With the announcement of the friendly between the Whitecaps and Man City, we get to see where our fine group of lads stacks up against a presumptive contender in arguably the best soccer tournament on earth, the UEFA Champions' League. We will see top-players! Thrilling plays! Advertising for airlines that have difficulty getting landing rights at Canadian airports!
Ok, so really we'll see mostly reserve players with maybe a token name or tou(re) thrown in. Still, I am looking forward to it, despite good reasons to loath mid-season friendlies. It is still a chance to see where the Caps, and indirectly MLS, stack up against a top team. That got me thinking:
Will / could MLS ever be a major league in the global sense that must be applied to soccer? Will its teams ever be mentioned in the same breath as those from The Premiership, La Liga, Serie A, or the Bundesliga? Or will it always remain the poorer little brother, happy to take the cast-offs and the fading stars? I don't think this is a simple question, and I don't think there is certainty either way. I'm sure I am not the first to ponder this, but ponder it I have.
There are three things that make a top league a Top League: prestige, competition, and money. They are all interrelated, to be sure, but each needs to be looked at separately.
First, prestige. The greatest player in the Belgian league is a great player. I have no idea who he is, or even for which team he plays. I'm sure he's good though, because he plays in a reasonably strong league on a world scale. Probably I'll never know him, so long as he stays in Belgium (lovely place Belgium, I would hardly blame him for staying). I know the names of plenty of players in the Premier League though, even the ones who aren't stars on the biggest teams. Why? Because the league is more prestigious. It draws more people in. Sure, the level of play is also higher, but most people realize that a good and competitive game can be seen between only moderately talented teams, provided they are of similar level. The top leagues, whether through marketing or history, have developed that prestige.
Next, competition. Good players are the building blocks of a good league. But just like you need mortar to hold together your bricks, you need a well organized league system, league, and club to see the true results. Good players want to play against other good players; this is half of explaining why almost all the greats sign to play somewhere in Europe. Further, since teams that are successful in the long term almost always have star players, there is the ability and the need to have "turn over" in that star power. Star A draws Star B; then Star A moves on, and Star B draws Star C. So it goes, always pulling talent into that team. In fact, this affects more than just that team, as players will want to play against Stars A, B, and C, just as much as with them. The whole league will benefit, and the level of competition will go up. (Note: this is not to say that the competitiveness of any given team will go up!)
Finally, and of course most importantly, comes Money. Look who we are playing for the Whitecaps' friendly. Manchester City. Eternal bridesmaid. Poor Blue to the Mighty Reds. But wait! They are suddenly a much stronger side! Could it be the sudden influx of millions upon millions of dollars to spend on expensive, but talented, new players? Why did those players join Man City? Partly, as I have suggested, to play with and against other good players. But we all know it was mostly for the money. European soccer is especially prone to "buying a championship." Opinions on that vary, as to whether this is perfectly fine and a representation of the free market at its best, or a stain on sport, making championships little more than "who has the biggest wallet," but it is clear that the money available in the Top Leagues greatly exceeds what is paid in other professional leagues. Distribution is top-heavy, certainly, with the star striker making tens of millions of dollars a year, while the lowly left-back only makes millions. Still, that kind of structure means that any player, or at least any player without some outstanding reason to refuse, is available for purchase by the top leagues.
There it is; money gets the best players, the best players raise the competition, and high levels of competition make for a prestigious league. So, can MLS ever really compete?
The short answer is, yes. There is, as always, a giant "but." A great deal would have to change, both here and in Europe, and while part steps might improve the level of MLS, virtually all of these things (and likely many more as well) would need to happen:
1. Either get rid of the salary cap and DP system in MLS, or see some form of salary cap imposed in Europe.
It's easy to see where this would help. With no cap, and no worries about limited numbers of designated players, MLS teams could go out and acquire whomever they wished at any price they felt fair. This is not a near-term happening. The result could be a Europeanization of the results tables, which would not draw many new North American fans. North American sports are largely based on the idea that every team should be at least competitive; dynasties happen and are accepted, but not for 20 years running and not in such a way that the all the top spots in a league are always the same small group of teams. This is more accepted in Europe, I think because of the nature of the promotion/relegation system. Even without a cap, though, teams would have to be willing to spend the money. MLS teams don't bring in enough money right now for their owners to spend the way they would have to to compete with Europe.
A European salary cap might be more important; while it isn't quite the same, UEFA's new financial rules for clubs competing at a European-level may act somewhat in this manner. Those new rules would exclude teams from play in the Champions' League (and Europa League) if they weren't breaking even on regular activities (read: gates + sponsorships, selling players won't cut it) over a rolling three-year period. Right now, many teams, including the powerhouses, are financed by boatloads of debt. They borrow huge sums to buy top players, and cannot readily repay those loans when they come due. This is what happened to Liverpool last fall. Banks seem to think that these teams will never be allowed to fail, and so lend far more easily than for just about any other client. Had Liverpool not been bought by New England Sports Ventures, it is quite possible that the RBS would have called the loan, and the team would have been bankrupted (or at the very least put into receivership, as happened with Portsmouth last season). These new rules would greatly limit the borrowing ability of the clubs, as they would have to be able to service their debts, or they would not break even. These rules also limit the amount of money an owner can drop into the club for the purpose of transfers and player salaries (they can still build new stadia, etc.). Were these rules in place right now, Man City might finish top four in the Premiership, but wouldn't be allowed to play in the Champions' league next year.
So, if teams want to play in European competition, they will soon have to meet some financial criteria. It's not a cap, so long as you make money you can spend what you want, but it will likely limit the contracts on offer in Europe.
2. MLS needs to bring in more Beckhams.
Marquee players coming to MLS do help the prestige of the league. The key is getting them in numbers, rather than the two world-renown players (Beckham and Henry) who have come so far. This isn't specifically about DPs, although most of the players in this category would only sign for DP money, but well known players must be seen to consider MLS as a legitimate choice during the prime of their careers. As money tightens in Europe and hopefully gets freed up here, this will become easier, and it is a self-reinforcing process. The more who come, the more who will want to come.
3. A CONCACAF Champions' League with more substance or, an alternate method of playing high-level out-of-league opponents.
The UEFA Champions' League is the top soccer tournament. That is only because UEFA is made up of the strongest leagues. While MLS has the capacity to grow, most leagues in CONCACAF member countries will never have the financial clout to grow to a world-class level. Although it would be very complicated, given the system in place from FIFA on down, a UEFA + MLS Champions' league would be ideal, at least from an MLS perspective. But really, even if it got all the needed sign-offs from FIFA and CONCACAF, why should UEFA allow MLS teams to compete? They wouldn't, unless MLS had grown to a stronger position already. As more players moved to MLS, the quality goes up, and UEFA would have more reason to allow the MLS to play. It is all a business in the end, and competition among the very best players is the most valuable.
Ultimately, it all comes down to money. Well, money, and the hope that at least a few good players are more greedy than anything. As financial rules put a squeeze on European leagues, MLS has the opportunity to open up the purse strings a little, and draw off some talent. It would be a very slow process, as the game would need to grow here, in terms of competitiveness, prestige and monetarily. But, at the end of it all, I do think that MLS may be able to play among the Big Boys.