We are living in the time of selfishness. It’s been moving that way since about 1980, so this isn’t a new thing, but in 2017 the I-don’t-give-a-****-about-what-you-think/want/feel attitude has gained widespread acceptance and power. Selfishness is so prevalent that simply labeling it as such is going to get you accused of being political and shouted down by those who view empathy as a weakness.
This could easily be the opening paragraph about any number of politically charged debates that are currently raging the world over, but instead we’re going to take the advice of the sports-loving snowflakes of the world and actually Stick To Sports here. Specifically, the story of the Columbus Crew potentially moving to Austin, Texas for the 2019 season.
There are many ways to take this story – we could talk about the business struggles in Columbus, or the history of the club, the potential of Austin as a market, or, even, about the ramifications of this potential move on the current MLS expansion process.
All would be potentially interesting conversations, and conversations that will probably happen if this move does go ahead. But, they would miss the core factor that underlines everything here.
This is about a selfish owner in a selfish league trying to move a team to a selfish city with selfish fans only too happy to hurt others (in this case Crew fans) so long as it fulfils their needs.
It’s telling that so many people just blindly accept this as being OK. Even if an individual has rejected the culture of selfishness on an individual level, most still accept that that’s just how the world works. No sense fighting it, right?
In the past, I have talked about the idea of a Social Contract and how it relates to professional sports. Very simply put, fans enter into a Social Contract with the teams they support to place value on something (the results of said team) that logically has no intrinsic value.
I’ll never forget the feeling of confusion and understanding that came over me as a young person back in 1992 when my beloved Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series. As I was putting my jacket on to go join the celebration outside it occurred to me that I shouldn’t stay out too late as I had an exam the next day that I had yet to study for. “Damn,” I thought, “the Jays won and it really didn’t change my life. I still have to get up in the morning and slug my way through it.”
Despite that realization, I still hit the streets (and my ceiling, literally) the next season when Joltin’ Joe touched ‘em all. I was right back there caring because I chose to care – I chose to make myself part of a larger community of like-minded people united behind a case that had no real impact on their lives beyond the emotional release they chose to give it.
This is where sports differs from other businesses and what those who subscribe to the culture of selfishness fail to understand about sports. When they strip a sports team down to its most basic business element they expose it to public for what it is – a frivolous, meaningless exercise that no logical person should care about.
Eventually everyone – even sports fans – has a limit on how far they suspend reality. Eventually, we’ll stop caring as it becomes clearer that the teams/owners/players don’t.
Eventually, we’ll get selfish too and pull our support.
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Can you point to an example where lifting the domestic quota completely did in fact improve the number of domestic players in the league, or the quality of the domestic player? I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that one.
It didn’t take long for the anti-MLS forces on Social Media to sharpen their knives following the United States failure to qualify for Russia 2018. In fairness, it doesn’t take much for those knives to get sharpened by that bunch, as MLS is seen as an enemy to the game by those with short memories.
This is not to suggest that MLS is perfect, but the idea that the league – a league that is commanding massive expansion fees across the USA and exposing the joys of following club soccer week in and week out to hundreds of thousands of new Americans every day—is the reason the US failed to qualify is, to be diplomatic, simplistic.
To be less diplomatic, it’s absurd.
A few key points:
First, and this is key, IT’S NOT THE JOB OF A PROFESSIONAL LEAGUE TO BUILD A NATIONAL TEAM. It’s the job of a professional team to grow professional soccer culture in its markets (the clubs) and to entertain its customers (its fans). By doing that it can help national teams, but it cannot be its primary focus.
Second, if MLS is the problem how do you wrap your head around idea that MLS players played significant roles for countries that did qualify. Hell, Roman Torres and Alberth Elis scored the goals that sent their country’s to the World Cup. If you’re willing to look beyond the moment, you’ll also see that MLS has helped drive an increase in the American talent pool, which, in turn, has allowed the US to go to seven straight World Cups.
Third, there is no evidence that the structure of the league – i.e. the lack of promotion and relegation – has anything to do with anything. The argument that not having the threat of relegation somehow makes players soft ignores how few players on relegation teams play significant roles on more successful national teams. In fact, what would likely happen is that players would become less likely to commit to international football if they were consistently needing to fight to keep their team up. Fans romanticise the idea that players are going to prioritize playing for the flag, but the reality is fans aren’t paying the player’s mortgages. The clubs they play for are and those clubs are – and should be – the player’s No 1 concern. This is an idea that Canadian readers will be familiar with as it’s something players here have long battled with.
As said above, this is not to say that MLS can’t make some changes – changes that could benefit the league, as well as, indirectly, the national teams.
The one area that the MLS-bashers may have a point on is the lack of competition that currently exists for playing time among the national team players. There is also an argument to be made about MLS coaches not giving young domestic players an opportunity to break through into the first team. The solution to these issues might be counterintuitive and, on the surface, contradicting.
There is no doubt that older, American players are a premium in MLS. Because of international roster restrictions, an American (or Canadian in Canada) that can do a job is incredibly value. That leads to them likely being overvalued in salary and, in turn, more likely to get playing time.
So, get rid of international restrictions altogether. By removing the artificial restraints you will force domestic players to step up their game and earn their spot. That would address the complacency complaint that anti-MLS voices have. As an aside, it would also address Canadians complaints about the domestic status of Canadian players on American teams. The law MLS cites when it refuses to acknowledge Canadians as domestics league-wide only requires that all internationals be treated equally. Eliminating international restrictions accomplishes that.
Such a measure would likely cost a few domestic players their jobs, but the majority of roster spots would remain American (and maybe a more reasonable amount would become Canadian). It’s just easier and a better fit for domestic players to play domestically the world over.
Now, it’s more likely MLS goes the other way and becomes more protectionist, but that would be a mistake.
The issue of getting more chances for younger players is difficult without getting into quotas again. As outlined above, quotas could have a detrimental impact on development, so MLS would need to think long and hard before taking that step.
The solution here could be cap relief. Since the salary cap isn’t going anywhere, why not make any academy produced player cap exempt for the duration of his contract? Yes, that would potentially give an advantage to clubs with big academies, but there comes a point where protecting parity becomes, well, parody. If Salt Lake City can have one of the best academies in MLS, which it does, there is no excuse for any club that doesn’t follow suit. Incentivy them to make it so.
Make no mistake, MLS is largely a strawman in this discussion. But, there are a few small things that could be done that would benefit both the league and the national teams attached to the league.
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For those with a sense of history, the bookending of the start and finish of the United States’ consecutive men’s World Cup appearance streak was fitting.
It started from Trinidad. It ended there too.
However, in the time between Paul Caligiuri’s “goal heard round the world (or at least in very specific parts of a largely indifferent at the time America)” and last night’s capitulation to a clearly inferior T&T side, so much has changed that the two events may as well have happened in different worlds.
Then the USA was a scrappy group of underdogs that hadn’t been to a World Cup in the modern era. They had no pro league and the 1994 World Cup had not yet been awarded to the USA. Hell, Canada was better than the US back then.
But that started to change that day. Over the next two decades the US established itself as a consistent World Cup maker and solid middle power. Famous wins came – Spain in the Confederations Cup, Mexico in the Round of 16 in 2002 – and what was largely a niche sports product became decidedly mainstream, at least when talking about every four years.
If you had been around prior to 1990, that rise was remarkable. If you came after, it was still impressive, but also frustrating. The United States is not used to being a middle power in sport. It’s not something that sits well with Americans, who want to be at the top of the world in everything that they do.
And they have reason to want that and to believe it possible. The USA is rich – spectacularly rich – both literally and in human resources. The country has amazing infrastructure that is the envy of more established football cultures. Those factors really should be enough to overcome the fact that the sport was not part of the country’s soul, like it is in much of the world.
But, it didn’t. After a solid upward trajectory that ended with a missed Torsten Frings handball that, if called, would have sent the US to a World Cup semi-final, things just kind of stagnated at a men’s national team level. There had been positive changes – MLS improved greatly, attendance at games massively increased and the women’s side of the game boomed – but there were still issues that were clear to anyone who was paying attention.
There was fractures in the youth systems, professional teams were sacrificing young domestic talent to bring in big, foreign names, too much of development was left to an inadequate NCAA system and, it appeared that profits – especially as it relates to pat-to-play -- were being prioritized over true technical work.
As with anything, the solution to those issues is not simple, but it starts with recognizing that there is a problem.
After a slip back to the pack in 2006, people were starting to have those hard conversations. It may not have reached a critical mass, but influential voices were starting to make themselves heard towards the latter part of the last decade.
And then Landon scored.
The last minute Landon Donovan winning goal over Algeria became the true “goal heard around the world” of US soccer. It happened not with a few football geeks watching, but with a nation of soccer bros cheering it on from packed pubs around the United States.
Donovan’s goal is, without a doubt, the single most memorable moment in modern American soccer history. It also might have been a little bit of unfortunate glory. It changed the narrative from “what are we doing wrong” to “we believe that we will win.”
The evidence didn’t back up the latter belief.
In hindsight, the USA’s 2010 World Cup is completely uninspiring. A point was saved against England because of a bizarre keeping error, two goals were allowed against unfancied Slovenia and it took 91 minutes to find a goal against an Algerian team that finished bottom of the group.
The US was two minutes from going home. As it was, they were home a few days after the exhilaration of Donovan’s goal, with Ghana finishing off a mediocre 1-1-2 World Cup for the USA.
But, the thousands of new fans that came into the fold that day don’t remember the fits and starts versus Slovenia and didn’t care about the systemic issues were there to see if you looked hard enough. They just saw the goal. And they were ready to see more.
So, seven more years have passed and the same issues that were there in the 89th minute versus Algeria remain. They’re just seven years deeper and more difficult to address. As many have pointed out those seven years are black hole in US development, with very few players developed during that time having a significant role in the current side.
Again, this take, like any, is overly simple. However, the narrative matters and American fans, observers and influencers are operating under a much different narrative today.
This time Landon wasn’t there to save the day and the next Landon won’t have an opportunity to do it on the biggest stage for another five years.
Believing that they will win is no longer going to cut it. It’s time for USA soccer to start working towards that.
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What if you are being tested without knowing that you are being tested? It happens all the time, of course -- secret shoppers, Tinder profiles, your judgy Aunt at Christmas -- but is it fair. More importantly, is it accurate?
This is an important question for proponents of the Canadian Premier League to ask themselves because it's happening right now.
You see, Rangers are playing Benfica in Hamilton on October 6 at Tim Hortons Field in the 2017 Eusebio Cup. That's the basic story, anyway. The more complicated story is that this game is a test of the very business model that the CanPL hopes to use to entice more reluctant ownership groups into the fold. If you follow MLS, or have followed CSN's reporting of the CanPL, you'll recognize this model as the "SUM Canada" approach.
The idea behind "SUM Canada" is that, like MLS and Soccer United Marketing, owning a franchise in CanPL will also include an ownership stake in a separate soccer marketing company. The primary role of that company will be to bring big name clubs and countries into CanPL stadiums to play "high" profile friendlies. The profits from those friendlies would then be distributed among the CanPL owners to off-set losses from the main product.
It's worked wonderfully in the US. In fact, it's why claims of MLS owners that they are losing money still (and thus can't increase salaries) are a tad disingenuous. They are losing money on one very specific part of their ownership stake, but earning quite a bit on another.
So, make no mistake, this game in Hamilton is a test of the viability of the business model.
In general, it's a good model and one that most CanPL fans should be supportive of. However, it's fair to also have some questions about the execution of the model in this circumstance.
In the US they are bringing in truly huge clubs and countries. We're talking the Barcelonas, Real Madrids, Brazils and Argentinas of the world. You truly can't put a cap on how much people* will pay to see these teams.
*Even if it's not the same people that pay to see MLS games, as it often isn't
This is Rangers v Benfica, and probably not really a great representation of either as the game will take place during an international break.
Yet, they are charging prices that would barely be tolerated -- actually, they probably wouldn't be -- if the game was actually a competitive fixture. The low end price to get intro the stadium is $50 -- for standing tickets -- with the average price well over $100 and the high end price a mind-blowing $350. Put charitably, this is ambitious pricing. There are a significant amount of Benfica and Rangers fans in the region and even more Scottish and Portuguese ex-pats, but these are A) sophisticated fans that understand what the true value of a mid-season friendly is and B ) often working class folks that can't throw hundreds of dollars into 90 minutes of entertainment.
Compounding this is that the game is being sold in short order, in an unpredictable climate, smack dab in the middle of the busiest sports time of the year (with the local-ish MLS team playing out of their head, thus taking away attention.
And, this is without touching on the fact that the operators of Tim Hortons Field -- the Hamilton Tiger-Cats -- are not having a good PR month in the local community. Any general fans that might have been inclined to buy in a month ago are less so now.
As stated, ambitious.
Here's where it gets worrisome for CanPL fans. What if this is a bust? What if they've out priced their audience? What does it mean about the people that are running the league and their knowledge of the market.
I can't in good faith encourage anyone to spend money they don't have on this kind of game. I can, however, worry about what it might mean if people don't.
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