May 31, 2009
By Charles Cuttone
Time for a change Ė four ideas to improve MLS
When everyone plays for a result, we really get none. A lot has been made over the last week about all the ties in Major League Soccer. Thankfully, there were fewer this weekend than in the past few, but that does not mean the problem is solved. Itís still part of the mentality.
Listen to LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena after last nightís 1-1 draw with Kansas City, his teamís ninth tie in 11 games this season: ďI'm pretty pleased with the team. There's not enough in the win column, but it sure as hell beats losing."
Not losing will help a coach keep his job. Not losing can also assure a playoff spot. Both of which are part of the problem. A few possible solutions:
1) ELIMINATE THE VALUE OF TIES
I cringe at the thought of penalty kicks to break ties. I always felt the old North American Soccer League shootout was much more skill-based, in addition to being more entertaining for the fans, but FIFA would never go for that. (By the way, I am convinced that, had it not been an American league that came up with the concept, FIFA would be using the shootout to break its ties even today.)
Since MLS canít monkey with the game on the field to end ties, letís monkey with the coachesí thinking instead. The NASL awarded points for goals scored up to three, win or lose, even though they also had a tiebreaker. That means playing for a 1-1 or scoreless tie does not net nearly as many points as going for a win and scoring a few goals. Points-for-goals puts a premium on attacking soccer. A team that wins by scoring three goals gets six points. Thatís a lot of movement in the standings from one game.
2) CUT THE NUMBER OF TEAMS IN THE PLAYOFFS
It was a joke that last year that the LA Galaxy (8-13-9) stayed in the playoff hunt until the last weekend of the season. The Red Bulls (10-11-9) made the playoffs with a losing record, got hot and made it all the way to the championship game. Cutting down the number of teams in the playoffs adds value to the regular season. Coupled with giving teams more points for wins, I think there will be more drama on the field than basically just letting everyone into the postseason.
3) CUT DOWN ON THE NUMBER OF IN-SEASON COMPETITIONS
Sure, teams that win hardware are proud of it after the fact, but if you look at the lineups most teams use in the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup, itís obvious the coaches donít care. Neither do the fans. Just look at the crowds. They are paltry. SuperLiga exists only to make money for SUM, by getting Mexican fans to come to games. No coach in MLS is going to lose or keep his job because of SuperLiga or the Open Cup. Late last season, because of all the injuries and the ridiculously cluttered schedule, New England could barely put a team on the field. They won the SuperLiga, but made an early exit from the MLS Playoffs. MLS wants to emulate Europe with all the cups. Thatís commendable, but not with 18-man rosters made up of mostly lesser talents anyway. To preserve the quality of league play, they need to either reduce the number of non-league games or bulk up the rosters.
4) EXPAND THE DESIGNATED PLAYER RULE
No matter the ultimate outcome of David Beckhamís stay in Los Angeles, on a number of levels, the DP rule has worked. Beckham created a buzz around the league, sold tickets, moved sponsorships and sold jerseys. The onfield impact was far less dramatic, but part of that was because salary cap constraints prevented the Galaxy from building a team around Beckham.
I am not suggesting MLS eliminate the salary cap. But, they should look at allowing teams two DPs, plus some highly paid domestic talent or some leeway in keeping talent that has blossomed in the league. As an example, the Crewís Gullermo Barros Schellotto and Unitedís Luciano Emilio were not signed as DPs, but were elevated to that status based on performance. I would argue that superior performance needs to be rewarded, but without using the DP designation. Having that kind of leeway, without using up a DP spot, also might have allowed Chivas USA to hang onto Brad Guzan or the Red Bulls to have given Villareal a run for Jozy Altidore, thereby keeping an exciting young striker in the league.
Granted, the DP rule has not worked for every team, but the league needs to consider they types of players that should come under the DP rule, and allowing teams two would elevate the level of soccer. Whatís the point of signing a great playmaker like Beckham if you donít have a great finisher on the end of his passes? Whatís the point of signing a proven goal scorer like Juan Pablo Angel, with no one to get him the ball?
Signing David Beckham should have been a floodgate for the league, instead it was a flash flood. The league is now stagnant, and we all know standing water starts to smell. Itís time to make some changes.