(ATR) Is MLS an impediment to American success in international football?
The US Men’s National Team has not made the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup since finishing third in 1930. After upsetting England in the 1950 World Cup, the U.S. men did not qualify for the tournament again until 1990. While qualifying for every tournament since 1990, the best finish in that period is an appearance in the quarterfinals in 2002. The team also made the finals of the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that Major League Soccer, which only came into existence in the mid-1990s, is responsible for the mediocre showing of the U.S. Men’s National Team over the entire post-war period. It is, however, worth considering whether an alternative league structure would have produced a faster rise and a greater enhancement in the standing of the team than has MLS or any of the previous incarnations of professional men’s soccer in the U.S.
Consider first the open league structure of Europe. Teams form and compete at numerous levels with successful teams rising to higher levels of competition and unsuccessful teams falling into lower levels of competition. The number of teams at each level is determined by a sport governing body rather than by the league members. This system channels the best talent, both managerial and athletic, to the higher level competitions and compensates that talent commensurately. Europe has no salary caps and minimal restrictions on player mobility and roster sizes.
By contrast, MLS, like its predecessors, is a closed league with the league members determining how many teams are members. MLS also has restrictions on roster size and a salary cap, though this cap has been considerably weakened to enable clubs to hire a handful of star players at high salaries.
The best young American players tend to go abroad to play. It is hard to fault them for this as both the compensation and the competition are better in Europe than in the U.S. Consider that the lowest paid player on a top English Premier League Club will earn $15,000 a week while the lowest paid player on an MLS team will earn only about 2.5 times that amount for an entire season.
There are highly paid players in the MLS, of course. These players have one or both of two characteristics. First, they are aging stars from Europe for whom the European market has dried up. They cannot compete consistently at a level high enough to warrant top salaries any longer. Alternatively, they are American players who have had some success in Europe or have been stars on the U.S. men’s team.
The common denominator is that both types of players are viewed as likely to attract American fans to MLS stadiums. This may well be a sound money making strategy for MLS. It does not seem to have been a successful strategy for improving the standing of the U.S. Men’s National Team among international football squads.
So what alternative strategy might the US follow? My suggestion is that U.S. Soccer focus its efforts on developing a club system with promotion and relegation, as in Europe. Tap into the enormous growth in youth soccer over the last 20 years by developing a system of local clubs. Allow those clubs to recruit and develop players from a young age. Allow and incentivize clubs for older players to make it worthwhile to compensate players on a par with their European competitors, including attracting the highest quality players in their prime, to play in the U.S.
My belief is that watching very good soccer will do more to grow the sport in the U.S. than watching mediocre soccer played by a few over-the-hill international stars and a large number of good - but not world-class - American players.
Written by Dr. Dennis Coates, a sports economist and professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County
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