MLS endured another disheartening exit from the CONCACAF Champions League, raising familiar questions about just how far the league has to go, and leaving fans questioning why MLS seemingly hasn't made up any ground on Liga MX.
The early MLS exit from the region's top club competition wasn't about bad officiating (though the referees can usually be counted on for a few blown calls), or about the timing of the tournament (though it is fair to say it does hurt MLS teams). The reason MLS teams fell out of the competition — and in pretty ugly fashion — comes down to quality and MLS' continued attempts to be the best league in CONCACAF with the equivalent of one hand tied behind its back.
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Slow and steady has been the mantra for MLS since its debut in 1996. The memories of the original NASL's big-spending ways and inevitable failure have served as motivation to keep the league from spending beyond its means and jeopardizing its future.
Fast forward nearly two decades and you have a league that is thriving, about to fly past the 20-team mark, and eyeing new markets from coast to coast. There are nine-figure expansion fees and new TV contracts in the works, and MLS has expanded its business reach through the creation and operation of Soccer United Marketing, which has its hands in everything soccer related in America.
In short, money isn't an issue anymore, and the future looks pretty promising, but MLS has continued to operate with training wheels while claiming to aspire to be one of the world's best leagues. There may be a reason for that delayed growth, one that could be addressed in a year. We will touch on that later.
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First, let's get back to the CONCACAF Champions League, where Mexican teams have outclassed their MLS counterparts for years. Seeing the disparity between top MLS teams and top Mexican teams makes it pretty clear just what MLS needs to do to close the gap.
Here are three keys the league has to work on if MLS teams are going to see significant improvement in international competitions:
Increase the salary cap significantly. This one is a no-brainer and anybody who follows the CONCACAF Champions League, and MLS itself, knows this to be the case. The growth of the salary cap has been downright glacial in recent years, and while MLS has tried to loosen the purse strings by increasing the number of designated players, that increase hasn't really helped enough with the overall depth and quality of MLS rosters.
So why the seeming unwillingness to take a considerable leap in salaries and help MLS compete? The league's Collective Bargaining Agreement with MLS players ends after the 2014 season, and the next negotiations promise to be difficult ones. It isn't difficult to see why MLS would have been cautious about flashing too much cash in salary increases before the end of the current CBA. Given the revenue MLS is showing these days, it could be extremely difficult for the league to avoid making dramatic increases to salaries and team salary caps.
How much would be enough to close the gap on Mexican teams? If you believe the rumored numbers, top Mexican teams are spending anywhere from $10 million to $15 million on salary. MLS teams aren't going to get close to that number in the next CBA. A more reasonable increase to $5 million is more realistic (though if the designated player rule stays close to its current definition, a $5 million cap could still mean spending upwards of $10 million if teams are playing high-priced DPs).
Increased spending isn't just about getting better players, but also about giving teams resources to compile better depth. Mexican clubs have continuously demonstrated better depth than their MLS counterparts, and part of the reason is the financial muscle Mexican teams boast. Another factor brings us to our second key.
Improve the academy system. You may have heard about the progress MLS clubs have made on the player development front, especially with the growing number of academy products signing as homegrown players. The reality is the system simply isn't producing enough game-ready talent to make significant across-the-board impacts on the talent level in MLS. Not yet anyway.
Are MLS youth academies doing a good enough job cultivating young talent and getting academy products ready for the pros? The answer might lie in the paltry number of players who go straight from youth academies to MLS teams, and the microscopic number of those players who truly wind up helping their teams. (Many of the league's best academy products have spent time in college soccer before making the pro jump.) MLS academies need to step up the quality of prospects produced, but even that alone won't help MLS teams develop top young talent in greater numbers.
Set guidelines that encourage MLS teams to play young players. For all the money Liga MX spends, and the impressive collection of talent on display, teams from the top to the bottom of the Mexican league incorporate young players in their rotations. Players who would be considered young by MLS standards are already taking on important roles with their clubs. That is in part because of previously-enforced Liga MX rules that forced teams to give young players playing time.
Establishing such rules in MLS would be extremely difficult, especially given the relatively low amount of pro-ready prospects being produced by MLS academies, and it should be noted that even Liga MX found the rules forcing the playing of young players to be difficult to maintain, and did away with them. That said, a look at the number of Mexican teams that find regular playing time for young players suggests that the impact of those previous rules is still being felt some three years after their removal.
Just look at the lack of minutes being given out to rookies in MLS early in the 2014 season and you see the dearth of ready-for-primetime young talent. That isn't to say there isn't some young talent in MLS. Players like Luis Gil, DeAndre Yedlin and Shane O'Neill as prime examples, but that trio is part of a rare breed in MLS.
MLS is trying to address the lack of options for young prospects by establishing more loan deals, and also pushing for teams to create their own USL Pro teams. This should help give young players a chance to continue developing, but the harsh reality is that there is a continued lack of elite-level talent coming out of the MLS academy system. Until MLS academies can produce talents who are close to being able to contribute, MLS teams will lag behind Mexican teams. MLS is unlikely to set any guidelines forcing teams to play younger players until the pool of young talent is strong enough for that responsibility.
Of the three keys mentioned, only one of them is likely to take place in the immediate future. The new CBA will be established in a year, and while we could see a strike or lockout, the final outcome will almost certainly be a higher salary cap for MLS teams. As much as MLS might want to keep spending down, the growing strength of the league, and diversity of league ownership is going to make that a tougher and tougher sell for aggressive owners.
If MLS is going to be the top league in CONCACAF, let alone one of the top leagues in the world, the training wheels have to come off and the league has to get serious about player development. Until those things happen, all the rest is just empty talk and excuse making, and we will continue to spend part of each spring lamenting the MLS failures in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The MLS WRAP WEEKLY AWARDS
Player of the Week: Bernardo Anor. The Columbus Crew midfielder scored a pair of goals to help improve the Crew to 2-0 in an impressive 2-0 victory against a solid Philadelphia Union side.
Rookie of the Week: Harrison Shipp. The Chicago Fire homegrown player has settled into a starting role and has shown he is a threat on set pieces, as evidenced by his quality corner-kick service on the lone Fire goal in a 1-1 tie against the New York Red Bulls.
Team of the Week: FC Dallas. Oscar Pareja's team moved into first place in the Western Conference with a dominating effort in a 3-1 victory against Chivas USA.