Rumour mills were working overtime in the January transfer window in order to try and pin point exactly where the David Beckham institution would be setting up next, supposedly blessing them with the former England captain’s class and worldwide following.
However, little attention was given over to the place the Englishman had called home since 2007. Like the former Manchester United player’s career, MLS has had an incredible surge in popularity and success since the mid-1990s. Formed back in 1996, the Major League Soccer franchise has gone from strength to strength in a country which has much more love for baseball, ice hockey, basketball and American football, all of whom have the backing of established multi-billion dollar advertisers and owners.
In the space of just sixteen years the cumulative attendances at MLS games has gone from just over two and a half million spectators to finally crashing through the six million mark in Beckham’s final season. The teams in the league are benefitting from a growing support base and enjoy attendances which compete with those of the French and Dutch first divisions. Not that either of those European leagues suffer from the stigma of supposedly “uninterested fans”.
Despite wrestling the affection and attention away from other established sports in the US, MLS has yet to be taken seriously across the pond where every retiring professional is inundated with opinions that their tired legs and heaving bank accounts could only benefit from “blessing” American audiences with their presence.
In reality the MLS is becoming an increasingly technical and competitive league, benefitting from a sophisticated and successful youth policy which has had a growing influence on who takes home the MLS Cup (resulting in nine different winners in the division’s short history).
Many players come through the college system meaning that they enjoy a world class education they may otherwise not be able to afford while being able to train in state of the art facilities with knowledgeable coaches. They remain amateurs at their club until they have finished their college course and so are not clouded from an early age with the money thrown at young European talent and are able to refine their technique for longer without the pressure of competing with professionals in the first team.
As a consequence, a team made up mostly with home grown players reached the final of last month’s CONCACAF under 20 tournament before losing 3-1 to their Mexican opponents – no easy achievement for a country which is patronisingly seen not to have a hunger for the game.
In the future the hope for the MLS authorities and club owners will be that any imports from South America and Europe are there to compete rather than pick up lazy cheques. Questions will be raised as to whether the league should abandon its restrictive wage structure which means that an entire wage budget for one season cannot exceed $2,810,000 and no player (apart from three Designated players – reserved for players such as Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane) can take home more than $350,000 a year.
There must be many fans at clubs such as Portsmouth and Arsenal, for different reasons, who can only dream of the day when the Premier League bring in such legislation.
Portsmouth had no restrictions placed on them to control the calamitous financial policy of numerous owners which would eventually take the club to the brink of existence, while Arsenal will lament that the money they pump into player development which is progressively seen as a waste when compared to the ready-made player purchasing enjoyed by their neighbours in the English top flight.
Although a more flexible financial framework may be required in order to bring in players at the peak of the their careers to help heighten the class and quality of the division, authorities at US Soccer should not underestimate the value of the haven they have created in the world of modern football’s financial gluttony.
In the same way in which the Premier League has benefitted from the US arrivals of Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, Tim Howard and Brian McBride the MLS will eventually be seen as the perfect location for genuine talent to blossom and compete in one of the world’s emerging top class leagues with a passionate audience.