It Seems To Me . . .
New FIFA rules could complicate MLS's future plans.
By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, August 2, 2006) -- - Almost unnoticed in all the World Cup hoopla, FIFA, soccer's world governing body, passed a number of new rules in its congress prior to the opening match. Several possibly will have an impact on Major League Soccer.
The most controversial edict, passed by the FIFA Congress by a 194-5 votes, will require all the top domestic leagues around the world to have no more than 18 teams.
This is something that FIFA president Sepp Blatter has been pushing for a number of years. By limiting leagues to 18 teams, there would be a maximum of 34 league matches a season (home-and-away series between each team in the league). This 34-match schedule leaves time for various cup matches and international competitions, such as the European Champions League all fitting into FIFA's international calendar, in an effort to bring uniformity to leagues everywhere.
"This was the decision made by the Congress, and we will do that," Blatter said. "Clubs will be happy, they will go back to 18, they will save four match dates and four more days will be available for international play and their players will be more available to their national teams."
While Blatter wants this limitation, some of the world's most powerful leagues and teams have resisted for financial reasons. So reducing to 18 teams will be a bloody battle in some countries. In England, for instance, the Premier League has 20 teams and the second-tier English League Championship has 24; reducing to 18 will cost the each league millions of dollars in television revenues. Four less matches in the EPL and 12 less in the League Championship means less TV appearances.
"This cannot be done immediately," Blatter admitted.
The new ruling might limit Major League Soccer's long-range growth plans. The 12-team league has accepted Toronto to begin play in 2007 and plans to add Philadelphia and a San Francisco Bay area team, and possibly even Cleveland or St. Louis, to grow to 15 or 16 for 2008.
MLS commissioner Don Garber has said the league will then "take a rest" for possibly a couple of seasons before expanding further, which was reiterated by Dan Courtemanche, the vice president of communications.
MLS's plan is to have 16 teams by 2010," Courtemanche said in an e-mail. "We will revisit our strategic plan in 2009 for 2011-1015. We update it every five years, but right now 16 is the goal."
Since the United States Soccer Federation will certainly ratify the new FIFA rule, with MLS growing to 16 teams by 2008 or soon after, the league will have only two additional franchises to grant, leaving it far short of the four major American sports leagues with which in competes. The National Football League has 32 teams, while Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League each have 30.
In its heyday, the old North American Soccer League had 24 teams for a three-year period (1978-80), but overexpansion was considered one of the major reasons the league folded in 1984.
The FIFA Congress also passed several other recommendations that could affect professional soccer in the U.S. and MLS specifically. It is recommended that all professional clubs be licensed by FIFA for five-years periods in an effort to insure financial stability and the willingness of clubs to follow the rules.
The congress also passed initiatives requiring teams to provide youth development programs within a set of rules to safeguard young players and provide for their educations, as well as having appropriate stadiums and training facilities, an qualified team administrators.
Teams will also be required to provide an annual financial report for review, something that might prove interesting for MLS, which has a unique single-ownership structure and maintains strict financial secrecy.
Blatter, who was first elected president in June 1998, also confirmed he will stand for re-election again next year. The 70-year-old Switzerland native was reelected on the eve of the 2002 World Cup finals.
The elections will be held in Zurich next May, but it is not clear who -- if anyone -- will oppose his campaign for a third term.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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