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MLS priorities a question as season launches

MLS talks of expansion and new stadiums, but the quality of teams is missing from the equation.

March 12, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Vancouver Whitecaps (from left) Omar Salgado, Russell Tiebert, Philippe Davies and Wes Knight react while playing a soccer video game at the Electronic Arts Sports studio in Burnaby, Canada, on Saturday. The Whitecaps and Toronto will face each other in Vancouver's inaugural match in the MLS on March 19.
Vancouver Whitecaps (from left) Omar Salgado, Russell Tiebert, Philippe… (Andy Clark / Reuters )

Bigger, bolder, brasher — that's what Major League Soccer seems to be promising in 2011. But better?

That question still hangs in the air like a David Beckham cross.

The league launches its 16th season Tuesday night when the Seattle Sounders play host to the Galaxy (6:30 p.m., ESPN, ESPN Deportes). Much will be made of Seattle's sellout crowd and of the excitement of the new season.

Whether the quality of play will come into the conversation is another matter.

As recently as Friday, Commissioner Don Garber was happily talking about expansion and the planned construction of new stadiums.

That is all well and good. So is the fact that MLS has added teams in Portland and Vancouver this season, that it has increased the size of its rosters and reinstated its reserve league, that it soon will open yet another "state-of-the-art" stadium in Kansas City.

These are positive moves, but they should not be allowed to overshadow that the product on the field will ultimately determine the league's success.

Can MLS overcome the notion that it is now and forever will be a second-tier operation, a feeder-league whose brightest young shooting stars sooner or later arc across the Atlantic night sky to make their fortunes in Europe?

The answer to that is "probably not." If Brazil and Argentina, which produce an endless supply of top-notch talent, cannot keep their best players at home, there is little hope for MLS to do so.

What the league can accomplish, however, is to year by year improve the quality of the play on the field, recognizing that being a feeder league is not a bad thing, that fans will accept good players leaving as long as good players take their place.

It's all about quality and about being willing to spend the money on young, on-the-rise players rather than on burned-out 30-somethings seeking one last paycheck in a land where their increasingly obvious deficiencies are neither noticed nor criticized.

All too often in MLS, the approach to player acquisition has been hit and miss. The clubs' lack of a proper international scouting system and the far-too-tight constraints of the salary cap are to blame for that.

For every exciting young player brought into the league there has been another over-the-hill arrival with nothing left in the tank or a player who is ordinary at best.

What to make, for instance, of the New York Red Bulls giving a roster spot this off-season to John Rooney, a fourth-division player in England, who, if he had even a fraction of his older brother's skill, would have been playing at a much higher level.

More likely the Red Bulls saw easy publicity in signing the brother of England star Wayne Rooney. From a purely soccer standpoint, that is not a smart move, especially by a team that can recognize and nurture talent in the shape of, say, Dane Richards or Juan Agudelo.

What to make, too, of the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps using a designated player spot to bring in unheard-of French forward Eric Hassli, whose main claim to fame has been that he is 6 feet 4.

In theory, designated players (who can be paid far more because only a portion of their salary counts against the cap) are supposed to be those who not only dazzle on the field but bring fans into the stands, players such as Beckham, Landon Donovan, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Thierry Henry, to name a few.

Just what Vancouver was thinking is unclear.

Meanwhile, Garber's focus is on the business side. He talks about the Kraft family, owners of the New England Revolution, now actively seeking a site for a stadium in downtown Boston. He talks about the crying need for a stadium in the Washington area. He talks about possible expansion teams in all sorts of places where the MLS flag does not fly.

"I believe we will be larger than 20 teams," he said Friday. "I can't say when that will be. But I can't imagine that when this league is fully expanded we won't have teams in the Southeast, that we don't have another team in the Midwest, that we're not even expanding to the southern part of California."

Montreal already is assured of fielding the league's 19th team and cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New York, Phoenix and San Diego are in the mix to be No. 20.

"I believe we will have more teams, we just don't have a timetable when that will be," Garber said.

Sooner or later the limit will have been reached, the stadiums all will have been built and attention will necessarily shift from bricks and mortar to flesh and blood.

In the meantime, a little more attention to the way MLS teams play rather than where they play would be welcome.

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