by Keith Aksel
Major League Soccer (MLS) always had a hold on me. As a Columbus Crew fan, I was present at one of the first-ever MLS matches in 1996 (Columbus 4-D.C. 0), and the opening of Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific professional stadium in the U.S. I still follow the Crew and enjoy heading to various MLS venues around the country.
Beyond my personal connection with soccer in the United States, America’s general relationship with the world’s game has been hot-and-cold; as the cycle goes, an American men’s national team appearance in the World Cup usually gives rise to a bunch of cookie-cutter sports articles asking, “Is this the year soccer will finally gain a foothold in the U.S.?” only to find soccer relegated to the back pages of national newspapers two years later.
In truth, soccer has been gaining a small but stable foothold in the U.S. for the past 20 years through the endurance of MLS. Since the 1996 inaugural season, MLS expanded and contracted, but today boasts 22 teams, up from the initial 10-city footprint that first year. Last year’s MLS Cup Final between Seattle and Toronto was the most-watched in league history. MLS has clearly proven its staying power, even in a landscape filled to the brim with sports and entertainment options.
But, unlike the common wisdom that asks humans to learn from past mistakes, when it comes to MLS, the past serves as an apparent distraction from the present. In my estimation, MLS’s healthy exterior belies some less-attractive realities which suggest that the league is on an impending downswing. For one, MLS has attempted to form itself in the mold of America’s other sports leagues. Through massive promotional efforts, MLS appears to be bigger and better than ever. And yet, can we say that MLS is a genuinely better league than it was ten years ago? Is its growth sustainable?
One way to truly measure the success of the league’s product it to stack it up against its peer leagues in competition. For teams in North America, that means winning the CONCACAF Champions League, which annually pits the best teams from MLS against those of Mexico and Central American countries. In this history of MLS (since 1996), only two MLS teams have raised the Champions League Cup, the last team being the LA Galaxy way back in 2000. Certainly excuses for America’s ineptitude abound, but U.S. teams genuinely struggle against their foreign competitors, especially those from Mexico. Although salaries have hit record highs with the signing of European and South American stars on the tail ends of their careers, MLS still cannot manage to outgun teams on its own continent.
Another strike against MLS is its confused position within the structure of U.S. Soccer, the sport’s governing body in the U.S. When coached by the recently-departed Jurgen Klinsmann, the national team oriented itself away from fielding MLS players. Klinsmann famously encouraged American national team members to play club ball in Europe in order to gain experience against the world’s best competition. This notion angered MLS head Don Garber, and created odd rifts among soccer fans in the U.S. who either felt that Klinsmann was purposely watering down MLS, or that MLS was a hurdle to better national team development. Should the country’s home league serve as the training ground for the national team, and thus draw more fans? Or, should American players follow Klinsmann’s advice and play abroad, while leaving less-talented players to fill MLS rosters?
Admittedly, I stand firmly on the Klinsmann side of the argument. The best club soccer in the world is played in Europe, and Brazilian, Uruguayan, and Argentinian clubs just have to deal with the fact that their powerful national teams become the world’s best by playing club in Spain, England, and Italy. But MLS wants both to draw eyeballs and cultivate a great the national team. Outside of Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, the English Premier League, and Germany’s Bundesliga, these are mutually exclusive aims. MLS wants to live in its own reality where you can have your cake and eat it, too.
A third strike against the current state of MLS is that the league has attempted to make itself seem more relevant than it really is. Thanks to cheerleader journalism, big marketing, and short memories, most observers think MLS’s growth is rocketing to the moon. But, the biggest deceivers are often unseen. As I’ve written before, American leagues employ a franchise model to grow new teams. The method essentially turns into a large pay-to-play format which forces teams to start big and stay big to remain in the league. MLS is no different, and the recent rash of new teams, although predictably celebrated and used as evidence that MLS is healthy, ignores one truth: some of these new teams are going to move or fold altogether. As in the case of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, when the excitement of a new franchise fades (as it always does) teams have to scramble to stay in the black or risk folding. And because the franchise fee is large ($200 million) compared to, say, incorporating a smaller scale club independently as most European teams were permitted to, when things get tight financially, they collapse.
MLS has managed to subsume any negative talk of failed teams by simply swarming the airwaves with news of where the league is expanding to next. MLS turned to making its expansion hearings into something of a spectacle, complete with hashtags for the various cities vying for supposedly coveted spots for the right to have a franchise planted in their city. For example, in 2014, negative reaction over the folding of LA’s Chivas USA was quickly quashed with news that MLS would replace Chivas with a new team-and promptly did so with the founding of LAFC later in 2014 (with a new stadium to boot!). The league has done a good job of making people forget recent failures, which may, in the end, be where the league’s genius truly lies.
While attempting to get big fast, MLS is still outshined by its overseas competitors. As stated in 2016 reports, MLS is actually less popular by the English Premier League at home- (EPL garnered nearly double the average American viewership than MLS in 2016)- making clear that expansion never tells the whole story. MLS is not even winning the soccer wars at home.
This is not to say MLS itself will collapse. MLS has a niche role to play in the American sports ecosystem, and fans of soccer in general will at least keep an eye on the league. The league serves as an attraction for millennial eyeballs (the league’s largest demographic), and I wouldn’t be surprised if it one day surpassed the NHL in the “big four” American sports category. But the attempt to fashion itself as a “go big or go home” franchise league means that expansion into new markets will inevitably be met with failures of other franchises. Bigger is not always better- bigger just means more unwieldy.
 I have decided to never call the Columbus Crew “Crew SC” out of moral outrage. Constant rebranding is another headache that MLS seems to think draws people in, when in reality it pisses people like me off.