The MLS playoff semi-finals are finally set. The New York Red Bulls v Columbus Crew SC and FC Dallas v the Portland Timbers.
If you were to have guessed who’d still be here based on pre-season predictions from earlier this summer it would seem as if these matchups were picked from a hat. I mean, Liviu Bird said that Dallas and NYRB wouldn’t even make the playoffs.
But cut them some slack; predictions, especially in soccer, are consistently hogwash. This example does have a stronger point, though.
The MLS is unpredictable. And that’s a good thing.
The unpredictability of a champion actually translates into something else when it comes to professional sports: parity.
Parity has been a focal point of the league since its inception because, as Don Garber points out, it breeds competition. The basic point of the argument is that since the league has control and can dictate who comes in and out of the league (and to some extent, for how much), they can limit super clubs developing. This helps both curb the growth of the league so it doesn’t expand out of control and also limits the ability for any one team to buy themselves a dynasty of title-winning squads.
But several names new to MLS offered the league’s history of relative lineup parity a challenge. Giovinco to Toronto (accompanied by Bradley and Altidore); Kaka to Orlando; Pirlo, Lampard and Villa to NYCFC; Gerrard and dos Santos to LA; and Drogba to Montreal.
With these (and many more) new signings, it was shaping up to be the most star-studded and exciting season MLS has ever seen, and I’d bet whatever cold-hard cash is in my wallet that, after the CBA deal was done, @thesoccerdon was so excited he was having trouble sleeping at night.
But here we are, five matches away from crowning our new champion, and none of the names mentioned two paragraphs above will be rostered again this season. In fact, there aren’t many “big names” left. I understand that “big names” is a relative phrase, hence the quotes, but I’m talking big on Pirlo and Drogba’s level, not Tony Tchani’s.
In fact, only two of the top twenty salary-earning players in the MLS are still in the playoffs (Federico Higuain-Columbus Crew [17th], and Liam Ridgewell-Timbers [19th]). I’m not trying to strictly equate how much players earn with their on-field value, but it is an indicator.
Earnings and prestige were so much an indicator of talent for Don Garber that he controversially named England internationals Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to the MLS All-Star Game before they had even played MLS matches.
From a soccer (or any sport for that matter) standpoint, that makes absolutely no sense. How could they be league all-stars if they hadn’t even played in the league? This is where it’s important that general soccer and MLS fans alike realize that Garber is not necessarily a soccer fan. He’s a businessman.
And as a businessman, he approaches the development of the league as a business. He knows that the average American viewer who doesn’t regularly follow the league won’t care about guys who spent time in the Championship before coming to MLS like Kamara or Wright-Philips. Instead, they want to see Drogba, Dempsey, dos Santos, or Bradley. They want to see “big names” that are regularly involved with the USMNT or top clubs in Europe.
So the darkest timeline for Garber grows deeper. One of the Commissioner’s All-Star picks didn’t make the playoffs while the other was out in the first round. USMNT stars Dempsey, Altidore, Bradley were all out before the second round. Giovinco’s out. Dos Santos’ is out. Keane’s out. Kaka didn’t make it to the playoffs.
Who is the biggest star left? Kamara? Adi? Castillo? Bradley Wright-Phillips? Nagbe?
I think here is the point where Garber has to step back and realize, despite the absence of stars, how well the league is actually working. From the start of Major League Soccer there has always been a desire for the league to win.
But teams win. Not “big name” stars, not jersey sales, not TV ratings. This season is shaping up to be one of the most exciting the league has ever seen– and it’s no fluke. The selling point of the league has always been parity, and the four remaining teams serve as a reminder of that.
It’s true, promoting a Steven Gerrard v Frank Lampard final would be much easier than Mauro Díaz v Dax McCarty one. But what would that hypothetical final say about our league?
I think the fact that star-laden teams have a hard time winning in MLS helps give the league credibility. If a 37-year-old Didier Drogba could tear up the league and win an easy title it would make the league look like a joke.
In fact, the difficulty that a lot of big stars had settling into the league is a good thing. It shows that MLS is a league that you have to fight in to win. And more importantly, it shows that there is more talent here than some might have thought.
But more than that, it shows that the league’s talent is pretty evenly dispersed. One huge name like Drogba won’t make your club surefire winners. And that’s because a team like Columbus can still knock you out of the playoffs.
It’s time for Garber, the businessman, to fully embrace that fact and let the true talent of the league represent the league. Invest money into teams with big followings but small budgets and let the selling point of this soccer league– parity– shine through.
Because at the end of the day, what sports fans want to see is a hard-fought competition. And we all know how to breed competition, right Don?