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Six ways MLS can improve now
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MLS doesn’t need wishes to come true. Long gone are the days when its continued existence presented cause for concern. The league continues to grow in stature and improve in quality with each passing year. Most of its clubs fare well enough in their local markets and keep their accountants relatively satisfied. Many of its exports transition to stronger leagues and represent the league well when they do.
But incremental progress doesn’t mean MLS couldn’t accelerate its growth – the question is how. This is a prudent league, and no firm answers exist to chart a course few leagues have even attempted.
In their stead, aspirations and hopes fill the void. As the New Year beckons, here are a few ideas to help push the league toward its goals in 2013:
Clinch a deal to place the 20th MLS team in New York City: New Yorkers haven't truly embraced the Metrostars or the Red Bulls for a litany of reasons too extensive to recount here. A new club gives MLS a fresh slate in the market; a soccer-specific stadium in Queens provides an opportunity to increase both franchise values and revenues with a hefty expansion fee. Any prospective investor/operator – and there are quite a few hopefuls in the queue, according to reports – must pay heed to the errors of the past. But a new New York team? On paper, it’s a winner.
Devise stadium solutions for D.C. United and New England: Both teams desperately require new venues to bolster their prospects for the future. The problems differ: United has financial issues directly related to playing at the old and downtrodden RFK Stadium while the Revolution is unable to tap into the urban Boston market while playing games at the very suburban Gillette Stadium. But the answer is the same: get an intimate, soccer-specific venue located inside the urban core. If both teams can finally strike deals then the league would find itself with two markets capable of replicating the success found in the Pacific Northwest.
Import more creative midfield figures: Most clubs struggle to find players capable of supplying the final pass on a consistent basis. The dearth of creativity prompts clubs to take surprising steps – New York's decision to sign ex-Lyon man Juninho Pernambucano in December, for example – in an attempt to rectify the concerns. It isn't easy to fix this particular problem in MLS’ price range (even with the Designated Player rule in place), but the arrival of a couple more playmakers to circumvent those robust defensive tactics would help the standard of the league significantly.
Plot for a future with more squad investment: MLS clubs work within modest and somewhat pliable strictures to construct their squads. By and large, they do a decent job of identifying and procuring talent under those budgetary restrictions. Those measures temper expenditures, but they also inhibit the ability to compete on the open market for proven players capable of increasing the quality of play. The status quo can't persist through the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (set to expire in 2014) if the league wants to continue its growth on the world stage. This year should be spent trying to concoct new mechanisms to allow teams to import talent without abandoning the principles necessary to keep the league on solid financial footing.
Watch domestic players play critical roles in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying: U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann turned to MLS standouts Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson to help secure a berth in the Hexagonal. Klinsmann may not display similar faith during the final round given his preference for foreign-based players competing in better leagues, but the continued presence of a handful of domestic stars in the U.S. squad would bolster the league. If the Americans do not lean on local players in a prominent way, then the Hondurans and the Jamaicans will carry the mantle for the league; after all, they boast their MLS contingents.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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