Soccer in North America has had a bit of a topsy-turvy history. While the late 70s and early 80s was a bit of a heyday with the success of the NASL, soccer has failed to catch on in recent history. There have been blips of popularity, such as during the 1994 World Cup hosted in the US, or any of the numerous times the American Women's National Team members have decided to controversially show off some skin.
For years, soccer fans, whether they be ex-pats from overseas, or born and bred Canadians have been made to make a decision; follow a team in a world class league 7000 km away, or support your local club and watch a bunch of semi-pros and soon-to-depart prospects play lower tier football.
While local footy fans in Vancouver have been lucky to have a successful and attractive team over the years, it is hard to blame kids in Penticton, Calgary, or Saskatoon for not being exposed to soccer.
Lucky for us, it appears the MLS is on track to provide a stage for the beautiful game to not only prosper in the local markets, but also on the world stage.
The salary cap allows for league parity, meaning a team like Philadelphia, who was terrible in their first year was able to excel in their second year and make the playoffs while playing some attractive football. Also, the league can't outgrow itself by having maverick owners paying exorbitant amounts on players their club can't afford, or even worse, devolving into a Have vs Have Not league such as the Scottish Premier League.
The introduction and support of the academy systems by salary cap relief for homegrown players encourages teams to develop talent locally which will benefit both club and country.
And best of all, of course, is the current shift towards an acceptance of the supporter culture. No more evident is this than in the Pacific Northwest where (despite some original growing pains courtesy Paul Barber,) the supporters groups are organically evolving match day experiences to rival many European football clubs.
Total gate numbers around the league has been steadily increasing, TV contracts and major sponsorships are rolling in, and the salary cap is steadily and slowly increasing (while other rules, such as the Designated Player rule is becoming more lenient.) Some truly world class soccer specific stadiums have been built in Kansas City, New York, LA, and Houston to name a few, which further entrenches the MLS into the sport community in North America.
The MLS is not without it's faults. The current rulebook is anything but transparent. Some of the transfer rules are down right dumbfounding (Bocanegra was out of contract when he left for Fulham! Why the hell does Chicago still get first dibs ferchristsakes?) and that's without bringing up the often mocked Hyper Excellent Draft of Future Squad Players or whatever it is.
Furthermore, Garber can't seem to decide if he wants to be a true football league, like the most popular in the world, with a 20 team league and a balanced schedule, or a good old Ah-murrican Sports League like the NFL with real proper regional divisions and rivalries. Some of which you've never heard of and not even the teams own supporters likely care that much about.
Go ahead. In less than 15 seconds, tell me if you know who competes for the Lamar Hunt Pioneer Cup.
That's what I thought.
Many teams are still not yet profitable, but I wouldn't be surprised if nearly half of the teams this season turn a profit, and the overall revenue is increasing each year. Long term viability it almost all markets seems feasible.
In the end, Garber has been calculated and smart. He has slowly and deliberately removed layers of financial protection, allowing for further financial leniency. Teams can now have 3 Designated Players – and new this season, extra cap relief for 'Young Designated Players' under 25. His expansion choices have been smart: Vancouver, Portland, and Montreal are all locations with a long history of successes and an existing supporter base.
And as a result, the MLS had a successful 2011 season and everyone should be optimistically looking forward to 2012. Especially after this off-season.
The league has had a 3 month long wet dream beginning with LA Galaxy, the darling child of the league, winning the MLS Cup. The Galaxy could be considered a proof of concept for the Designated Player rule, using all three of their DP slots to security the Supporter's Shield and MLS Cup double.
This allowed the Galaxy to jet set around Asia as champions in a series of friendlies used to spread the Galaxy and MLS brand.
Most importantly, a handful of MLS players left to Europe for various training stints and on loan deals, including Arsenal favourite Thierry Henry returning the the London club, and American legend Landon Donovan continuing his relationship with Everton.
Both made instant impacts on their side, as Henry proved to be an effective substitute including scoring an extra time game winner Sunderland while Donovan racked up 6 assists for Everton.
Some will say that it's obvious that two of the best players in the MLS would succeed in the EPL – but the fact remains that these two players have many other players who are statistically equal or near their level in the MLS. Camilo had the same number of MLS goals and assists as Donovan. Charlie Davies, Andres Mendoza, and Emilio Renteria had a better goals per 90 minute than Henry.
I'm not trying to compare seasons. I'm not saying Camilo could start for Everton. All I'm trying to point out is that around the league, there are likely players on each MLS team who would have some success in the worlds best leagues. This wasn't true 5 years ago.
Finally, there is an increasing number of world class players signing, or at least considering signing in the MLS.
Beckham decided (or, rather, Posh decided Beckham would decide) to stay in LA for another year.
Vancouver Whitecaps have made their own splash by signing ex-PSV and Tottenham player Young-pyo Lee and reportedly signing Middlesbrough midfielder Barry Robson. David Bently and Carlos Bocanegra have also been rumoured to have the interest of the Whitecaps.
Sure, some of them are on the tail end of their career and may want one last paycheck. But more and more, the MLS is becoming a legitimate destination for international footballers.
Like it or not, Beckham must get some credit for being the first to make the MLS move.
Now when a player is out of favour with his current European club, MLS clubs are a realistic destination for players who still want to play football.
Something can also be said for location. New York, Los Angeles, Montreal and Vancouver are all world destinations for lifestyle, and sometimes, for guys like Beckham who has a nickle less than God, lifestyle can be the deal breaker.
Camilo has mentioned he loves the safety and security in Canada. The weather in North America is good, all of the large cities have fantastic amenities and no matter what team you land on, you can drink the tap water, which can't be said for some of the other leagues in the world.
The MLS may never reach the levels of the Spanish, English, or German leagues. But it's getting better. It's legitimate, it's respectable, and it's becoming a player in the international transfer market.
It wont be long before the MLS is only one small step below the EPL, signing players before teams in France, Ukraine, or Netherlands can.
It wont happen today or tomorrow.
But when it does, you'll have Don Garber to thank.