one dimensional. There’s no doubt it exists, but I think its existence depends on where you’re standing and what you’re looking at. If you concentrate solely on a national league, then sure… there’s a pyramid that starts with the lowest league up through D3, D2, and D1, then expands to the region, and then culminating in a world-wide club tournament. But if you adjust your focus globally, you see that each league is a peak, as you say. The taller peaks are usually found in Europe, and there are arguments about what peak is the highest. But I think ultimately it’s a very subjective topic. Perhaps from a players perspective, Spain or England is the top because they see themselves making millions playing in front of millions, where as in the US or Argentina or Mexico you may play in front of millions but your paychecks are usually a fraction of that. Then take it from a strategists perspective: maybe the Bundesliga is your cup of tea and you think the reason they’re slowly climbing the club ladders is because of the same reason their national team consistently does well. Maybe you feel that Spanish football is just about money and you dislike the strategy that Barca plays despite them being a perennial favorite to win everything.

              Anyhow… what I’m trying to say is that it depends on where you’re standing and what you’re looking at. The only true “pyramid” in soccer is that of competition, but even then there’s a matter of subjectivity involved as some teams, despite being good, choose not to focus on getting to regional and global tournaments. They’re content with fighting for league honors year after year.

              Here’s another thought: seeing how the world’s leagues formed long before any idea of organizing into UEFA, FIFA, or Club World Cup, some teams in some leagues will have naturally out-paced the formation of those type of competitions and organizations. The obvious leagues have a leg up on most others because of, but not solely, their longevity. But the organic growth of soccer around the world presents very different problems to be solved than the semi-forced growth of American sports leagues like NFL, NBA, etc. Only MLB could, in my opinion, be put on the same level of organic growth as world soccer. But in 2012, competition in baseball (and the retention of teams) is far from organic anymore.

              I think the issue you raise here is this: that as soccer progresses for a completely global identity, how do clubs around the world shift THEIR focus from status quo to a better one? Perhaps that IS a pyramid concept. But perhaps that’s the multi-peak range that you refer to. I don’t know if I personally know enough at this point to say which one is better. That would take additional reading and research, I think. What I can say is that I believe at this point in soccer history, strengthening the roots of the sport is probably the most important. As you posed in your first comment on my site, MLS is only one part of American soccer; the health and vitality of NASL and USL-PRO is more important. While I’ve always thought this as well, I think that I have a new perspective on it. I’m a fan of grassroots support because I think it promotes organic growth and has a tendency of producing better fruits than forced structure. The trick with lower leagues is getting them to accept their place in the order of things and then getting them to work with the leagues below and above them in order for the system to function properly. The strife between USL and NASL (if you don’t know the history about it, read it. It’s rather interesting) is an obvious problem. But now that it has been announced that NASL commissioner David Downs is stepping down at the end of the season, this poses an issue for MLS, too. Downs was always hesitantly cordial with Garber and MLS. It was a working relationship, but it was apparent that there was a bit of competitive tension there. Resolving those issues is key, and I think that’s where characters like Gulati comes in. If there’s ANYTHING Gulati should have in his job description it’s getting the American leagues to work together and have good relations with one another.

              As far as a split season goes, I feel like a Bundesliga-like system is probably the best format for the US/Canada because of the climate and geography issues. As the American leagues fill out in terms of number of teams, structuring a schedule that is strategically taking advantage of the times of year at various places in the country will help in this. For instance, as the number of southern teams grows, it’ll be much easier to have games in December and February played in Texas or Florida or California, and then slowly move those games north as the temperatures warm and southern humidity becomes too much of an issue, finally with a break in July for the hottest of North American weather. But now I’m giving away some of my next article…

              The idea of World Cup qualifications going global rather than regional is a tricky one. The problem with regional is that there are inevitably weaker regions (Asia, Oceania, Africa) and those teams will probably never be able to compete with the bigger names, but get a spot in the WC regardless. The problem with global qualifying is more or less the same — larger teams will dominate, with the occasional upset, and we’ll always see the same five or six making runs at the final. It’s the same issue with the UCL tournament. Big clubs dominate with occasional upsets, but no real threat for the title.

              I’ve always strictly separated National Teams from Club Teams in competition. They are two different animals; they need only accommodate each others existence. Trying to organize them in a similar way will, in my opinion, just produce mediocre results at best. Perhaps FIFA need to re-think their strategy for international competitions like World Cup, but, again, I don’t think I know enough to make a decisive suggestion on what’s best.

              What I have thought about before is the thing you hinted on about there being a global league for clubs. I’m not sure where you’ll lead this in the “faith” aspect depending on my answer, but I would say that if anything the Club World Cup should probably morph into that very thing. Instead of having a competition at one location, why not play a double round robin over the course of a year that covers all the teams involved? Of course, travel issues would be pervasive and costly, and finding time to schedule those games would be horrendous, but it’d be a rather neat concept to a world champion of club soccer.

              As far as the 4-year cycle for WC, I don’t see how there’s any ways to expand this into a full time competition. If they did so, I fear it’d explode into the very issue that we have here in the States right now — club or school soccer? I’ve equated high school soccer to national team duty; you’d love to represent the town you’re in, but if you want to play at the top of the game you need to focus on your club. The reason for this is that the scheduling is exactly the same and the commitments just become too great at some point. If school soccer was only in the summer (like the WC is), then it’d be a different story. Having the WC be anything more than a 4-year tournament would push it closer to competing directly with world club soccer. That’s not something I think FIFA would want to happen.

              • thomas says:

                wow, lots to digest there… I’ll add a couple of extra things to what you say – I want to see a Canadian league, and I think CWC hasn’t yet found it’s mojo.

                Everyone suffers because Canada hasn’t fully absorbed professionalism. The 3 Canadian MLS teams struggle because MLS is biased towards US teams, Canada MNT suffers because there’s a lack of focus on the sport, Concacaf suffers because the third most major member is absent, and Fifa suffers because Concacaf is weakened. Canada is a developed economy with 30m+ population, it’s an integrated modern society with excellent media and communications, they have the facilities, the know-how, as well as the participation levels.

                On the CWC, I’d like to see each regional organisation send two qualifiers directly to the tournament (ie the winners of their two tournaments, in Concacaf this means reviving Interliga), but also I think maybe two or three indirect qualification tournaments, for example allowing somewhere like Florida or Australia hosting rights during seasonal breaks involving the ‘next-best’ teams from each region (such as this year Athletic Bilbao and Bayern Muenchen, Boca Juniors and the losing finalist of the Copa Sudamericana, say, Emelec, for example), just as in some Olympic sports there is a ‘repecharge’ system. Essentially qualifying tournaments eliminate meaningless pre-season friendlies and correspond closely to the co-efficient system which enables more, better teams able to move onwards and upwards, gaining the CWC legitimacy and attention because of increased competition and integrity.

                I think the same prinicple follows with world cup qualifying – good matches are made by contrasts in styles – Senegal vs Mexico, Egypt vs Japan or Zambia vs Belgium are ‘tasty’ for any number of variety of reasons – could you call these results? Qualifications should impose equal standards on participants, which due to the discrepancies in group numbers or regional strengths is simply impossible atthe current time. 16 groups with 10 teams each (and pre-qualification for weaker nations such as Andorra or St Lucia) drawn irrespective of regional affiliation but according to rating would vastly improve the overall standard and interest.

                • wesbadia says:

                  Yeah, I can get carried away with my thinking sometimes. Hence I write a lot more than maybe I should…

                  A couple things about Canadian soccer. 1) Explain your opinion that MLS is biased towards US teams. The way I see it, the Canadian teams have a leg up against US teams because they can use both US and Canadian players to fill their domestic roster requirements, while US teams only have access to US players to fill their domestic requirements. Or are you speaking for an expansion/representation aspect? 2) Canada will always be represented in CCL because of the Amway Canadian Championship tournament. This is why TFC is the “fifth MLS team” in the tourney this year in addition to the other four MLS teams, whereas LigaMX has only four representatives. 3) What I’d like to see from the CSA is an expansion of the ACC tourney to include all lower leagues. Ottawa will be joining the NASL in 2014. USL-PRO currently does not have any Canadian teams, but the USL-PDL does. Also, each province has its own association that organizes semi-pro and amateur teams that could be included in the tournament. Expecting it to be as big and all-inclusive as USOC has become is a bit ambitious, but I don’t think it’s out of reach to think that it could expand to be a 16-team tournament encompassing four levels of soccer in Canada. As USL-PRO expands, inevitably Canada will be on its radar. The future of the Canadian Championship (and a true domestic cup winner at play in CCL) would be much brighter if this format was taken.

                  As far as the CWC goes, I definitely agree that it hasn’t found its mojo. But let’s remember that the tournament itself is only 12 years old this December, while other international tournaments like UCL, CCL, etc are 40 or 50 years old. The concept of an intercontinental club cup is very new. As many iterations as UCL and CCL have gone through over the decades, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that CWC will be undergoing changes over the next decade or more to revamp it into the type of tournament it should be. As I’m sure you know, new ideas like this evolve over time as it becomes apparent that they’re not hitting the intended target or not doing so in a high quality way. CWC is no different, and I’m sure we’ll see iterations come and go over the years. I haven’t given it much thought in the way of format, but your ideas for it are interesting. Although I enjoy the 2 year hosting cycle they currently have, I’d very much be in favor of new locations being considered. Japan has hosted six times in 12 years. Morocco is next for its 2 year cycle, but having something in Florida, Australia, Southern Africa, or in a smaller South American country (Peru?) would be interesting to see. There’s an effort now to pursue a US-hosted CWC. If that bears fruits, the question would then be: has American soccer finally come into global recognition? I’d be persuaded to answer “yes”.

                  • thomas says:

                    re: Canada & MLS, I agree that combining forces helps initially, but over the course of time it becomes more of a hindrance because the rules you describe are a limiting factor on opportunities for Canadian players. In addition to reducing widespread national support (including media interest) for football in Canada, this cumulatively amounts to an implicit bias. Furthermore representation in CCL is limited to 1 team and the lack of a coefficient rating means, even were Canadian teams good enough to improve, it’s not really very reliable to decide multiple places by knockout. A league is therefore a necessity, and with 3 MLS, 2 NASL, and 8 PDL ‘first’ teams (while excluding several other prospective markets such as Calgary) they’ve already got the basis for a viable league. So, given the climate factors you recognise together with my ‘national’ argument within an international context, I think a professional Canadian league is both desirable and inevitable. Rivals are vital to spur competition and I think everyone recognises it is a bad situation that the same teams from the same places can exclude others – thats how a cartel stifles healthy competition to the detriment of everybody. Perhaps a Caribbean league may become possible too, should Cuba ever open up and the Domincan Republic stops holding out to take the game seriously. I’ll agree however that growth must be taken in stages, and the next must be to place (at least) 16 teams in their equivalent of the Open Cup.

                    re: CWC. The Intercontinental Cup was founded in 1960 and is the direct precursor to the CWC. Beyond that earlier attempts were made to establish a global club championship but weren’t officially endorsed, corresponding with the series of invitation-only exhibitions occuring each summer run by SUM. So the idea of a world cup for clubs certainly isn’t lacking for history! The evolution of the tournament is likely to take the same course in the future too, with profitable exhibitions gradually gaining recognition and with it demands for more legitmacy via representative qualification. As for the hosting cycle, due to the democratic nature of the Fifa Congress and the distribution of its members it is likely that moves will gain weight to circulate the tournament around the different regional confederations in the same way as the World Cup has in recent years, consequently I feel demands for subsidiary qualifying tournaments will be made as a concession and pre-existing events like the Amsterdam Tournament, WFC or Peace Cup will be granted enhanced status – I mean, it’s completely unsustainable that teams with wider commercial appeal are favoured over those which show greater merit on the field of play if the title is to retain any legitimacy.

                    I think I’m possibly a little bit more ambitious and confident than you about the state of US ‘soccer’ (one sign is that I’ve noticed ‘football’ is becoming more prevalent nomenclature even within the past year) – Japan and Korea have dispelled the prevailing perception that a lack of physicality and athleticism prevents accomplishment at the highest level by demonstrating consistent performances on the world stage playing a technical passing style which surprised many commentators and are subsequently finding bigger clubs more interested in their players (Japan’s 3-0 demolition of Spain at the Olympics was an eye-opener). Pep Guardiola was known to study oriental matches to model his celebrated tiki-taka style, while Arsene Wenger’s time coaching in Japan definitely contributed to his evangelism for greater technical proficiency, so maybe these are stylistic examples of how integration works. And since the K- & J-leagues are less than half a generation older than MLS they definitely deserve more attention as a realistic development model (I’ll only mention here in passing the old chestnut of promotion/relegation and abolition of the franchise system).

                    I’ll leave it there for now, otherwise I’ll open myself up to similar accusations!

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