What's new in MLS

Nothing. Unless "MLS would like to make money" is news to you, in which case, put this under "5" for "Done deal."

On March 29, MLS will officially surpass in longevity "Murder, She Wrote," King Tutankhamen, and the Third Reich. Part of this is because people like Ivan Gazidis are smarter than we are. Yes, he said the "Premier League" was in the doldrums in the 80's, when to be super-picky-technical the Premier League didn't exist in the 80's. My response would be that (a) technically, that confirms Gazidis' statement, and (b) it's hardly Major League Soccer's fault that a money-grab by the richest teams in England has to be dignified by pretending a new league was formed, complete with new records and founder members and all that nonsense. A more resolute sports intelligentsia would have thrown "Premier League" back in their faces the way they did "The Football Confederation," and we'd have the First Division the way God intended.

Anyway. It was that money-grab, however, that MLS has given as its new goal. Possibly because after twelve years of saying the NFL was its role model, reporters were getting a little antsy, and there really wasn't any other sports league out there worthy of being modeled after. Although Galaxy fans like myself have been crying out for Serie A-style match-fixing for over a decade now, sadly to no avail.

Gazidis, sadly, insults our intelligence by claiming that the English top division's return to prominence was the result of signing foreign players. The great TV deal came first, then the money, then the foreign players. And if the best players in the world had been English, we'd have seen exponentially fewer non-Britons in the EPL these days.

The MLS path has been, first: sign a useful television deal (the masterstroke of linking MLS rights to World Cup rights is the single most important event in the league's history, maybe one of the top three in American soccer history, but that story has yet to be written), import the biggest name or two possible, get some money...then decide what to do next. The imported players we're seeing now aren't the result of a splurge of money, still less the cause. They are simply necessary because of the current dizzying pace of MLS expansion.*

Are international players bringing in unprecedented interest and profits? Sure...if those foreign players are named Beckham and Blanco. Everyone below that level of fame - Angel, Emilio, Christian Gomez and so forth - only bring in people who were predisposed to follow their local MLS teams to begin with. MAYBE Angel brought in a few Colombia diehards, or Abel Xavier drew in some Portugal fans. Angel's existing fanbase would have stopped coming if he wasn't scoring and entertaining. And, um, the Portuguese guys did sorta stop coming after a couple of weeks. They'll return if Xavier and the Galaxy start to win at some point.

Where MLS actually needs to get to is where success and quality on the field translate into financial reward. The EPL is a great financial model, but a poor marketing model. The EPL teams are, without exception, beneficiaries of decades of tradition. Those teams are standing on the shoulders of giants...or, if you're Birmingham City, standing on the shoulders of midgets who are standing on the shoulders of other midgets and so forth all the way down. But even BCFC exists in a marketplace where their potential fans take them for granted as a rightful part of the sports landscape. MLS teams aren't there yet.

I believe when they do get there, when Americans do accept soccer teams as more or less legitimate, then MLS will be able draw fans from an audience that is used to seeing them there, assume they will always be there. That will be the event horizon that makes MLS a more or less permanent feature on the sports landscape.** My guess is that will be twenty years or so from founding, so 2016. My other guess is that they'll make it.

Now, Ivan Gazidis can't very well say "We're doing boring-ass gruntwork to get teams on a solid footing in between World Cup bumps, until people finally get sick of trying to wish us away," so instead he talks up the foreign players. Well, he is smarter than we are.

But if the league were really and truly in the hands of imported stars? Then Denilson, Pavon and Wanchope would have sunk the league already.

*People who remember the NASL laughed their heads off at that line. Sorry, everyone else.

**A corollary of this is that no, the NHL won't actually ever die as such. Maybe the Red Wings, Canadiens and Maple Leafs would have to start a new league, but institutions are institutions even in circumstances of single-minded nihilistic self-destruction - like Fiorentina or the Chicago Blackhawks.