One of the most frequent topics on Bigsoccer is the struggle of MLS to become one of the top leagues in this country. I think most people on this site think that it will happen someday, and it’s just a matter of when. I agree with that belief, and with this post I’d like to try to look into the future and give some realistic projections on where I think the league is headed. I see the league’s struggle as taking place in three phases. We are currently in the middle phase. MLS has been around for nine seasons now, and it’s not going away anytime soon. A few years ago, the entire league’s future was in doubt. The actions since then have been very encouraging, and the Adidas deal shows that others believe in MLS outside the I/Os. Phase One: A Rough Launch (1996~2001) MLS started out in 1996 doing better than anticipated, but went downhill in the following years. They didn’t learn from the mistakes of the NASL, and tried to Americanize the game. Why go after the potential soccer fans instead of pissing off the ones you already have? Thankfully, when Don Garber became commissioner, things started to improve, at least on the field (no more shootouts, clock counting down, etc). But the economic situation was still bad, and the I/O situation was unsettled. Let’s not forget the player’s lawsuit as well. Continuing to hemorrhage money, the league contracted Miami and Tampa Bay after the 2001 season; the future was in doubt for the whole league. This is the low point of MLS’ existence. Phase Two: Consolidation and Growth (2002~late 00s) The league had survived the rough start, showing that there is a market for soccer in this country. Also, for the first time in the league’s history, every team had an owner, even if AEG owned 6 of 10 teams. Now, the number of owners has doubled from 3 to 6 (or 7 when the San Jose situation is decided) in two years. The key to this phase, and the overall future of MLS is stadiums. Next season, there will be 4 of 12 teams with stadiums, and more will be on the way. During this time period, years without new stadium openings may be rarer than years with them. Every current team will likely have its own stadium before 2010, with the possible exceptions of Kansas City and New England, since their owners also control the NFL stadiums. Thankfully, MLS will never allow a new team to permanently be in this situation again. The key here is profitability. I will consider this phase complete when it is achieved. Teams with their own stadiums break even at the worst. The Galaxy made money last year, and the Crew would have if they didn’t have to share the losses of the entire league. Once every team has their own stadium, the league will be making money. Until then, the money from concerts and other events helps out and makes the stadiums possible. It is then that MLS will be able to take off. Phase Three: Making the Leap (late 00s~???) Once MLS is making money, it is simply a matter of time. This final phase will be completed when Major League Soccer truly is a major league in this country. MLS is designed with the future in mind. Single entity and the salary cap have allowed the league to remain even and within its means. It’s hard to complain too much about it because without this structure, the league wouldn’t be feasible. Down the line, the salary cap will rise and single entity will cease to exist. This combined with profitability will attract new owners and expansion, creating a bigger national profile for the league, which breeds more media coverage and better TV ratings, which leads to TV money, more sponsors, more fans, better atmosphere, etc. All of these things are related; one of them isn’t just going to pop up out of nowhere. This process is a slow one, and I don’t expect it to be completed in only a few years. There are a few things that can help out the process, and see that it happens a little quicker. The obvious one is World Cup success. Soccer fans who aren’t MLS fans and sports fans who don’t watch MLS pay attention to the World Cup. There was a thread on here that asked people when they became a fan of MLS, and the World Cup had higher years of new fans. Any World Cup will attract new fans, but a successful run will attract more fans. By successful, in terms of the USA’s ability and increased media coverage, I would judge this to be at least the quarterfinals. People will discover the joy of watching soccer and eurosnobs would be impressed by the quality of the league’s players. (And even if they’re all in Europe, they were still developed here) Once phase three occurs, new owners should be easier to come by. Getting more owners will make the league better faster. However, now it’s kind of a tough sell, with a stadium required, and soccer being a lesser sport in this country. Also, guys like McNair in Houston have reservations about single entity. AEG has already said they only want to own two teams, so they and possibly Hunt will have to find some buyers. It should be made easier with new stadiums as part of the deal. A better economy in this country could also be a plus. Other Topics There are some other topics that are so enjoyably bandied about over and over here, that I’d like to discuss. First off, pure single table (without playoffs) and relegation. I don’t think they will happen by themselves, but rather together. The A-league will never be a part of this, either. I can only see relegation happening once the league gets to at least 30 teams (which would be big enough to split into two divisions). Even then, it’s unknown in this country and the economics are a big factor. Why make half the teams in the league worse off just because it’s traditional? Still, the purist fan in me would like to see it become a reality. One idea is that expansion teams could start out in the second division. It could happen, but way down the road. In regards to single table, without relegation it’s not as exciting. However, I could see single table being implemented, but only if the playoff system is kept. But when eight teams make the playoffs, the conference races and playoffs between conference rivals make it more exciting. With 8 of 12 making the playoffs in single table, it wouldn’t be as exciting. And if you’re going to play single table, with each team playing every other team twice in a balanced schedule, then the playoffs seem less important, and they’re not going anywhere soon. Once there are 16-18 teams, single table could happen, since a 30/34 game season would be perfect, and realigning conferences every year would be a pain. I wouldn’t mind seeing it, especially if 7 teams made the playoffs instead of 8, giving the single table winner a bye as a reward. Way more likely than relegation. The playoff format that exists currently is a winner. The schedule and dates can be planned ahead of time, resulting in better attendance and TV scheduling. Although home advantage isn’t as big of a factor with two legs, the top teams are still going to go through, just as they did last year. The one game conference final playoffs give a real reward for home field advantage, and a one game final is essential for creating an event. It’s a compromise between international and American tradition, and it’s a good thing. I feel that eventually American teams will compete in the Copa Libertadores, once the fan interest is there and the level of the league is higher. I have no doubts that MLS clubs could compete right now. None would be favorites to advance past their groups, but I don’t think any would go 0-6. Conmebol will have no problem allowing MLS teams in, if the money’s there. They have already allowed Mexico their own places. We have enough trouble now with the US Open Cup and the Champions Cup, so this will be a while from occurring. Another issue will be attracting more fans. As MLS becomes bigger, it’s easier to attract more fans. But now there is still the trouble of making soccer fans MLS fans. If every soccer fan in this country was a MLS fan, then the league would be huge already. Even though it’s a problem, this is a main reason, other than the economics of it, that I am very optimistic about the league’s future. It’s just a matter of earning their respect. Hispanics are key here. They showed that they could come out for an American product in 1996, but they didn’t stick around in big numbers. They will be a big part of the success of MLS, especially since they will become a bigger percentage of this country’s makeup. Chivas and Club America could be a big shot in the arm towards achieving this. They will be attracted more and more as the quality of play improves. Other factors include more Hispanic-Americans playing in MLS and more Hispanic-American kids of foreign parents, who would be more likely to support MLS and the USA. Also remember that this is the first year that the rules on the field in MLS are the same as the rules worldwide, a point of contention for many. Attracting quality players will be easier as the salary cap rises. There are plenty of good players who would play in MLS if the salaries were higher. Already, players from the Caribbean and Central America want to play here because MLS pays more than their home countries. The average first division/Championship player in England makes $273,000 per year. If that was the average salary in MLS (currently around $100,000 for the 18 roster players), we could get some high quality foreign players. I think MLS has gotten pretty good quality among the senior internationals so far considering the salaries they’re offering. We would be able to get young players in the prime of their career rather than the older, falling stars. The SI limit will probably increase, but should be limited so we don’t end up with an Arsenal situation. Four or five tops, plus the younger exceptions. MLS may not be up to the level of the Euro leagues yet, but we’re already in the top 15 in the world after only a decade. Of course, for the quality of the league to get better, the average American player has to get better, and that has been the case since the league started. As the kids who grow up watching MLS become pros, that should continue to be the case. Also, more players coming straight to the pros without going to college can only help. Guys who come out of college are already 22 or 23. Chris Gbandi was touted as a future national teamer, but he’s already 25 years old now. There will always be some great college players who become stars, but the best players are good enough to play right away. On this site, people always talk about 10-20 years down the road as a good timeline for the league to break out, and that seems fair. We’ll definitely host the World Cup again, probably in either 2018, 22, or 26. It should tie in perfectly with the establishment of the league as a force. I’m 22 right now, so if MLS becomes major league by the time I’m 40, that’ll give me 40 whole years to enjoy it. I can’t wait.