Future Of The MLS

Published: Mar 07, 2014 14:43pm EST
By Jason Bardwell, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Mar 07, 2014 @ 02:43pm EST

 

After a few years of progression on the Worlds stage the USA are now involved in full retreat and this could probably signal the beginning of the end for MLS. That is a very bold statement but give me this article and I will explain exactly what I mean.

 

Think back to 1994 when the World Cup was held in the USA, I was living in England. It was seen as an outrage that the World Cup was being held in a country that, from the outside, looked like it had no interest in the sport. In fact the only two players of note in that side was John Harkes who had plied his trade at Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County prior to the kick off in 1994 and Roy Wegerley. Roy had played for a host on English clubs before returning home for the World Cup.

 

After the World Cup there was an influx of players to Europe. Cobi Jones went to Coventry and others went to various clubs throughout Europe and although they were not very successful they were aware they needed to try their hand at it. Claudio Reyna and Brad Friedel were probably the two more successful players from that side with Reyna playing for a host of European sides winning the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Cup on his way. Brad Friedel, with the exception of a year in Columbus Crew has been in Europe, mostly England since that time, winning the League Cup and Turkish Cup.

 

Recently there have been some fairly big name European players coming to the MLS to get one last big paycheck, just like the model used by the NASL back a few decades ago. Jermain Defoe (31), Robbie Keane (33) and Thierry Henry (36). In 2013 the 36 year old Henry was guaranteed compensation of just under $4.5 million and Robbie Keane not much less. In comparison Clint Dempsey (30) is collecting only $500,000 more than these two. Landon Donovan, half of his guaranteed compensation, and all these figures do not include any compensation from any contracts with individual teams or their affiliates.

 

It is fair to say that maybe Clint Dempsey had done his time in Europe and his return to MLS was a personal decision. My concern with Clint though is that he was injured a lot last season and now he has missed the training camp for the Sounders in order to play for Fulham. I would have preferred to have seen him stay in the USA, work on his fitness and maybe go to the USA camp this month and the Seattle pre season camp. As it is he is risked another injury playing for a relegation threatened side in a competitive and tough league. This was a no win for the USA and certainly a slap in the face for Seattle and their fans.

 

Landon Donovan I actually gave up on a long time ago and now at 31 years old he may actually go through his whole career earning a good amount of money without really testing himself. He was once considered the best player to come out of the US but other than short loans he hasn’t actually come out of the US.

 

Jozy Altidore is finding it tough in England right now, but so would any striker in that Sunderland side. That said he is getting to learn a very important aspect of the game of being the lone striker and having to hold up play in games where you are playing better teams to bring some relief on your defense. I do not fault anyone for trying. Tim Howard, Brad Guzan currently are proving that longevity in the European leagues can prove to be a good thing. Then again with Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel also being examples, maybe goalkeeping is a niche for Americans.

 

So far the biggest disappointment for me is that of the decision of Michael Bradley to return to the MLS aged only 26. In 2006 he moved to Dutch side Heerenveen and scored pretty frequently. 2008 he broke the record for the most goals scored in season for an American in a European first Division and that got him attention from Germany.

 

He didn’t have such a good time in Germany but was still good enough to keep Europe interested in him, eventually moving to Roma. With the midfield players usually not reaching their peak until around aged 28 that means if he had kept in Europe, Roma or not, we could have seen Bradley develop into one of the best midfield players in Europe. Toronto is his destination and a reported contract of $6.5 million annually means Bradley has left a good European side for a mediocre MLS side.

 

So with these high wages how can the model be sustained into the future? TV viewers ratings increased in 2007 when David Beckham came to the League but have declined dramatically in the last year. The WNBA attracted an average of 230,000 viewers for ESPN, MLS attracted 220,000 on the same network and half that figure on NBCSN.

 

Attendance to games are mixed with figures fluctuating from last year. Out of 19 teams noted 9 posted lower attendance figures from the previous year, but the real statistic which interested me was the overall decline. 2012 the average attendance was 18,807, this past season it was 18,608 and if after this investment in Bradley, Dempsey and Defoe the numbers this season do not come out with significant improvement, considering the boost the World Cup will have on interest, then I fear for the future of the MLS in the format as it currently is.

Previous World Cup years have boosted figures with 2010 stopping a decline after the initial 2006 World Cup boost. The difference in those four years was only an increase by 1,000 of the average attendance total, although there were more games in 2010. The year after the World Cup saw the total years attendance raise by 1.5 million, although that season saw 66 more games.

 

With more clubs being added over the next two seasons will this increase the fan base or dilute it more? If it increases attendance and brings in more fans then great but if it dilutes it then all that happens is the MLS financial pie will start getting stretched. With other sports already established in the American psyche then how much effort will there really be to keep the MLS life support machine on?

 

Certainly you could argue that the participation of New York City FC next season and the interest surrounding David Beckham and his Miami franchise will increase interest in the sport but that does not automatically mean those figures will convert to bums on seats in stadiums nor that they will still be involved after the initial glitz and glamor of the launch has subsided. Will MLS take that next step and become a respected and established league or will be continued to be refered to as the Might Look-like Soccer League?


 

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Jason Bardwell
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