Twenty-one is an interesting year for any American. Although it is the year that one can finally legally drink it is also the same year that many people graduate from college, start thinking about their careers, and start thinking about having a family. It is almost a year where a light goes off in people’s heads where it is time to grow up and start acting like an adult.
As Major League Soccer enters their twenty-first season they too are entering a very interesting year. No longer the spunky newcomer, the league has found a spot in the footballing world. But where is it going? What will it look like at the end of the season? In five years? In ten years?
This chaos, this unknown is what makes this season so fascinating. Not necessarily good, not necessarily bad just interesting. Far too often supporters tend to think of a decision by MLS management as either brilliant or tripe. The reality is that many of these decisions lie somewhere in the middle a gray area where long and short-term gains are unknown.
When MLS started twenty-one years ago it felt very much like a petri dish a place where new ideas and new theories on how to play the game can be tried. Some of the ideas are terrible (such as backwards clock and running penalty kicks) while others are at least considered interesting (salary caps).
That tradition conditions into 2016 with the league reportedly looking into instant replay, increasing salary caps, expansion, and furthering their investment into the United Soccer League. Never has MLS had as much coverage as it does entering into 2016. While not all of these ideas will some such as instant replay may eventually stick.
But the big difference between 2016 and 1996 is that the footballing world has changed. With clubs in China and the Middle East spend large sums of money on top young international talent, MLS seems to be stuck in a bygone era where aging Europeans and South Americans are hot commodities.
The undervaluing of other young talent (such as with Krizstian Nemeth formerly of Sporting Kansas City) coming into the league does not help.
The problem seems to be that MLS operates with an antiquated model. It sees mega stars from ten years ago as the meal ticket, as the means that will end their television rating woes. Yet it doesn’t seem to realize that the soccer world has flattened; that football supporters in Kansas City, Kansas can watch European Championship Qualifiers at all times of the day and see Nemeth and realise that he is worth far more than what he is probably being paid. Steven Gerrard might be nice to sell a couple of jerseys but to train and build up a player like F.C. Dallas’ Fabian Castillo and sell him is a better move.
Developing younger players does seem to be on the mind of every team entering the 2016 campaign. The proliferation of lower division clubs in the USL and expansion of academy programs has already paid some dividends with players now entering into the Canadian and United States Men’s National Teams. Some players have already broken through the question now is can the league and their television partners develop players into marketable names.
Expanding into other markets is also a priority. Despite those that are rather loudly calling for a promotion/relegation system and a single table it does not appear that either is coming soon. Instead the league will have to look to other avenues into expanding their product.
With Atlanta United and likely Minnesota United FC (we are calling them that. Sorry, Arthur Blank) entering next season and with Los Angeles, Miami coming in over the next couple of seasons one might think that the league would be satisfied. But the courtship Sacramento continues and backers in Charlotte, Las Vegas, San Antonio, and St. Louis are still clamouring for MLS.
Even teams already established are looking to expand in their own market. Clubs like Columbus Crew and Real Salt Lake are creating regional agreements with cable partners that ensure that not just supporters in their home towns are getting matches but also supporters in nearby states.
The league also appears to finally understand that they need to invest in their Spanish-language coverage (i.e. stop showing Chivas USA matches every week).
All of these moves point to a league that is growing up, that understands that their market is massive and that it is largely untapped. But the same question that MLS had 21 years ago still looms today: how can MLS become a world class league?
Perhaps that is the wrong question. It is a question that presumes that there is some sort of ladder to climb when in reality there is no ladder. Supporters of teams from top clubs will support clubs in other leagues if the following stipulations are met: if the quality of play is good, if matches are available to watch, and if the storylines are compelling.
Much like many 21-year-olds, MLS is entering a very interesting time in its life. With an audience craving more football and investors lining up to purchase teams it appears that the league is finally gaining some level of recognition.
The question now is what moves can it do to expand their audience in rural markets here in North America and abroad.