Op-Ed: Why MLS Is Ruining American Soccer

I was in Orlando covering the USSF Presidential Election in February 2018, and the obvious public relationship between USSF and MLS was a little disheartening. The seemingly unlimited “conflicts of interest” topics that came up publicly throughout the process- from Kathy Carter offering a position to one of the biggest soccer agents in the country (who represents a large majority of MLS elite players) if she were elected, to the weird huddle off to the side during the election of MLS and USSF brain trusts after the second round of voting which resulted in a 27 PERCENT jump in favor of Carlos Cordeiro (and a 23% decrease from Kathy Carter’s votes):

The constant questions and speculation about the Athlete’s Council and their votes, a number of soccer reporters seemingly ignoring certain stories, the numerous common financial interests between MLS, SUM, USSF and major TV Networks Fox and ESPN, the fact that Eric Wynalda was suddenly no longer with Fox following his Presidential Campaign, Hope Solo receiving a standing ovation following a speech that basically said USSF was completely corrupt. The list goes on, during an election process that featured public mud-slinging and political bashing following the United States’ failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Then came Jermaine Jones, who said that the blind draw orchestrated by MLS between the New England Revolution and Chicago Fire which was supposed to decide where he would play following his move from Europe never actually happened, and insisted that his agent (the same agent who Kathy Carter promised a position to) came and told him he would be playing in New England.

Leading up to the United States’ must-win match with Trinidad and Tobago, US Manager Bruce Arena- who has coached in MLS for a number of years and who many were skeptical of from the time he was announced- also started making some rather strange comments and decisions. The day before the critical qualifying match, he went on a rant about how he would love to see some of the “European Hotshots” try to qualify in CONCACAF, a statement that came off as either a) so naive that top European teams like Spain or France couldn’t qualify in arguably the easiest qualifying region in the world that maybe he was losing it, or b) so pro-American (and, honestly, pro-MLS) that his loyalty to his country was maybe a bit blinding.

Then you realize that Arena didn’t call Europe-based Fabian Johnson into camp for those important last few qualifying matches (resulting in Kellyn Acosta having to spend time at left back vs T&T). He left Geoff Cameron (a regular starter in the EPL for the past few seasons and one of our best defenders) on the bench in favor of Matt Besler. And then, out comes Danny Williams with this gem of a quote:

Obviously I spoke to the boys when I was in Portugal. Everybody has a different view. I heard from a few people that they tried to ‘market the MLS’ a bit more in the [World Cup] qualifying games and get a name for the MLS. At the end of the day it shouldn’t be about that. It should be about quality and bringing the best players and having a plan. That is it. It is not only the U.S. that failed. Holland failed. Italy. Chile. This is unbelievable. Something is obviously going wrong because other smaller nations, they are speeding up their process. When I look at Iceland, they are a small country but they are actually playing at the World Cup.

Then Paul Arriola signs a massive deal with MLS side DC United (the most expensive deal in the club’s history), and come to find out it was actually (former DC United manager) Bruce Arena himself who told Arriola he should make the move.

Maybe this is all a collection of events that MLS felt was necessary as damage control, following the constant damning criticism of the overall quality of MLS from previous USMNT manager (and one of the all-time greatest strikers in the world)  Jurgen Klinnsman. Whatever accounts for all of these coincidences, one thing seemed certain during qualifying: MLS had some influence over what players were selected and showcased, and those selections were usually pro-MLS.

This all makes today’s news that MLS will offer financial compensation to MLS clubs for the purchase and development of INTERNATIONAL youth players even more frustrating. Throughout the USSF Presidential Election, youth development was one of the hottest topics out there. Everyone became an expert on what we need to do better to help develop more quality US Soccer players. The “college vs Europe” debate continued to heat up. Training compensation and solidarity payments both became common knowledge as we debated how we can help US Youth Clubs develop more domestic talent. During Qualifying, the “pro-MLS” bias and obvious favoritism towards the selection of certain US-based players was to the point where Arena himself could have been wearing a MAGA hat and nobody would have noticed. Now the league is going to put a financial compensation structure in place to help purchase and develop INTERNATIONAL PLAYERS?! It baffles the mind.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the US Soccer Development Academy, you have MLS clubs and non-MLS clubs competing with each other, but it’s not exactly a level playing field. Non-MLS (and USYSA clubs) are basically out there on their own in terms of their clubs’ financial earnings. They’re responsible for improving facilities, paying for field rentals, and covering the numerous costs associated with being a USSDA club, resulting in some parents investing THOUSANDS of dollars each year on club fees, travel costs on weekends for matches, getting their kids to 3-4 training sessions per week. MLS Clubs typically have more resources at their disposal, but as someone who spent a few years as an assistant in USSDA, I’m familiar with the multiple sacrifices that both parents and kids (can’t play for their high school teams, having to do their homework in the car every night, etc.) make while playing at such a competitive level (USSDA and USYSA) and it’s EXTREMELY disheartening to hear that, instead of MLS stepping in and offering financial incentives to improve youth development efforts for our own players, they’ve decided to help every MLS franchise owner who paid the $150million franchise fee with another source of revenue by providing them with the funds (and, likely, resources) to go out, buy a few youth international players, bring them to the States, and sell them for a profit a few seasons later.

This will obviously be taking away even more opportunities from US-based players, during a time when more Division 1 NCAA programs are offering scholarships to International players, there are more International players getting first-team minutes in MLS than in the past, forcing top young American talent to spend a few seasons in USL before hopefully breaking into the first team in MLS (which continues to look less and less likely as each year passes). The MLS Draft has basically become irrelevant over the past few seasons, and today’s news is yet another reminder why MLS is limiting the overall potential for soccer in the United States.

I don’t even need to go into the MLS and SUM partnership which obviously plays a big part in the growing number of people who don’t trust MLS’ true intentions, which always seems to be about one thing: money. This is no different. The constant over-exaggeration of attendance numbers at every MLS match at the beginning of the season, the league forcing individual MLS clubs to tweet out and promote matches which feature two different teams (which DC United called MLS out on a few months ago), and this season they seemed to be stooping to a new low- Tweeting out transfer rumors like Balotelli and Wayne Rooney to DC United before the transfers ever even materialized.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on promotion and relegation. MLS (together with USSF) continue their desperate efforts to ignore the general public’s outcries to recognize a second division in order to introduce pro/rel, but instead of looking at the expansion that comes along with pro/rel as a way to add more teams and actually improve overall development opportunities for United States players, they are more focused on the $150 million franchise fees that they can collect each time a new team is added.

Right now there are 23 MLS teams, let’s say 28 players on each team’s roster. Once the league gets to, lets say 26 teams, that is a total of 728 roster spots that are available.

If the league were, instead, able to evolve into two divisions with, say 20 teams in each division, that’s a total of 1,120 roster spots that are available. And on top of it, the league is now able to introduce teams in smaller markets and in markets where they have no presence at all, allowing the sport to flourish in more markets and introducing the passion that comes with a promotion/relegation battle to the players, fans, and next generation of youth players. Instead, a short-term money grab of $150 million for each MLS franchise, similar to the short-term solution that was announced today that will see MLS clubs purchase young International players and sell them for a profit in a few years.

If MLS actually cared more about youth development in our country and less about short-term ideas on how they can make more money for their team owners, they would not have introduced a “youth transfer fee” system which will limit the number of first team opportunities for our domestic youth players.

The league is clearly more concerned with Tweets which will result in more clicks, commercials which try to brainwash people into believing “this is OUR soccer”, fake attendance numbers so they can show their 2% increase to the TV Networks every season, and trying to sell the fake promises to the general American public that MLS has the quality on the field and overall infrastructure to compete with other top leagues in the world.

It’s all based on lies and money, and if you think it will be HELPING our US Men’s National Team over the next 4-8-12 years, I hate to say it but you’re drinking the Kool-Aid.