Is Major League Soccer falling behind? A look at the league's new direction

With high-profile players like Nicolas Anelka and Luca Toni rejecting MLS for other developing leagues, is the league falling behind its competition?
When the Los Angeles Galaxy won the 2011 Major League Soccer Cup, many experts predicted it was the beginning of a new era for the league.

The club's three Designated Players - David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan - all factored in the final's deciding moment as Donovan scored the game-winner against the Houston Dynamo. But instead of teams actively recruiting high-profile players, the opposite has happened.

Stars like Nicolas Anelka and Luca Toni, who were expected to sign with MLS this offseason, decided to join leagues in China and the United Arab Emirates, respectively, leaving the question: Is MLS falling behind to developing competitions in those countries?

Not necessarily but a philosophy shift is happening.

MLS teams have become increasingly frugal this offseason, focusing on depth and opting to primarily sign younger, cheaper players, while other smaller leagues are tossing out the money.

It is becoming apparent that most coaches and club executives believe that Los Angeles' model is more of aberration than a formula for success. Philadelphia Union head of player scouting Diego Gutierrez is one of the number of MLS executives who voices that opinion.

"We can't fool fans by saying, 'We just added X player, now we're a good team,'" Gutierrez explained to Goal.com. "It doesn't happen. The American fan has become a very educated fan. They know when a good team is on the field."

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He added, "This league is averaging 17,800 fans a game not only because David Beckham and Thierry Henry came. We're averaging that because we put a lot of hard work for 17 years trying to make the product on the field better."

With clubs continuing to build soccer-specific stadiums and attendance continuing to grow, Gutierrez has a point. Major League Soccer's draw is much bigger than just two or three stars. But one looming issue that remains is the league's anemic television ratings. The World Series of Poker in 2009 drew more viewers (1.0 rating) than the 2011 MLS Cup final (0.8).

That's where the need for stars comes in.

While many expect NBC's television deal with MLS to increase ratings due to the channel's history of stellar presentation and top-notch marketing, some disagree with that reasoning.

Harvard business professor Stephen Greyser, a renowned expert of sports economics, believes that the play on the field matters. No matter how well the product is packaged, fans won't watch if they believe they aren't viewing top-quality soccer. Greyser pointed to NBC's failed experiment with the XFL. The football league drew a 9.5 rating during the first half of its 2001 debut game but ratings immediately dipped as soon as the second half started.

"It showed excellent marketing but a poor product," said Greyser.

Greyser acknowledges the strong infrastructure of MLS but points out that most American sports leagues survive off television deals. He used the Seattle Sounders as an example of a well-marketed product that draws outstanding attendance and respectable 3.0 TV rating in the local market. 

Greyser believes it's imperative for MLS to take advantage of its three-year deal with NBC. Unlike previous World Cup cycles, Fox isn't required to showcase MLS games in its deal to broadcast the World Cup in 2018 and 2022. He believes that more teams need to recruit marketable players and would like to see the amount of Designated Players increased.

"I would see this as a time for major opportunity for investment," Greysar said. "To maybe allow for two more exceptions [Designated Players] above the current amount. They can't do it in a way that says everyone gets 10 percent more. It's got to be used for seriously recognizable talent."

Greyser also explains that "recognizable" talent doesn't necessarily have to be household names from Europe, but that the league needs to focus on retaining its local American talents who fans can resonate with.

"The league has to focus on the idea of American stars. It's been problematic for the league so far," he explained.

Many American players would opt to stay in MLS instead of heading off to lower leagues in Europe but the fear of an uncertain future deters most. Unless a player is marketable like Donovan, their club future is often uncertain as the league's restrictive salary cap forces teams to cut or trade players who become too expensive. Doing a better job of keeping young Americans stateside would go a long way towards attracting interest in the league.

If the product on the field doesn't increase in quality, there are concerns that MLS could find itself in a worse position than it was two years ago when the 2010 MLS Cup final drew only a 0.5 rating and struggled to find any TV deals. That would be disastrous for the league. As much as fans might want to see the product on the field improve, sponsors and executives say that MLS has to continue on its structured plan.

For example, many Montreal Impact fans were disappointed that the club didn't sign Anelka while Gutierrez was happy that the team's ownership didn't over extend itself. He pointed to the fact that many of the stars in Europe over the span of their contracts make as much as MLS teams are valued. 

Giving Anelka a four-year deal at $8 million per season is over half of the $40 million owner Joey Saputo paid to purchase the Impact in 2009.

"I'm actually glad that one of our teams kept themselves from getting into that kind of position where they would have to bid in a foolish way for a player that in two years wouldn't be marketable," said Gutierrez.

Anelka's former Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba is expected to join the French striker in Shanghai, but there are concerns of the financial stability of the franchise.

Just a month prior to the team's signing of Anelka, Shanghai had to fire several of its coaches and sell star players to offset the large losses it took during the year. It is very conceivable that history could repeat itself in the near future if the club doesn't gain the revenue it expects from attracting big name stars. 

It is those reasons that despite poor national TV ratings, sponsors continue to remain steadfast believers in MLS progress and believe in the league's mission to eventually be on par with its European counterparts by 2022. Antonio Zea, Director of Adidas America, asserts that MLS's gradual plan gives financial backers confidence in the league.

"MLS competes with many leagues in the world to sign players," explained Zea via email. " I can't speak to MLS's strategy or how it impacts them but they are our most important partner because they maintain a healthy sustainable league that both supports big name players that fit within their financial strategy as well as developing young players to be the bedrock of the league."