Jermain Defoe’s tumble from Tottenham Hotspur to Toronto F.C. coupled with Michael Bradley’s retreat from A.S. Roma to the Canadian Reds has prompted the latest tizzy about Major League Soccer’s progress.
The league expands to 21 teams in 2015 with the addition of Orlando City and New York City F.C., Manchester City’s Stateside marketing exercise. Average attendances have increased by about one-third since the turn of the century, and the average spend on players’ wages has risen to $5 million per club from about $3.5 million in 2009 (excluding the forthcoming bump from Toronto’s largesse).
Yet a glaring deficiency is still being overlooked. The level of play in MLS has plunged in the past few seasons as the league has expanded.
Players previously deemed surplus to requirements linger at new franchises that need to build squads from scratch. Salary cap rules designed to maintain parity have inadvertently led to mediocrity as successful organizations cannot reward their players with appropriate wage increases.
Houston Dynamo exemplifies a team that has been punished for its triumphs. Expansion drafts following the 2007 and 2008 seasons allowed the incoming San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders to select 10 players from around the league. Dominic Kinnear’s roster was plundered for the No. 1 selection on both occasions, while Dwayne De Rosario’s outstanding play for the Dynamo saw him being moved on, also to Toronto, amid escalating pay demands.
Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes lost Honduran midfielder Roger Espinoza and Sierra Leonean forward Kei Kamara to English clubs after turning his team into strong title contenders.
Vermes led Kansas City to last month’s MLS Cup title with arguably his weakest line-up since 2010 as standards elsewhere fell sharper than at Sporting Park.
Former Liverpool and Scotland defender Steve Nicol recently bucked the trend among MLS pundits to fuel a yawning credibility gap between the league’s hype and its quality.
“Every single time there’s another team comes, the product is watered down once again,” said Nicol on the ESPN FC soccer show last November.
“Everything’s great about MLS except the product on the field at this minute.”
Nicol fears that hurtling toward MLS commissioner Don Garber’s stated aim of a 24-team league by 2020 will only further dilute a threadbare talent pool.
Defining the standard of play is a largely subjective exercise. Suggestions of a decline can be derived from plummeting television ratings as opposed to official attendance figures that are often massaged.
ESPN experienced a 29 percent drop in viewers for its MLS broadcasts last season while NBC’s Sports Network channel suffered an eight percent decline despite its slick production.
December’s MLS Cup Final between Sporting and Real Salt Lake was the least-watched championship decider on an English-language channel in the league’s history with 505,000 viewers – a 37 percent slide from the prior year and a figure that was beaten in the same Saturday afternoon timeslot by a repeat of the “Everybody Loves Raymond” sitcom.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president Tim Leiweke described Toronto’s deals for Defoe and Bradley as “financial suicide.”
The duo might manage to jolt an underperforming franchise that has won 17 league games in the past three seasons before their own level of performance is dragged down, but they are far from being marquee players.
Allocating the vast output being spent on Defoe and Bradley’s transfer fees and wages to youth development and improving every position on head coach Ryan Nelsen’s roster would surely provide a greater overall result.
If only Major League Soccer’s convoluted rules allowed for such upgrades.
A version of this article was published in the January 18, 2014 edition of Aberdeen Football Club’s Red Matchday Magazine.