By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 21, 2011) US Soccer Players — We could've called this 'Lessons Learned From 2011,' but that suggests accepting that any of these are actually problems. Instead, the group think at work within Major League Soccer would likely go ahead and move them to the 'successes' side of the docket. Fair enough, all things considered. For some of these, there are reasonable arguments to do just that.
Then again, that's also part of the difficulty in holding MLS to a set of standards and achievable goals that might make for a better game. If there's always a way to minimize criticism while pushing ahead, that's what will happen. However, the real fear should be the same thing we've seen happen in other North American professional team sports. Disinterest from the established markets not regularly winning or opening new stadiums, and the same thing happening to new markets a few years down the line.
It's no exaggeration to group multiple MLS clubs into an unhealthy category. Those that need to rebuild much of its base every off season just to start the next one at or near the same level as the previous year. This is a League that will have 19 clubs next season. If only a few of them are needing to open up new seating areas or trying to figure out a way to satisfy demand beyond capacity, they're the exception. Promoting the exception as the norm is a dangerous game.
With that in mind, here are three areas where I think the League was guilty of overdoing it in 2011.
Stop The Unnecessary Hype
In part, because most adults won't believe it. Major League Soccer as a whole seems caught in a 'the greatest thing just happened' moment, when most of these events simply don't live up to the marketing angle.
It's reminiscent of the marketing the National Basketball Association tried to do in the mid-1990's when interest in their sport began to wane. When compared to how that league operated when they were putting on the best show in sports, the point was simple enough: you don't need to over-hype your product when the product does it for you.
No social media engagement or excited commercial partner will replace quality of play. It also won't wipe away the memory of better games, better teams, and fiercer rivalries for fans who didn't just tune in.
You would think the League would hope that would be most of its audience, a group that can do without the 'you're catching us at the best possible moment' angle that was on continuous replay this season. Or, to put it another way, wasn't that the greatest regular season/final day/wildcard/playoffs/Cup in League history? I can answer all of those with no.
No Designated Player Clarity
This League has yet to establish something very basic in the era of the salary cap workaround: if you spend, you win. Instead, in MLS you might win, or you might become one of the talking points of the 2011 season for all the wrong reasons. Nobody should be arguing a direct connect with spending and winning if everybody was going it. But in a low-capped League where the bulk of the teams aren't taking a financial risk with their rosters, you would think it would help.
Meanwhile, we can only imagine the smugness from those clever investor-operators that keep costs down and still compete for titles. Unfortunately, that will never take this League to the next step on that path to world soccer elitism by the next decade. What it will do is keep this League stalling out under an old system that has shown itself quite capable of outmaneuvering any tweaks to change it.
That's what happens when you establish a League on a business model built to not just control costs, but to underpay relative to any wider market. We're still in an era when the only time MLS as a whole is truly willing to fairly price talent is when they're selling a player's contract to a foreign club.
The Pacific Northwest Is Not MLS
Though you might be confused if you took a look at the list of the club and executive awards the League handed out on Sunday. 15 awards total, and six given to Portland with Seattle picking up three. We're all aware that the success in that part of the country is the story MLS wants to tell about the League as a whole, and who can blame them.
At the same time, the League might want to ask themselves what message they're really sending. It takes Portland less than a year at MLS level to win multiple front office awards? Is it really that easy to better the clubs and their executives that have been working at this for years? Is there really no willingness at all to send the message that an expansion team – even a successful one – doesn't have most of the answers?
Then again, this is MLS so there's a nice mixed message in the awards they've handed out. The two individual awards for marketing and ticket sales were won by Portland Timbers staffers. The overall awards in those categories went to Seattle. For some reason, I doubt either fan group will be using that as an opportunity for creative banner design in 2012.
Part 2 of our 2011 MLS Review will run today at 2pm.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.