The blind ambitions of a feeder league
No one starts something new and says to himself, “gee, I hope I’m really average at this.” In America everyone wants to be exceptional. As a teacher, I know that several of my students are told early on by their parents that a “C” is a failing grade. A “C” is not failing, it just means that you are average. And honestly, what is so wrong with being average?
Like many of my students’ parents, MLS began in 1996 (yes they were formed before that) with ambitiously lofty goals. They wanted, and according to Don Garber still want to be, one of the top four leagues in the world. However, they are not even close to that ranking. Due to MLS –after only 16 years mind you– not even breathing down the neck of the Eredivisie (possibly the sixth best league in the world) there are people who refuse to watch them. MLS’s arrogance in reaching that top four status, without first embracing its feeder status, is almost as ridiculous as the people who refuse to watch it because of that arbitrary ranking.
In general the ranking of leagues is stupid. There is no rubric from which to draw the comparisons. Many people want to point out the UEFA Champions League as the ultimate equalizer. Barcelona and Real Madrid might be the best teams in the world, but I would rank Spain’s La Liga behind England’s Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga. What are our rankings based on? Is it the strength of the top teams? Is it the median talent of each team? Is it the average points each team wins? Are we looking at the technical skill of each individual player –if you have the time to rank even the top 11, on every team, in a 10-20 team league, you really need something better to do with your time. There is no way to truthfully and objectively rank each league.
What I typically break it down to are two categories. There are your feeder leagues and there are your destination leagues. Pretty much every league outside of England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and perhaps France and the Netherlands could be considered feeder leagues. MLS, which I have heard ranked anywhere from the 10th (entirely too high in my opinion) to the 52nd (entirely too low in my opinion) best league in the world, is among those feeder leagues. But their ambition just will not allow them to believe that.
A few days ago, I got into a Twitter discussion with Jason Davis of The Best Soccer Show about Billy Schuler signing with Hammarby as opposed to entering the MLS SuperDraft. Davis believed that it is still the dream of Americans to play in Europe as opposed to MLS –even if it is a second division team in Sweden. My thought was that it is more about the money that a player can earn overseas –even in a second division– as opposed to MLS. Honestly, both our arguments probably hold a bit of truth in them.
As Jurgen Klinnsman is starting to push MLS-based USMNT players, regulars and fringe, to train in Europe instead of resting in the offseason, we may begin to see a clash between him and MLS. Don Garber wants American stars in MLS; however, his ambition for MLS gaining a top four standing won’t let him acknowledge that MLS is still a feeder league. Landon Donovan should have been sold to Everton back in 2010 when his value was at his highest, and they could still afford him. Yet, MLS, perhaps hoping he was finally the key to unlock that big time door, out priced Everton –and quite frankly the rest of the world– for his services.
Part of being a feeder league is actually feeding the larger leagues, and as I often state, the last MLS sale of a player was when Kenny Cooper was sold to 1860 Munich back in 2009. Donovan could be considered equivalent to what Javier Hernandez was to the Mexican Primera Division. Would the Mexican Primera and Chivas de Guadalajara been better off keeping Chicharito? He was a rising star and a marketing machine, yet they sold him. And even though the Primera is a better league than MLS (not by as much as they were before) they know that a player’s ultimate dream is still to play in Europe.
Many would argue that Neymar staying in Brazil’s Serie A, another feeder league, shows that Serie A has the same ambitions as MLS. Brazil’s Serie A has a many similarities with MLS. They have older stars, young up-and-comers, and journeymen who will probably never do better than their league. But Serie A does realize, to an extent, that they are a feeder league. Everyone knows that several larger European teams want Neymar. Many Brazilian fans want Neymar to prove that Robinho’s European failure was a fluke. So when Santos kept Neymar, they paid him well and made sure the world knew he wasn’t ready for Europe. They did not hide the fact that he wanted to end up in a Euro league, and they also made it clear that eventually he would. They wanted us to know he just wasn’t developed enough to go to Europe now —amongst other reasons.
If I were a big club, or a mid-table club, in a big foreign league, I would look at MLS players cautiously as MLS has a track record of either over pricing or just not selling them. Could clubs cautiously be looking at dozens, if not hundreds, of MLS players? Possibly, but MLS, in its blind ambition, never wants to sell. At this moment Landon Donovan is on another loan to Everton, Omar Gonzalez is about to be loaned to FC Nürnberg, both Odense BK and AGF Aarhus of the Danish Super League are interested in loans of Chris Wondolowski, and certainly players like Brek Shea and George John are being looked at. But, if these clubs wish to keep these players past their loan dates, how will MLS respond?
MLS needs to recognize that there is nothing wrong with being a feeder league. Most of the leagues in the world are feeder leagues. And though Bill Simmons won’t watch MLS because it is minor league, that doesn’t mean thousands of other people will not. I, like many other people on Cape Cod, spent part of my high school years watching Cape League Baseball every summer. That is the equivalent of seventh division baseball. I also watched Cape Cod Crusaders FC who drew about 1500 a game in what is about fifth or sixth division soccer. If you haven’t yet heard, MLS is already drawing more than the NBA and NHL showing that people don’t mind the alleged minor league stigma it carries.
Recently, in fact, MLS actually seems to be taking steps towards embracing itself as a feeder league. It’s investing in academies to improve on the field products. It has, yet again, rechristened the DP rule in order to attract young players. Still, it is mostly a league of foreigners barely holding 60% American and Canadian players –who MLS was partially started to servr. It must compete with the allures of teams like Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Bayern Munich. Due to the allure of the big clubs, it must also compete with the second division clubs. As Jason Davis put it, “…it’s easier to imagine jumping from Leeds to [Manchester] United than it is from San Jose to United.”
And therein lies the biggest problem for MLS. It wants to be major league, it is major league, but it is also still a feeder league. In order for MLS to take the next step forward, it must show younger players –American and foreign– that it is willing to sell them, because for many the bad taste of Clint Mathis’s non-sale to Bayern Munich is still in their mouth. The loans have begun, the next step is for MLS to bite the bullet and sell their stars. This could be the step needed to bring in younger stars, higher quality games, and newer fans.
Fredy Montero was the first, Fabian Castillo followed, and Jose Adolfo Valencia was next. The question is when will the Billy Schulers decide to come to MLS because it is the logical step to the destination leagues. It could happen sooner than we think. But until that happens, there is nothing wrong with cheering for MLS, even if its ambition makes its business model flawed.
Let’s just hope their blind ambition towards immediate destination status doesn’t keep them from ever reaching their goal.