Last Saturday, the New York Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy played a sold out match in New York, featuring Designated Players Thierry Henry, Raphael Marquez, and David Beckham on the sidelines.
ESPN thinks it's a good thing. Sports Illustrated thinks it's a bad thing. The sporting world has undoubtedly been waiting for SB Nation Los Angeles to break the tie, but unfortunately, like many things in life, when black disagrees with white the correct answer is usually gray. ESPN used Landon Donovan to echo the comment made all week leading up to the Red Bulls - Galaxy match:
"It's great," Donovan said of the rowdy atmosphere unfolding before legitimate A-listers. "The league's been wanting this for a long time. And the more games like this we can have the better."
Of course, the trend seems like an inevitable one. New York and Los Angeles are the media hubs, they are the cities foreign players have heard of, they are cities capable of competing with the big soccer cities in Europe: London, Madrid, Milan. Maybe not at their level with talent on the pitch, though the LA Galaxy made a good show against Real Madrid and New York looked good against Tottenham Hotspur, they certainly can offer an appealing culture and lifestyle.
"I think sometimes the bigger markets do have a little bit of an edge," said Houston coach Dominic Kinnear. "When you think about the big-name players, Henry, Marquez, Beckham, you have to look at where they've gone: they've gone to the coast and the big cities. These big markets can provide the big city experience and sometimes better facilities."
So what are the risks inherent in the Red Bulls starting to look more like their Yankee counterparts? What are the dangers in the Galaxy spending like they were the Lakers? Not all too different then what happens to the Kansas City Royals and New Orleans Hornets of the world, there is pressure to match the bigs dollar for dollar or to compromise the product on the field in order to stay in the black.
MLS is in a unique situation given that all of its money is pooled to a central fund before going out to players, and teams for the most part are limited to their share of that fund. The designated player rule refers to teams being able to pay certain designated players millions as long as it comes from the clubs own funds. The fear is that this DP rule could lead to uncompetitive spending.
"A team with three DPs that are particularly good DPs, that fit well in MLS could provide an overwhelming advantage," [Real Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerway] said. "If a team is outspending everyone by $15 million that does become prohibitive at a point."
The fear in the Sports Illustrated article is that the MLS could go the way of the NASL. But the article admits two key things:
There's legitimate danger that MLS could become a league dominated by big-market, marquee-player teams
In 20 years MLS will still be alive, there's too many soccer fans, there's the foundation of soccer stadiums and there's just enough committed owners.
What is left between the two articles are a couple of truths. Neither article mentions that the Red Bulls were playing the Galaxy for the first time in their beautiful soccer specific stadium, although SI concedes an important difference between the NASL and MLS. Soccer specific stadiums, on the one hand are quite beautiful and on the other hand are a sign of the long term stability of the league. It's one thing to run a league paying rent to stadiums larger than they can fill, but it is a wonderful truth that America now has soccer stadiums.
So yes, in 20 years time, the MLS will most likely still be around. The biggest threat to any business is itself first. MLS cannot spend beyond its means, but attendance figures are steady and as long as the product remains steady or improves, that shouldn't change. MLS has U-20 teams and second tier soccer, while in constant flux, is alive in America.
The other threat is competition, and it's hard to imagine a rival major soccer league cropping up in America since international recognition from FIFA and CONCACAF is vital to a domestic leagues' survival. As Fox Soccer Channel becomes a normal addition to basic cable packages and as interest in the English Premier League increases with many clubs making an effort to have a US presence, friendly international competition with only help foster interest in future generations of soccer nuts.
The risk Sports Illustrated points out is less that MLS will go the way of the NASL, but that MLS will start to look like many of the European leagues, including the EPL, where the Big Four of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool are the only clubs with a legitimate shot at the title at the beginning of the season. This ignores the fact that those four clubs, like the Yankees, had lean times as well, times when buying a championship just didn't work. It also ignores the appeal of foreign competition which English sides have to look forward to. The EPL doesn't have a post-season cup tournament like the MLS, much of the interest in the standings comes from whether or not teams qualify to play in the two European tournaments.
The Seattle Sounders won the US Open cup last year, a great achievement for a first year club. As the CONCACAF Champions League builds some goodwill in the US, perhaps winning that tournament will mean more and more to MLS clubs.
One of the knocks against soccer for kids is that it gets perceived in a "just try" sport where everyone gets a trophy. Having multiple cups to shoot for, not having the MLS Cup being the end all be all, is good for the sport. It gives mid-tier teams realistic goals to shoot for rather than overspending for a cup they financially are counted out of. Of course, Real Salt Lake beat the LA Galaxy for the Cup last year, so maybe finances aren't everything.