MLS v 3.0

In the annals of American professional sport, no name shines brighter than that of the legendary Pete Rozelle, during whose tenure as Commissioner the NFL went from a sport that couldn't even sell out it's championship game and most of it's players had part time jobs in the off season to a mega-billion dollar money printing machine whose players can afford to while away the off season murdering dogs instead of peddling insurance.

Is this a great country or what?

Rozelle of course is lionized - he was inducted into the HoF while stil on the job - and given much of the credit while, in truth, what mostly happened is that half the country turned on their TVs on Sunday afternoons, forcing the networks to hand over immense oceans of cash for the right to sell razor blades and beer during the timeouts.

(In actuality of course, a lot of people - including Lamar Hunt - had every bit as much to do with the whole deal but commissioners are like quarterbacks and strikers: they always get more credit than they deserve, but they eat more than their share of blame when things go sour.)

To me, Pete Rozelle was more a case of a reasonably talented administrator who was in the right place at the right time. It's not a denigration to say that the stars aligned for the NFL and the man made the most of it.

All of which is by way of introducing the proposition that our own illegal-cigar-smoking, vintage-wine-collecting, Chuck Blazer-ass-kissing Don Garber has already proven to be the most transformative sports commissioner in the history of professional sports in the US since Judge Landis, the man who chased off the criminals, gamblers, grifters and lowlifes - Pete Rose notwithstanding, on all counts - and made baseball a respectable thing for decent, regular folks to pay to watch.

Of course being a league commissioner and thereby, in theory, "being in charge" is pretty much a fantasy to begin with. As an example, on any average day you can find a couple dozen BigSoccer posts that bitterly condemn "Garber" for this policy or that decision when, in truth, as the employee of a group of 18 rich guys who have many millions of dollars invested in MLS, he's simply executing policies of other peoples' making.

But it's a funny thing, this commissioner business. When you're first hired, usually you're on a pretty short rope. You're allowed to have a seat at the grownups table but you do a lot of nodding, interspersed with the occasional "Yes, sir, Mr. Anschutz", and knowing how Mr. Hunt takes his coffee is definitely wise.

So it was with Rozelle, so it is with most everybody.

But as time goes by, new owners come in (and the number of same expands from, say, three to nineteen - just to pick an example at random - making unofficial conferencing and consensus outside of formal channels highly unlikely if not impossible) the stature of the man at the center increases proportionately.

Couple that with financial results which are undeniably positive (see: Soccer United Marketing) and trending upwards despite a difficult economic environment (BTW, it's a pity that Dan's construct, ITTET, has fallen into disuse), increasing public acceptance, improvements in facilities and caliber of play and, gradually but inexorably, the commissioner suddenly finds himself steering not just the ship but often the board as well.

It's something you earn, as does any employee in any business.

So it was that, by the mid-eighties, Pete Rozelle could in fact call up an owner and, while not exactly getting in his face, nonetheless had the throw weight to be pretty blunt if the situation required it and, while said owner wouldn't exactly be all "I'm sorry Pete, it won't happen again", he still knew that if push came to shove there was a good chance that his fellow owners would back up the commissioner and ignoring him was going to carry some serious risk.

Which brings us to our own beloved Cohiba Don and the current state of MLS, because I think 2010 will go down as a milestone year, the moment in time when MLS left it's training wheels behind and started to put together the structure which will carry it into a successful future.

MLS in the immediate post-launch, Doug Logan-led, owners abandoning ship as the bills kept on coming until they could hold an Board of Governors meeting in a back booth at Denny's-era was sometimes referred to as "MLS v 1.0".

By like token, the Garber-led, SUM fueled, breakneck expansion (sorry, Don, it's just true) era which eventually included, among other things, the Designated Player program and the naked takeover of Canadian soccer (it's OK, the CSA and most of the peasantry up there still haven't noticed) could rightly be termed MLS v 2.0.

With that in mind, let me be the first to welcome you to Major League Soccer v 3.0.

What's surprising isn't that it's happening, but rather that, as with an awful lot of stuff that MLS does, it's largely happening under the radar, a policy which I used to think was simply weak management but I'm beginning to believe is a product of, quite literally, making decisions on the fly.

And it's not that I'm entirely sold on the genius of the way things are being done at MLS World HQ in New York.

The recent Expansion Draft, for example, was so poorly designed and executed that it boggles the imagination; three teams lost two players before any other team lost even one, and several teams ended up losing no players at all, meaning that some teams have big depth holes to fill and others skated away fully intact.

An imbecile on mescaline could have figured out a more equitable way to handle it.

But that kind of procedural stupidity - and that's what it was - pales in comparison with the revolutionary change that's now afoot because of a decision the Board of Governors made, very quietly, over Thanksgiving weekend:

They took the limits off of the Homegrown player exception.

Previously, a team could sign two, later four, players from their own youth developmental programs without having to expose them to the clutches of their competition through the draft. Now, if a team so desires, they can sign 10, 15, 20 kids, however many they like, with the player salaries paid out of the league pot.

Forget having the league "encourage youth outreach" or some such bull. Now, either you put serious money and coaching resources into developing players in the 12-18 year old age groups or you're going to have serious problems competing.

The Superdraft is what it is - basically a blunt instrument - but it has not, and never will, produce the quantity and quality of players needed to stock a 20-22 team first division professional soccer league.

And anyone who is waiting for the day the NCAA will have the slightest interest in changing their rules to the benefit of MLS is going to grow very, very old waiting.

By comparison, try to envision a situation where the NBA or NFL could bring in 15 year olds and give them five years of training and evaluation before having to commit to a full-fledged big money contract. It would be nothing short of a total revolution in American sports.

And that's what we're talking about here.

Not that it's going to take off immediately. While one or two teams currently have four Homegrowns, several others don't have even one.

Some observers complain that it's because the teams aren't interested or their developmental programs aren't up to snuff or something, but by and large they're just dead wrong.

The biggest problem isn't identifying players that you want; the problem is getting them to sign.

Look down the list of current MLS Homegrowns and you'll find that the majority of them are from immigrant households. That is to say, their families come from a non-US footballing culture, where the whole idea is to get signed by a professional club in late adolescence.

Conversely, as we all know, most American families believe that the Holy Grail of youth sports is the college scholarship. So MLS teams make one of their Academy players a homegrown contract offer and at the same time Enormous State University is on the phone with some scholarship money, and most families are going with college.

So initially at least teams with a lot of first or second generation immigrants in their Academy programs are going to have the advantage. It's just the way it is but it's an advantage that's going to be short lived. As more and more kids show up in MLS camps, the pressure will build to not let your kid fall behind his teammates.

With teams suddenly needing to fill 30 slots, they're going to have to come up with a bunch of new players, and the possibility of a six-round draft (as noted by BigSoccer legend "monster") isn't going to be that different from four and four. The push is on for bodies, and GMs are going to expect their Academies to start bringing in some players.

The days of radio announcers and guest players suiting up for reserve games is past. The league is going to demand that you show up with actual soccer players, not your kid brother.

Make no mistake; this is a new day for MLS. The effect over the next five years will be to totally revolutionize how teams acquire players and players, after all, are what this thing is all about.

The American sports-style draft won't disappear but it's importance will almost surely wane as more and more talent is pulled out of the college pipeline.

Which is, in the end, what everyone has always said they wanted.

I can't wait.