MLS than Zero?

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The 2016 MLS season opened this past weekend with 35 goals in 10 games, including a 7-goal game, 3 5-goal games, and Orlando City scoring two goals in the final minute of stoppage time for a 2-2 tie against Real Salt Lake. Somewhat less circus-like, the Portland Timbers repeated their MLS Cup final victory against the Columbus Crew, again by a 2-1 margin with some spectacular goals in a generally entertaining game.  Oddly, it was not the Crew but instead FC Dallas who produced a choreographed rowing celebration for Fabian Castillo’s goal.

All of this is good news for a league that had the 9th highest average attendance among football leagues, finishing behind only the big five European leagues, Mexico’s Liga MX, and the Indian and Chinese Super Leagues. In fact, MLS average attendance is effectively the same as that of Ligue 1 and Serie A. People in Europe–or, at any rate, in the US-facing English media–are actually talking about MLS without snickering (in public).  Prospects have never seemed brighter.

And yet, less than a week earlier, four MLS sides went out of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals to Mexican opponents. Indeed, of the four second-leg ties, only Real Salt Lake was able to make a go of it, scoring first against Monterrey-based Tigres UANL to pull within one on aggregate. RSL generated more chances throughout, including a saved penalty effort, until a 90′ counterattack from André-Pierre Gignac ensured that Tigres would advance. The combined aggregate score for the 8 games (home and away) was 15-5 in favor of Liga MX.

giovincodownNor was this a one-off. Since the introduction of the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008, only one MLS side has beaten a Mexican opponent in the knockout stage: the Seattle Sounders beat Tigres in the 2013 quarterfinals before losing to runners-up Santos Laguna in the next round. The Champions Cup that preceded this competition was no different: the Kansas City Wizards’ 2002 quarterfinal victory over Santos Laguna (before losing to Morelia in the next round) is the only MLS victory in that era. (The Los Angeles Galaxy won the Champions Cup in 2000 without facing Mexican opposition, and they also beat Santos Laguna 4-1 in a qualifying play-off game in 1997, but lost to Cruz Azul, their first Mexican opponents, in the final.)

It’s not hard to understand this dominance. While pundits talk about unfavorable scheduling (the quarterfinals starting before MLS teams are match fit) and the failure of the league to offer financial incentives for Champions League success, these are attempts to get around the basic stumbling block of salary. A study of football salaries from 2014 showed the average Liga MX salary was virtually twice that of the average MLS salary: £265,625 to £135,945.

Moreover, those averages underestimate the true difference between the leagues. The combination of a salary cap with the aggressive use of designated player exceptions in MLS has created a league where the top ten players, less than 2% of MLS’s 560 players according to this infographic published in Issue 9 of Howler Magazine, accounted for just over 35% of the total wage bill in 2015. By contrast, the ten most expensive players in Liga MX in 2014 earned only $15.7 million (compared with $56.8 for the top ten MLS players in 2015), less than 4% of the total wage bill.  This means that if you dropped the top ten earners from each league (only a half-player per team) the wage difference would be substantially greater.

Though it’s possible that 2015 MLS salaries have slightly narrowed the gap, it’s also possible that the growth of Liga MX has been greater than that of MLS. Either way, the basic discrepancy remains, especially once you adjust for the top-heavy salary structure of MLS. And that’s leaving aside the near-certainty that MLS is overpaying for its largely over-age pool of superstars at a higher rate than Mexico, notwithstanding Ronaldinho’s presence (last year) at Querétaro.

Even more disturbing for MLS as a league is the possibility that non-retiree European prospects may be recognizing the difference. If the name of Tigres’ player Gignac rang a bell, it should. Last season, the 30 year-old scored 23 goals and 2 assists in 38 games for Olympique de Marseille.

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The two most notable examples of major mid-career, non-American signings in MLS are 29 year-old Sebastian Giovinco and 26 year-old Giovani Dos Santos, signed in 2015 by Toronto FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy respectively. Giovinco scored 11 goals in 42 games for Juventus in 2013-14, only 2 in 11 appearances the following season. Dos Santos scored 12 goals and 8 assists in 34 games for Villarreal in 2013-14, and only 6 goals and 7 assists in 41 games the season after that. It’s pretty clear which league has done the better job of recruiting real mid-career talent.

This is not to say that MLS is misguided in their tight control of salary. First and foremost, the league must survive in a nation that offers many other more fully developed sports options. But until the league is willing to compete on the free market for role players with Liga MX, it will not substantially improve its CONCACAF Champions League performance. And MLS fans need to stop trying to compare themselves to European leagues they consider better than Liga MX.

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4 responses to “MLS than Zero?

  1. Good thoughts. As a (casual) soccer-playing sports fan, I should be more into the MLS. In fact, I often feel guilty about not even thinking about the league unless I notice that some MLS team makes a major signing. A few thoughts:
    1) The league-controlled player allocation and salary structure sets up a situation where it seems teams aren’t trying their best to win. It’s like our Sunday soccer games where we try to put the best players on opposite teams so that it’s not one-sided. This probably is more ‘fair’ but makes it feel artificial.
    2) By my perception, the league is sliding towards becoming a retirement home for former stars of European football and USMNT players who can’t hack it in Europe. I can’t articulate why this turns me off, but it does.
    3) Probably unfairly, the historical side of sports is an important part of my fandom, and MLS teams obviously haven’t had the time to have ‘history.’ Still, I think teams could better develop an identity if the league had less control over the teams.
    Overall, I’m glad the MLS exists as it does improve the prospects of American soccer players. I just wish I could make myself care about it.

  2. OK, Ron. To respond to your comments in reverse order:
    3) I think you’re not alone in the history issue. We’ve mostly adopted the British obsession with sports history (I’ve read that the US and Britain are the only places that have substantial sports memorabilia markets). It’s maybe not surprising that the most exciting US derby–really, the only serious US derby–is one between teams with roots in the NASL: Seattle-Portland.
    2) The retirement home model is, I think, supposed to be a stage on the way to drawing in younger (say 28-30) stars that are still in their prime-ish. That’s why Gignac’s move to Liga MX should be alarming for the league. Also, have you followed the recent Chinese League acquisitions? They’ve apparently decided to cut out the retirement home stage and just go straight to wild cash offers. It’s like the Russian League before Putin decided foreigners were ruining the Russian National team and insisted oil barons show their loyalty by pumping up local club teams–only on steroids.
    1) I actually think the opaque allocation system is less designed for parity than in line with the old ABA model: if you think you have a chance to nick Julius Irving from the NBA, you find out where he would actually play and make sure they (or one of them) gets his rights rather than someone else. Lord knows, it wasn’t they quality of their team that kept Chicago from getting Jermain Jones. Also, I think the league is interested (either as fall-out from that policy or in addition to it) with making a few super teams. LA (and to a lesser extent the old Red Bulls and the new NYCFC) looks markedly different than the rest of the league in terms of players with name recognition.
    Finally, I hear your guilt. I suspect that’s the way a lot of Americans interested in European football feel. For MLS to succeed long-term, they need to turn that guilt into at least enough interest to generate something closer to NHL or MLB TV numbers (MLS is at .2 to .3 million viewers, while those two leagues are more in the 1.5-2 million range). That’s a pretty tall order, though I’m guessing it’s one of those tipping point phenomena–when it happens, it’ll do so overnight. The interesting question is whether you need to enter the free market for players before that point, or if you can wait until the money comes to start buying good players. That’s a question above my pay grade.

  3. Good points.
    3) Maybe I should try to get to a Seattle-Portland game and that would turn me on to the MLS. Having grown up in the Northwest, I wonder if their soccer mania might also be due to the contrarian nature of the region.
    2) Yeah, I’m glad the MLS isn’t going the China/Russian route of just throwing cash at players. I can’t see that being sustainable.
    1) Thanks for setting me straight about the player allocation process. That totally makes sense. As a casual fan, it does seem opaque. It does seem like the majority of players would want to go to LA or NY. (Still, both Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley wanted to go to Toronto? Really?)
    Lastly, I do wish the teams would put a little effort into the CONCACAF Champions League. I would be interested in an MLS team going to the Club World Cup and taking on the likes of Barcelona. As you pointed out, though, maybe MLS teams just can’t compete with Liga MX due to the salary differences.

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