What the Deuce?

Remember the "MLS 2.0" era that Cohiba Don assured us we had bravely entered a few years back? How the bad old days when Sunil Gulati and Ivan Gazidis sat in a swanky New York eatery picking at an expense account lunch while deciding who got what, who was going where and who was going to shut the hell up about it was now but a distant memory of a painful but necessary step toward building a truly professional soccer league that we could all be proud of?

Well, like the song says, One Step Forward and Two Steps back; welcome to MLS 1.0, Clint Dempsey.

Now of course everyone outside of the Pacific Northwest fully understands that MLS L.L.C. is a single entity "league" which stages soccer exhibitions around the country by teams of players wearing different uniforms in an almost realistic imitation of actual inter-city competition.\

Most of us know full well that being an MLS fan requires the willing (eager? gleeful?) suspension of disbelief and we trudge our weary way down to the local equivalent of a Midas Muffler franchise, plunk down our money and root madly for "our" team with a smile on our face and a song in our hearts.

A belly full of beer is widely considered optional, but highly recommended in a setup where winning the Cup is more or less analogous to receiving one of those cheap, greasy, cheaply framed "Store of the Quarter" certificates which hang behind the counter at your local Taco Bell.

It's the only sports league on Earth where, after the Championship game, all the owners retire to an exclusive, lavishly furnished and sumptuously victualed suite someplace and congratulate EACH OTHER for the big win.

Still, for all of that, MLS has done a marvelous job of convincing everyone to "ignore the man behind the curtain" and focus instead on the "passion" and "excitement" of the game day experience (even when they have to bribe supporters groups into not saying a word which they find un-family-freindly, as if none of us ever heard dear old Dad use that same word when some clown in a three tone Ford galaxy cut him off on the freeway).

And indeed it's mostly the BigSoccer "you damned kids get off my lawn" set that ever mentions deals like Clint Mathis-to-New York or Landon Donovan to LA or Freddy Adu to DC or any of the other myriad "player transactions" that stunk to high heaven but which we were supposed to swallow because they were "good for the league".

But see, those days were supposed to be over. We had all become convinced that it was no longer necessary to cover our ears and sing old show tunes at the top of our lungs when someone at MLS headquarters patiently explained that, see, there was this RULE which only they were aware of (and which, as soon as the ink dried we might be allowed to read) that absolutely let them do whatever the hell they wanted.

So when, late in the afternoon after the Dempsey-to-Seattle deal was announced and BigSoccer's servers threatened a meltdown in the face of a virtually unanimous league wide fan "WTF?" reaction, MLS Vice-President Todd "Bftsplk" Durbin posted a response on Major League Soccer Soccer clearly explaining that "based on league rule doo-dah, dooh-dah, ramalamading-dong, this transaction is well in line with other oh look a shiny toy and nobody should think we made the whole thing up out of thin air to suit our purposes e-i-e-i-o" we were all so out of practice with the hands-ears-showtune drill that, unfortunately, we heard every word.

And it all sounded sadly familiar.

Now I really don't care a lick about any of the ancillary questions, like why Dempsey decided to come back to MLS, or whether it's good for him professionally or whether California Klinnsy is particularly thrilled or whether Bethany can still get the two kids into a decent school or any of the rest of it. Doesn't much matter to me.

I really don't even care that he went to Seattle; SOMEONE had to try and save Sigi Schmid's job.

(Although I could add that, if it's about respecting the wishes of a USMNT hero who has richly earned it, perhaps someone could explain again why Brian McBride had to be ransomed from some second rate team in Canada so that he could go home to Chicago.)

Anyway, despite the glee from the We Invented MLS in 2007 crowd (am I the only one who thinks that they should skip having a shirt sponsor and just put mirrors on the front of every uniform so they can just cheer for themselves?), it says here that while the guy will make a difference this is not a LeBron James to Miami deal and it will not result in the Anschutz Trophy taking up residence in Washington state.

What does matter however is the sudden revelation of a previously unknown league slush fund consisting, apparently, of $171 million which the teams can use to purchase overseas talent and now that Seattle has spent their share - reportedly nine million bucks - everyone else should feel free to start shopping.

It's true that some anonymous league gerbil secretly told Grant Wahl that it's not really nine mil, but that's exactly the kind of targeted "leak" to a highly reputable reporter which is designed in the league's highly-competent PR shop to shut down discussion without offering an alternative explanation. It's cheap, easy and designed to shut people up without having to actually explain the truth and it's long past time MLS stopped doing it's business that way.

An actual, grown-up, Ready-for-Prime-Time sports league doesn't conduct its business through secret, don't-quote-me denials.

Which leaves aside the question of whether this whole thing is a good idea. It probably is, although the comparison to David Beckham is beyond laughable.

Becks is a citizen of the world and Clint, God love him, came to MLS because he couldn't get regular time with a middle-of-the-pack Premiership side. (Being more-or-less on top of the middle of the pack still makes you middle of the pack, so don't come around whining about that description; he wasn't fighting for PT at Bayern of Barca).

It's certainly true that having maybe the best US field player at the moment come back to MLS before he's eligible for Social Security or so crippled up that he needs a walker looks good for the league, and maybe that's reason enough for the world class talent experts at 420 Fifth Avenue in New York to open up the coffers and fork over a bunch of league money.

Which is why I'm not going to dredge up a bunch of names like, oh, Lothar Matthaus or Luis Hernandez or any other of the wastes of money that the league was sure would have a big impact on fan interest and ticket sales and on-field excellence. We've heard "it's for the common good" from these guys so often over the years that you'd think we lived in East Germany circa 1975 but no matter.

I'm not even going to ask why it is that, since Seattle has all this cash lying around, that they are allowed to spend it on players rather than a proper soccer specific stadium with a grass pitch like everybody else who's not part of the Cascadia Wonderland is required to have.

And if Seattle is such a deep-pocketed rousing boffo box office phenomenon, it seems to me that the rest of the league shouldn't have to pitch in to help them buy players.

As for the future, it would be really nice if, just once in a while, MLS would at least consider treating us like grownups and telling the unvarnished truth: "Yes, we spent X amount of league money to help poor little Seattle acquire a marquee player. We're not sure how this fits in the rules, exactly, but we're doing it anyway. No, we're not going to be giving YOUR team nine million bucks to go out and do the same. This is what we do because we believe it will help raise interest in the league which is good for everybody."

But that's more like looking your fans in the eye and telling the truth instead of sending messages to reporters over the transom and then running for cover.