The three-part series on the offseason scene in MLS concludes with a glance at a few league-wide topics that will merit scrutiny in 2012.
Growth represents the key buzzword for MLS at this development juncture.
Long gone are the days when the future of the league appeared in some doubt. This bustling and diverse 19-team league now focuses solely on carving out its niche and implementing the necessary structures to continue its development on and off the field.
Plenty of potential potholes will crop up along the way as MLS attempts to chart a manageable path toward the upper echelons of the game. The Friday Five sorted through a few of the instant issues to provide a glimpse of some of the hot button topics for 2012:
1. Finding a permanent stadium solution for D.C. United in the nation's capital: No issue could exert more impact on the league's image this year. One of its flagship clubs – and, for the first decade of the league's existence, its most prominent side – faces a murky future as it evaluates potential alternatives to the aging and expensive RFK Stadium. The club's lengthy crusade through the District's convoluted political machinery has yet to yield tangible dividends despite several false dawns. At this juncture, it seems somewhat feasible, if entirely unpalatable, that United could soon find itself located further afield.
The stakes in play are simply massive. If United ultimately leaves the the nation's capital for swankier digs in Baltimore or another location outside the Metro region, then MLS would find itself party to the most significant franchise move since the Seattle SuperSonics (NBA) left for Oklahoma City in 2008 and suffer its most galling setback since Miami and Tampa Bay ceased operations in 2001. The increasingly dire situation creates plenty of incentive for United (and, by extension, MLS) to expend the financial resources required to ensure such drastic measures are not necessary.
2. Locating the next high-profile star to replace David Beckham: The former England captain appears ready to swap southern California for northern France. Some other prominent figure – Brazilian playmaker Ronaldinho continues to swirl around the rumor mill as a potential option – will likely arrive in Los Angeles in an attempt to replace him. It isn't easy to follow in Beckham's footsteps because no one player can even approach his universal appeal. That caveat shouldn't dissuade MLS from encouraging its prominent clubs in their pursuit of high-profile players. In a post-Beckham landscape, MLS needs to add some star quality to keep the television executives happy and spark some mainstream interest.
3. Establishing and enforcing consistent Home Grown player regulations: In theory, the ability to sign a player as a Home Grown player should be governed by one straightforward passage included in the league's roster rules and regulations:
“(F) HOME GROWN PLAYER SIGNINGS: A club may sign a player to his first professional contract without subjecting him to the MLS SuperDraft if the player has trained for at least one year in the club’s youth development program and has met League criteria. Players joining MLS through this mechanism are known as Home Grown Players. There is no limit to the number of Home Grown Players a club may sign in a given year.”
In practice, some clubs flout this rule on a regular basis in order to sign budding prospects with the league's apparent blessing. Recent U.S. U-23 callup Jose Villarreal – a player who scored both goals for Pateadores when the Irvine, Calif.-based club won the U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-17/18 title in July – joined a long list of apparent exceptions to a simple edict when he signed with Los Angeles on Thursday.
Such behavior simply cannot continue. If MLS wants to expand or liberalize the procedures to make Home Grown player acquisition easier, that's all well and good. But it makes little sense to have this particular rule on the books in its currently tattered state. These machinations merely reinforce the widespread belief that MLS possesses an all-too-malleable set of rules. As NBA executives would no doubt note after the withering criticism prompted by the Chris Paul trade fiasco, a lack of public faith in the equality and the propriety of internal operating structures can tarnish the overall reputation of a major professional league.
4. Developing capable referees for top-flight matches: MLS commissioner Don Garber promised “a real deep dive” on officiating during his state of the league conference call in November. It will take some time for MLS to reach accords with the Canadian Soccer Association and the U.S. Soccer Federation to establish protocols to identify potential candidates and polish their skills before introducing them to first division matches. Earnest diligence with the federations should reap significant benefits in the end. In this particular scenario, systematic improvements – not immediate results – loom as the most important priority.
5. Cultivating the newly-established relationship with NBC Sports: Garber told the New York Times earlier this week that MLS chose to partner with NBC Sports Network because network officials convinced him about their vision for the revamped channel. The three-year deal gives NBC Sports Network the opportunity to test out MLS as a product for a reasonable cost and hands MLS a chance to create a bidding war between ESPN, Fox and NBC in 2014 if ratings improve. The decision to hire former Seattle play-by-play man Arlo White represents a solid first step for NBC, but the new broadcast partner must also expend significant resources on the production side and locate a suitable analyst to make MLS' leap from Fox Soccer worthwhile.
BONUS. Managing the imbalanced schedule: Several issues – including the competitive problems posed by playing some sides more than others and the financial shortfalls prompted by missing visits by certain sides – could come into focus when MLS reveals its full fixture list in the next few weeks.
(Writer's note: The Friday Five – and the two other regular MLS columns – will return on January 4 after a brief holiday break.)
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.