This morning, I sat at my breakfast table going over the news. Checking through my inbox, I saw an email from a friend: "This is going to make you furious." It contained the link to a Deadspin article: "Getting Ready for MLS? Allow Us to Convince You Otherwise."
There is a general feeling within MLS circles that articles like this should go ignored: don't give them the time of day and they will go away, and anyone that dismisses MLS at this point doesn't know what he's talking about anyway. I think that's true. I worry that writing a response gives the original article credibility it doesn't deserve. But at the same time, I know that casual American sports fans—or, more worrisome, casual soccer fans—will read the article and think it true.
Maybe MLS deserves your attention, maybe it doesn't. I'm not here to say how you should spend your precious minutes away from work or school or family. What it is not, however, is the worthless waste of breath that Billy Haisley makes it out to be. (I'd argue that any article calling a respectful, non-criminal, elite-level athlete a "bum" should be disregarded right away anyway, but to each his own.)
You should make the decision whether to follow MLS or not with a little more information. I'm not going to give you a rallying cry, but the league deserves a more balanced portrayal. In truth, anyway, I'm not sure how to give a rallying cry. It's always awkward when two people put up facts or statistics to prove their individual points. Both end up coming out looking like scammers fudging the information.
The truth is, MLS is a crazy, messed-up league. I played in a locker room where 10 guys didn't speak English. (I learned Spanish quicker than my friends who studied the language for seven years.) The highest-paid player on a team can make upwards of $5 million. The guy in the locker next-door can make $32,000. Guess who is buying the beers? A third of the players live on unguaranteed contracts, most of whom make around $50k a year to begin with. None of them are calling it early retirement if they get released. On a Saturday night you can play in front of 60,000 fans, crushing your ability to hear your teammate next to you. Four days later you can play in front of 5,000 fans more worried about where their daughter ran off to than the goals on the field. When our contracts are up and we become free agents, we aren't really free at all. Free agency doesn't exist (yet). The league office might, and probably does, interfere with personnel decisions and player acquisitions. And, yeah, the Real and Football Club name stuff is stupid.
I guess those might be reasons not to follow a league. But remember when David Stern didn't let Chris Paul go to the Lakers? Or when Roger Goodell decreased the Cowboys' salary cap amount because they broke a rule that didn't technically exist yet? Or when the 76ers lost on purpose to get a good draft pick? If you want to see a person's warts, you don't have to look that hard. (Except at Emma Watson, she's perfect.)
The more you learn about MLS's structure, the more you start to see the beauty in the details. In his article, Billy suggests that the league structure "makes it impossible for any team to get a real advantage from its cleverness and ingenuity." But every good board game player knows that the more rules there are in a game, the more chances there are to get an advantage. "You want to steal all of my wheat? That's fine, here's my Monopoly card." If a game is simple, anyone can win. When a game gets complex, it opens up chances to separate yourself. And the rules of MLS are more than complex. What the hell do you mean, you want to trade me allocation money for an international roster spot?
We joke within the locker rooms about the brilliance of MLS team decision makers. If you open up the league's website, you'll see it splattered with exciting propaganda about the moves that each team is making (ultimately probably the biggest immediate problem with the league right now). Each team flaunts its brilliant new move. Analysts get revved up about the teams to beat. Then every year the same teams get into the playoffs and make their way into the later rounds. They don't get lucky. They know how to work the system. They know what works in the league. (Hint: Americans; hard-working and dedicated players; friendship; one star who isn't quite a superstar.). Yet decision makers consistently try something different. As other coaches declare themselves big movers, somewhere Dom Kinnear and Jason Kreis sit in their living rooms smoking a cigar laughing. Ingenuity and cleverness rule the day.
Occasionally a team doesn't want to work the system and just wants to spend. There's a little carrot for all you Yankees fans out there. The Galaxy and Red Bulls don't get all of the good players because the league wants them to (although, to be fair, they probably do). They get all of the good players because their ownership is willing to spend on them. Philadelphia and San Jose could also sign players like Robbie Keane and Rafa Márquez, but they choose not to. As many Yankees fans can tell you, money doesn't always solve the problems. Except for the Galaxy's two years of dominance because they paid their way to the three best players in the league, spending money doesn't get it done in MLS.
So whether you prefer ingenuity and cleverness or bullheaded spending, MLS can give you both. You don't have to be a Phillies fan to brag about your team's big signing and then get pissed 15 games in.
For those that find all of the sketchy rules frustrating—as many MLS guardians do—then it's important to embrace the drama. It gives you something to think over and write about and tweet. After all, aren't sports about the entertainment factor, the watercooler effect?
At the end of the day, though, the real question is the product on the field. I haven't left this for last for any big literary statement; I put it off because it's the part that I find the hardest to explain. I played in the league for three years. I have friends on every team in the league. None of us are going to tell you that MLS is the same level as La Liga. I suppose the questions then become, How far below is the level? and How much does that difference matter?
I'll make the basic point that I always make when confronted with this question: If you are saying that you'd rather watch Stoke City vs. West Ham instead of Seattle Sounders vs. Portland, you aren't being honest. Stoke and West Ham don't play better soccer than MLS teams. If you'd rather watch a mid-level Premier League game than an MLS game, it goes beyond soccer aesthetics. There is European football bias creeping in. When Americans think of European football, we think of Manchester United and Barcelona and Bayern Munich. There's nothing I can say to put MLS in the same sentence with those teams. Those clubs are beautiful to watch. But there is more to European football than the mega-clubs. We shouldn't put European leagues on a pedestal of mysterious wonder because of the elite few. We should understand the distinction between Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atlético Madrid and Almería, Granada, and Elche. We shouldn't expect all teams to be as awesome as the dominating elite. It's disingenuous to lump all European football together. MLS teams as a whole can often match the European middle tier squads in possession, pressure, and pace. Watching the games, Genoa-Livorno doesn't ooze quality over Kansas City-Salt Lake.
I suppose this, though, is nothing more than a matter of taste, and leads to a shouting match. An ex-girlfriend once explained to me that someone can't be wrong when he feels something. We each feel our own way.
Still, I'm not sure why you'd rather watch a random European game with unidentifiable Italian and Spanish players when you could watch an equally entertaining game of players who grew up in cities you've been to and who attended colleges you've visited. You can identify with the player on the field. You can buy him a drink. He lives down the block from you and drives the same car as you. You can tell stories about how you played with a guy as a kid that played against a guy that dated the girlfriend of the guy that is playing left mid on the field. You can wear your team's jersey to a Rep Yo City party. You weren't born in Arsenaltown, were you?
MLS is the best of the best of American players. Every little kid plays soccer. These are the guys that survived and proved to be the best that America has to offer. They aren't nobodies. Sports are a wonderful meritocracy. They are the same as the athletes in MLB and the NFL. The World Series and the Super Bowl are only considered the best product in their fields because nobody else in the world competes in their field. The NFL, NBA, MLB, and MLS all share the special quality that they have America's brightest athletic stars.
I'm not telling anyone to do MLS a favor and follow it out of pity. Like Chevrolet, Major League Soccer is a business. And thus far, Major League Soccer has survived, even thrived. Like Chevrolet (or Honda? I'm not good with car metaphors), businesses don't thrive unless they have a worthwhile product. If you're supposed to buy stocks on the rise, you'd buy MLS. Call Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey all the names that you want, but they make MLS more exciting. I'm telling you to get excited about the MLS season because it will be a roller coaster ride of wins and losses and gossip and turmoil. You don't need to do MLS a favor by caring. But you might find you like what you see.
Bobby Warshaw graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science, and then was drafted in the 1st round (17th overall) by FC Dallas in 2011. Bobby currently plays for GAIS in Sweden, and sometimes contributes stories to his hometown newspaper, the Patriot-News, in Mechanicsburg, PA. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter @bwarshaw14.
Image via Getty