BRENT LATHAM - Tuesday, April 13, 2010
With the new collective bargaining agreement signed, sealed, and delivered, and the teams on the field for the opening kick, you can't help but be a little optimistic about America's soccer league.

The play seems to be getting better each year, more and more interesting young stars are emerging both from abroad and nationally, and the league has nearly reached a full complement of teams. Not to mention the crowds, though still paltry in many places, are simply breathtaking in others, and clearly indicative of the sport's ever-growing popularity in certain regions of the country.

Throw in the growing list of European stars anxious to try their hand in America, and you have what can only be described, after years of angst and growing pains, as for all intents and purposes the finished product: A respectable soccer league with decent quality of play and an overall enjoyable product.

The MLS-bashers among us, and there are still plenty, will continue to rant and rave about how bad domestic soccer is in the U.S. compared to their beloved European leagues.

But these MLS-haters will become all the rarer as the majority begins to realize what most already have -- the MLS is not, and will not anytime soon be, the best league in the world. But that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed from the right perspective.

Welcome to the world of international soccer, America. There are professional soccer leagues in most countries in the world. All but four or five of them are not at the absolute top echelon, but that hasn't stopped them from providing entertainment to their fans, and some pretty good soccer in the process.

Once American fans universally get that, and it seems more and more of them do, the league will continue to grow in popularity.

I wonder, though, when such a tack will be fully embraced by MLS owners.

This isn't a piece about MLS' unusual single-entity system, lack of relegation and promotion, or even limited roster size, though. It's MLS' end-game with its personnel, now that it is undeniably and more than ever a part of the world soccer scene.

This is about transfers: good or bad for the league? It's still not clear MLS is in line on this one. The league has spoiled the career of more than one potential European star by refusing to sell when economic reality suggested otherwise.

Shalrie Joseph and Taylor Twellman are two who come to mind, who the league would not let go despite offers topping a million dollars.

I've never been able to fully grasp such a policy in economic terms. In the last few years new MLS franchises have gone from anywhere from $10 million to, more recently, $40 million dollars. A cash injection to the league of something like 10-20 percent of that from the sale of one or two best-eleven performer seems like a good business deal.

The argument has often been that MLS does not want to become a feeder league, but that is nonsensical double talk.

Few leagues in the world are not "feeder leagues" in some regards, and unless MLS has the fan appeal and income to match to make it one of the top two or three leagues in the world, something that doesn't look to be on the horizon in the next decade at least, then selling a few players on can only spur opportunity by giving other players a chance to develop.

The success of former MLS players abroad also serves to increase the value and interest in more players, and creates a virtuous cycle.

Selling players also makes sense economically in just about any market. An MLS player's contract is an economic asset most likely to decrease in value as he nears the end of his contract, usually no more than four years in length.

To say that a player like Taylor Twellman, for example, will personally generate more than a million dollars in income for MLS over any period of years requires accounting from the Bernie Ebbers school of business.

Besides, the alternatives to selling are not particularly attractive. The league continues to lose good young players to free transfers, because budding stars are reluctant to trap themselves in with long term contracts knowing it may prevent them from realizing their dreams of playing in Europe.

Just this summer, Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden both preferred to trial -- successfully it should be said -- with European clubs, rather than renew with MLS. Now, being a feeder league has no shame to it, but having your best players in a position where they are forced to trial to get signed abroad does.

In the end, rather than any stigma of being a feeder league, I think what comes into play here are disincentives to selling players.

Currently, transfer fees are shared in a pretty socialist fashion among the league, and while a single player will seldom generate the millions in income required to deny a sale abroad, when the number is in fact a fraction of that for the selling team the economics of keeping that player change dramatically.

This year's addition of a pair of home grown player spots on each roster is a great benefit, then. Teams can now sign two home grown players each year. They won't take up a roster spots, and if they are sold on, the team keeps 75% of the transfer fee. That's a step in the right direction.

Now if allocation and transfer rules for other players would just… well, let's leave it for another time. MLS, it seems, is at least readier than ever to step firmly onto the global soccer stage. For American soccer fans, there could be few more welcome developments.
Tuesday April 13, 2010 10:30 pm
Thanks Brent, I really enjoy your insight into the growing pains of the MLS. That we're moving in the right direction gives me hope.

I would really love an in-depth article of this type on the new "home grown player" rule and how this affects the player development/youth programs of the MLS. I realize it is a step to think that the LA Galaxy might soon produce young talent just like FC Barcelona or West Ham United, but I believe that improvements to the MLS are mostly going to come about through improvements to the American player, as they're the only ones willing to accept the paltry wages on offer.
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