Is the future of football in the USA?

Many of us have watched our team drift away from the clubs with big cash and thought; this isn't right, is there an alternative?  Screw the cash, revolution is in the air, here's Nick Rosano on the MLS.

Modern football isn’t fair.

Sure, each team still starts with 11 players on the field and each has the same 90-minute period in which to score, but beyond the fundamental laws of the game, money talks and only the elite clubs and players get a chance at any serious silverware. For those of you who think a world in which any club can win the title and that even the mediocre players can have a shot at glory is just a pipe dream, put down that pipe and take a gander at MLS, the land of parity.

Need some convincing? Just poke your nose into any of the myriad of sites and blogs covering the US game and try to decipher some of the transfer action being discussed now that the season has ended and 17 teams plot how they might dethrone the Colorado Rapids as MLS champions. You won’t see any £40 million transfer fees or any Fabregas-esque “will he or won’t he?” type scenarios. Instead you’ll see terms like draft, international slot, allocation money and salary cap. What does it all mean, though?

In the simplest terms, it means teams essentially start on an even keel. There is a cap on how much money a team can pay a player annually ($335,000 in 2010), each team can pay up to three players more than that cap allows (think David Beckham, Thierry Henry) and each team gets to sign a certain amount of international players. Each team also gets a certain number of picks in the SuperDraft, in which the teams pick the young amateur (college) players, with the worst teams from the previous year. Though there are a number of drafts that serve to evenly distribute players among the teams, the SuperDraft is by far the most important given that MLS teams’ nascent development academies are just starting to take hold and most of the young talent in MLS still comes from the nation’s college ranks.

While that may seem simple enough, the tricky part is that all of these are moving parts. Any team can trade draft picks, international rosters spots, designated player slots and more to another team in exchange for players. With the exception of allocation money (awarded to teams for a variety of purposes, namely losing players to foreign teams or for a poor finish in the league), none of this has a clear monetary value, making it extremely difficult to place any monetary value on transfers. It also represents significant risk. A team could score the next big young talent with a draft pick acquired from another team, or it could end up giving away a solid player only for their draft pick to fall flat.

While the off-the-pitch complexities of MLS could occupy more than a few articles of their own, the bottom line is that many of these policies are in place to keep the league financially viable as well as to protect the place of young American talent in the league. MLS took a good look at the failed policies of the old North American Soccer League and rightly determined that frugality was the way to go, at least in the early years. Especially considering there are four major, well-established sports in North American (American football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey) that have even more of a foothold than football, it is still important for Major League Soccer to be patient and measured as it tries to capture a greater segment of the nation’s sporting audience rather than follow in the reckless footsteps of the NASL.

The other side of the coin is how all this enforced parity plays out on the pitch. The clearest evidence can be gleaned from simply looking at the results of the MLS Cup, the end-of-season playoff tournament that decides the championship, much like in Mexico and other Latin American countries. In 15 editions of the tournament, nine teams have captured the MLS title, three more teams have contested it and lost, and only one team (D.C. United - four wins) has won it more than twice. In the past three years, a seventh or eighth placed team in the table has made it to the championship game, and in the past two years, those teams went on to win the whole thing.

While the idea that any team can win the title in the United States - given a few years - will give fans of even the poorest small market teams in the league a modicum of hope and keep them interested, the parity is not without drawbacks. With teams limited in their spending, many that could otherwise afford to buy players of better calibre are limited to filling out their rosters with players of lesser quality. As a consequence, the quality of play seen from the top teams in the league is often lower than one might expect, though conversely, most of the poorer teams are able to stay somewhat competitive and remain a factor in league play even towards the end of the season. The other big drawback in this regard is that top teams that are limited in their spending can’t compete on the continental level, and MLS teams regularly struggle to compete with their freer-spending Mexican counterparts in the CONCACAF Champions’ League.

The concept of fairness as it applies to MLS is, for all intents and purposes, financial. While it is a nice sentiment to think that your team has a shot at the title in two years time, even though it finished dead last this year (D.C. United fans, rejoice!), the bottom line is mostly financial. While many of the bigger sports leagues in North America also have certain spending restrictions in place, it is largely to protect the competitive balance, which is still a notably different position from the ones taken by the Premier League when it comes to regulating teams. Nonetheless, with the leagues and teams raking in money from TV and sponsorship deals, the financial health of America’s biggest sports leagues is seldom in question.

For MLS, the goal is survivability, even if it means staying uncompetitive in the global football markets and on the pitch in continental competition for the near future. When the MLS project starts to blossom, observers will almost certainly see a deviation from the strict rules in place as MLS strives to become competitive on a global scale. Establishing itself in the American market is one thing, but if MLS is to establish itself as a competitor in the global market, many of the policies that make the league so egalitarian in nature will have to be discarded.

While many of North America’s top sports leagues still manage to be the best in the world with drafts and salary caps, the sports they represent are largely centered in North America, and they do not face nearly the competition for players, TV and sponsorship money on the global market than MLS does. The more egalitarian nature of football and the relative weakness of clubs in North America is something that may sound like an idyllic alternative in the era of dominance of by an elite group of European clubs, but if it hopes to grow in stature and improve the product it puts out, the globalized, capitalist nature of the financial game will take hold. Modern football just isn’t fair.

Nick writes regularly for goal.com and you can follow him on twitter @nicholasrosano

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