(Monday, January 14, 2008) -- In my last column, I looked at the significant off-field accomplishments of Major League Soccer in the years since Don Garber became commissioner. The obvious question is whether the league's on-field accomplishments have kept pace with those in the boardroom. I think not.
At any gathering where Garber or other league officials speak, they go out of their way to argue the quality of play in the league is light years improved from where it was a decade ago when the league started. But I think Garber and his colleagues tend to confuse parity with quality.
MLS has always worshipped at the feet of the god called parity. It has certainly been a valid goal that at the start of every season all teams look to be of about even quality so fans everywhere can have reasonable expectations of their teams reaching the playoffs and contesting for the MLS Cup. It is certainly not so in other professional leagues where fans of many teams know -- absent some unexpected results -- their teams have little or no chance of post season glory.
To this end, MLS has always used the salary cap as a bludgeon to promote parity in the league. From its earliest days, MLS seemed to have an annual choice -- whether to bring the bottom of the league up to the same quality as the best in the league, or to bring the best back to the middle of the pack. To do the former would obviously cost money. So, inevitably, the latter course was chosen and the weapon of choice was the salary cap.
Look at the D.C. United squad that dominated in the early days of the league. Players on championship teams believe and expect -- quite naturally -- their success should be rewarded with salary increases. But with payrolls already at salary cap limits, to grant raises to some automatically means casting off others. In some professional leagues in this country, raises to players already under contract are exempt from salary caps or other such mechanisms. Not so in MLS.
So, there was the spectacle of United having to divest itself of star players, such as John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Raul Diaz Arce, Richie Williams and others in order to stay under the cap after giving raises to others. This had the effect of bring United back to the pack, of strengthening the teams these players went to, thus maintaining parity.
This past season, the Houston Dynamo became only the second team in league history to win back-to-back MLS Cups, duplicating D.C. United's feat in the league's first two years. So, perhaps one way of gauging quality of play over the years is to compare the current Houston team to that of United a decade ago.
United's players, such as Harkes, Pope, Agoos, and Tony Sanneh represented the backbone of the United States men. Add to them Marco Etcheverry, arguably the league's best player ever, and scoring leaders, such as Diaz Arce and Jaime Moreno. They comprised a team that not only won MLS Cups, but the CONCACAF Champions Cup and beat Brazilian side Vasco da Gama to capture the Interamerican Cup as the Hemisphere's best team.
Houston today is a well balanced and well-coached team that has had little success on the international level. Its best players are in reality no better then fringe players on the national team. So, to use this comparison., one could say the level of play is not better today than it has been in the past.
Certainly, the worst teams in the league are better than the worst at the start. And arguably, the lower half of each team's roster is stronger today than it has been in the past. But is the overall play better, or is it simply more even between the best and worst teams?
When MLS started, it promised a couple of things. It would be a league, said its founders, which would showcase the best American players. Today, though, draw up a list of the 20 best American players. How many play in MLS? At best, only a couple. Expand that list to 30 and there are still only a very few playing in MLS.
The league founders also promised that they had learned the lessons of the failed North American Soccer League and MLS would never become a dumping ground of aging players looking for a last paycheck before riding into soccer's sunset.
That isn't that exactly what is happening. David Beckham notwithstanding, look at MLS's big-name signings of last year -- Juan Pablo Angel, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Denilson, Guillermo Barros
Schelotto, and now Dallas' big acquisition, Duilio Davino. They are all really past their "sell by" dates, at least as far as major first divisions are concerned. Most are in their 30s and most have simply worn out their welcome in the big leagues and with the big teams at which they earned their reputations.
I understand the economics, but I'm still waiting for the MLS signing of a player in his mid- to late-20s -- not early- to mid-30s -- who is choosing MLS over the English Premier League, Bundesliga or La Liga, or any of the other top leagues.
So, do I think that MLS has made some strides on the field? Sure. But do I think these gains have kept pace with the advances off the field, no. This will not occur until MLS begins to pay salaries that are competitive with other leagues. I certainly understand why it can't and why this kind of improvement is going to have to wait.
In the meantime fans will have to be satisfied with parity.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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