Bringing Down the House

What a great week to be an MLS fan.

As with much of what goes on in American soccer, 95% of the sportsnation population is of course entirely oblivious to the combine and subsequent draft, and as far as I'm concerned it's their loss. I waste no pity on the intentionally ignorant.

For the rest of us - and despite the sniggering of the swath of fans Mr. Loney has rightfully designated as "Eurosnobs" - we're having a great time, thanks.

One of the perennial topics around these parts - and the soccersphere in general - is of course the one where otherwise intelligent people waste endless hours comparing MLS to other (usually meaning "European" if not, of course "British") leagues around the world.

Nothing MLS does is ever good enough, somehow. When they try to mimic the way things are done in Europe the non-believers sneer at how pathetically weak the attempt is. When we do things in a fashion that's more typically American - playoffs, a player draft - the same people how it's not how they do it in Europe, which is supposedly prima facie evidence of how absurd it is.

Of course we all know that the reason why professional sports in the US hold player entry drafts is that most of the draftees are coming straight out of college (although that's less true in soccer than in any other sport and if some people had their way it would be even less true)

Thus a large pool of candidates becomes available the day their college eligibility ends, and were it not for some kind of rational disbursal method the mad scramble for prime beef on the hoof would resemble either a 99% off sale at Mercedes Benz or a Charleston South Carolina dockside slave auction.

And while that kind of mad scramble might be entertaining, to say the least, it also has the potential for costing the owners a whole bunch of money as they frantically bid against each other for the rights to players who nobody really knows for sure can cut it at the professional level.

The unique thing though, the thing that sets MLS apart from not just Europe but every other American sport is the combine.

Now of course the NFL has one as well but it's hardly the same thing. There, the players are divided into groups based on their position and measured, tested, timed, poked and prodded for days but in all of that nobody ever actually plays football.

There are of course lots of reasons why they can't, and I'm not wasting time on them. But can you imagine it if, somehow, they could? Divide them into teams, have some practices, play a round robin tournament? ESPN would go 24/7 on the thing, Fox and CBS would go bankrupt bidding on the rights to show the games, and sponsors would plunk down millions to get their names attached.

It would be the biggest three ring circus this side of Barnum & Bailey.

Conversely, suppose that somehow European soccer players weren't legally affiliated or permitted to sign professional contracts until they turned, say, 21?

Talk about lunacy. Gather the best 65 or so 21 year old players in England, divide them into teams, play some games for a few days and then three days later hold an EPL draft

Great Britain would literally have to shut down because no one would show up for work. Every game would be broadcast and then rebroadcast, every player scrutinized, analyzed, speculated about and rated by every footie journalist in the land. Online message boards would all go into melt down as everyone with a keyboard would be pounding away like a 15 year old with a copy of Playboy.

Now obviously those things aren't ever going to happen, thank goodness, but the point is simply this:

In another sport, or in another culture, the way MLS handles this process would be a smashing popular success on a par with Christmas or Labor Day weekend, and those who would denigrate the process might do well to consider that fact.

Other entities don't do it this way not because it's a bad method, but rather because they can't.

As the years of MLS tick by, we all look for signs that it's catching on, positive signals that tell us it's working.

One of the clearest, I think, is on display this week; the league has gone from holding a combine that nobody cared about and a draft involving players no one had ever heard of and that they had to connect to the NSCAA Convention just to fill a few seats to the neat little deal we've got now where, every year, the interest and the attention grows larger and more intense.

On Thursday, when the cameras pan the standing room only Pennsylvania Convention Center crowd and you hear the noise made not just by Union fans (who, it should noted, will likely tear the roof off the joint) introducing themselves, but substantial groups of fans from several clubs, you can take some satisfaction in the knowledge that this, at least, is one thing we're getting right.

The other guys can only watch and wish.