This week, we saw two MLS teams try and fail in the CONCACAF Champions League, perpetuating the idea that MLS teams don't yet stack up to other leagues in the region. Instead of ranking 5 MLS things, let's rank 5 of the things holding MLS back from being successful in these tournaments:
5. Salary caps are too restricting on MLS teams in comparison to other leagues they are competing against, in this tournament and beyond.
This point is usually the first one that people throw out when talking about how an average MLS salary is not competitive with other soccer leagues internationally, as well as other sports leagues domestically. While the ability to play a sport for a living may be a perk of its own, the MLS minimum salary finally came to be a livable wage within the last few collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations and currently sits at $65,000 for a senior roster player. The current salary cap sits at $3.485 million dollars, excluding GAM, TAM, (thank you ma’am) additional funds. The silver lining of the most recent CBA is that the league recognizes the need to increase this cap at a controlled rate, setting new increased values for each of the agreement. Hopefully these caps will continue to rise and teams can be awarded additional exceptions to entice players who may choose other soccer leagues or, domestically, other sports, with a higher budget.
4. Excessive league expansion is showing signs of thinning out the MLS domestic player pool.
While this point is difficult to prove quantitatively, qualitatively, the developmental teams are not producing MLS caliber players at a rate to be able to keep up with the league’s expansion. Younger players are being tested earlier, which may be good for their development, but is not always the most fun to watch or the most successful option for a club. The league is drawing more experienced players from more international leagues to fill in the empty spots, which can be an entirely hit or miss situation in most cases; either the player clicks well relatively quickly and offers mentorship to the younger players or the player becomes a locker room disturbance and shakes the foundations of the squad. Ultimately, continuing to improve player development will take nothing but time and effort, but it looks like the league is slowly heading in the right direction for this matter.
3. Qualification for this tournament was done in 2015.
The turnover for MLS teams is relatively mild, but winning the Supporters Shield in 2015 doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will still be highly competitive by early 2017. Play in MLS seems to highlight the peaks and valleys of an inconsistent player’s career, making longevity at the same club almost irrelevant, as any given forward could easily go from a 15 goal season to a 7 goal season from one year to the next. Also, as “big name” players come and go, the team can struggle to find its form, making the thinning player pool discussed previously even more apparent.
2. Keeping the roof open in Vancouver did literally nothing except make both teams players wear long sleeved jerseys.
Home field advantage is a real thing for LigaMX teams, especially in tournaments like this one. When the CONCACAF Champions League Facebook page aired the FC Dallas against Pachuca game live, they left the halftime audio continue to be just the microphones throughout the stadium to capture the chanting that was maintained through halftime, while showing crowd shots of the fans in Pachuca. As MLS grows, it will continue to develop its own fan culture, that will hopefully one day rival this culture in other leagues. Note that I said rival, not replicate, because MLS needs to be its own thing instead of trying to be like its older siblings abroad.
1. MLS schedules do not easily allow teams to play a full starting roster for these tournaments.
The epic length of the MLS schedule has been a topic of discussion in relation to the number of times each team plays each other within a given season. This year, the regular season is slated to run from March 3rd to October 22nd, with several weeks of playoffs to follow. While over ten months of MLS is a fun and exciting thing, it doesn’t give players much time to recover. Now let’s add US Open Cup games, summer friendlies against big name clubs, CONCACAF Champions League games (if that team did well two years ago, anyway), etc to the already crammed schedule doesn’t give a team much time to focus on any one thing beside trying to qualify for the playoffs. If MLS wants to be successful in the CCL, it needs to allow participating teams to alter their MLS schedule to give them time to rest their players in between games.
Ultimately, I am not ready to throw in the towel for MLS because of the less than stellar results of MLS clubs participating in the CCL. I firmly believe that any time MLS teams can play in competitive games against LigaMX teams can only be a positive thing for both sides and will lead to a competitive growth in the future. So, please, stop berating the entire league based on a few results, and keep supporting your local club.