The buildup to the start of a MLS season usually focuses upon factors that don't particularly pertain to the on-field product.
While the arrival of several prominent figures captured headlines and the rampant success enjoyed by Portland, Seattle and Vancouver warranted plenty of scrutiny in recent years, those big ticket items tended to distract attention from the quality of play from week to week.
Even with David Beckham back in tow for another year and Montréal and NBC on board for this season, the trend shouldn't continue in 2012. As this season starts, the attention should fall upon a series of measures recently instituted to improve the on-field product in the short and medium-term.
The move to an imbalanced schedule provided the controversial platform for this overarching goal. MLS executives have harped upon the importance of rivalries (this cultural shift seems, on the whole, a bit too contrived and a bit too profit-based to pass muster as an organic movement) and wanted to increase their frequency this season. The board of governors complied by reaching an agreement last year to retain the 34-game schedule and tweak how those matches were distributed.
Increasing the number of derbies across Canada and the Pacific Northwest and down the I-5 and I-95 corridors played a significant role in the switch to a conference-based schedule, but the real impact comes from the reduced travel burdens shouldered across the board.
There were simply too many poor matches played when teams crossed the continent last season, particularly in midweek. Many of those games have disappeared as clubs now visit only half of the sides in the opposing conference in a particular year. With some, but not all, of the persistent travel concerns alleviated, it is now up to the clubs and the players to supply more entertaining and more technical fare.
Although the transition should improve the situation on the whole, it isn't without risk. Purists still cringe at the potential competitive imbalance created by the inequitable distribution of matches, particularly within the conferences. Some of the traditional derbies played across conference lines – FC Dallas v. Houston and New York v. Los Angeles, for example – will revert to one-off ties to compensate for those changes.
One or two worthy postseason sides out West could miss out now with each conference now guaranteed five playoff berths, while the prospect of holding MLS Cup in a handful of unnamed cities – an honor given to the top remaining seed among the final two – likely sends shivers down the spines of league executives. Only a tangible improvement on the field will quell off-field doubts about shifting away from the balanced slate.
The potential infusion of younger Designated Players could also provide a boost to the on-field product. The competition committee approved a measure last year to permit clubs to sign DPs under the age of 23 without absorbing the full DP budget hit of $350,000. Few clubs have taken advantage of the rule change during the winter as coaches and technical directors assess the benefits of the new system, but the mechanism could pave the way for teams to import younger players and sell them onwards for a tidy profit after a few seasons.
Protecting talented players assumed greater importance during the off-season in the wake of serious injuries sustained by David Ferreira, Javier Morales and Steve Zakuani last season. Brunt force removed three of the league's most creative players from the scene for much of 2011, while conservative tactics from coaches and poor game management from referees mired other schemers in a barrage of fouls and knocks on a weekly basis. The relative paucity of creative and technical players only served to underscore the importance of the absence of the sidelined trio.
MLS has adopted a couple of changes designed to address the peril confronted by those talented players on a weekly basis. The disciplinary committee will now possess the power to mete out punishment for a foul even if no injury is suffered and no caution or expulsion is proffered by the referee, according to the Washington Post. Referees are expected to fall under the supervision of a newly established organization designed to provide more oversight and training, according to a report from Inside Minnesota Soccer last week.
Both measures offer tangible steps forward in the matter without providing quick fixes or silencing doubts about the disciplinary process. The disciplinary committee struggled to establish a consistent and uniform code toward player malfeasance last season. It is by no means certain that giving that particular body more power will yield beneficial results for the game on the whole, particularly if the committee fails to establish and maintain easily discernible precedents and wields its power disproportionately.
While the advent of a professional organization represents an important step in the process to develop referees in the long-term, it does not address the immediate need for more qualified officials on a week-to-week basis. The standard of control over match will once again vary significantly depending on the man in the middle.
Although the final outcome of these steps remains uncertain, it's fair to say that this group of measures represents a boon for a league that needs to continue to improve its fare on the field in 2012. The new initiatives may or may not reap the intended dividends without a substantial boost to the salary budget, but they do show that MLS has grasped the problem at hand and taken some steps to address it. Now the onus falls on all parties – club and league executives, coaches, players and referees – to establish common and clearly delineated ground as they attempt to bolster the on-field play in the months and years ahead.
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.
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