Can the MLS Become World Football’s Petri Dish or Does it Even Want To?

Miguel Almiron, a signing in Atlanta United’s Inaugural Season, Recently Completed a $27 Million Transfer to Newcastle United. A Sign of Things to Come for the MLS’s Future?

Miguel Almiron, a signing in Atlanta United’s Inaugural Season, Recently Completed a $27 Million Transfer to Newcastle United. A Sign of Things to Come for the MLS’s Future?

The MLS needs a home. Desperately. Not a headquarters in some coastal city or a stadium for an expansion club but rather a niche in which supporters of football around the globe respect and appreciate Major League Soccer. Housed in a country with a third of a billion people, the MLS will have little trouble filling stadiums and enthusing its domestic fans. Because of its relatively recent emergence as a professional league, the MLS’s expansion has extended the league’s fandom to cities with little professional athletic representation and outlets like Salt Lake City, Columbus, San Jose, and, most recently, Nashville. Tapping into such mid-sized markets allows these teams to plant deep roots in their communities and flourish into vibrant beacons of soccer across the continental United States and Canada.

During such apparent prosperity, however, the MLS faces a severe identity crisis. Does the MLS wish to become the retirement home of world football, allowing global stars to run around on blown out knees for a few extra years, playing uncompetitive, low-speed football? Alternatively, does it with to become a North American Eredivisie (Dutch League One) that breeds football’s next generation that, though they will inevitably be shipped overseas will increase the quality of football played in the states? At the moment, Don Garber and the MLS seem satisfied with the former. Failing to provide relegation and promotion inherently dampens the thirst for competition. With secure futures, teams can afford to perform poorly, hoping that, one day, it will be there turn at the top. The emergence of Atlanta United as a barnstorming force of nature that has sent players to England in record-fees reveals that the potential for the MLS to become a development league – a league respected by Europe, Africa, and South America for developing talent and loyal fan support.

By rapidly expanding the number of teams to the current 24 and eventual 28, however, the MLS has ballooned to a much larger size than its European and South American counterparts which all follow a rigid, 20 team structure that includes relegation and promotion – the ultimate stakes of any professional sport. Given Don Garber’s claims that relegation and promotion are not “economically viable “ in the US, the league does not appear to be following the model of foreign leagues any time soon. His claim, though disappointing, is reasonable. New owners would be furious to see their teams relegated from an already under-viewed league and will not allow for relegation to satisfy the wishes of the fans. For the football to improve, however, the league must expand not only horizontally but vertically. Increased competition is necessary to heightening any venture. For the bottom 12 or eventually 14 teams of the MLS, they will have little desire to avoid the bottom. Instead, failure to succeed may subsequently cause a rift between teams in the major markets of LA, New York, and Miami, to distance themselves from the smaller-sized contenders whose presence in the MLS gives the league its intense, though limited, following.

When discussing the future of MLS, it is impossible to disregard the future of analytics in the sport. With the emergence of “Moneyball” in baseball and of analytics by the other major sports in the US, European football is next in line to pick up the mantle of enhanced data utilization. For Europe’s top clubs to spend hundreds of millions on flashy young wingers and physically gifted center-backs while disregarding the value of analytics reveals a deep-rooted travesty of the modern game. Though some teams have begun to integrate technology into their managerial hierarchies, many managers and scouts, under the threat of being sacked or the pressures of relegation, revert to making gut decisions rather than rational analysis. Similar to the MLS owners’ hesitation regarding relegation, these managers and clubs reluctance in using objective measures is understandable. Going forward, however, clubs must find alternative strategies for success. For the Leicester City's, Lyon's, and Ajax's of the world to continue to produce prime talent while achieving relative domestic success, signing a data manager or hiring a strategy team based in New York or London may be as critical, if not more so, than splashing heaps of cash on a flashy South American prospect. It is in the role of test subject that the MLS can find its home. If Major League Soccer makes a dedication to expanding analytics just as fellow American sports Baseball and Basketball have done, the MLS can at last prove the vital nature of data in sports. There is little question as to whether or not analytics have a future in football. Regardless of the sport’s difficulty to analyze, inherently unscientific tactics and formations, and the successful history of superstitious coaches and owners, the ability for data to complement success is undeniable. Perhaps, for the greater adoption of such practices by teams across the globe, one league needs to showcase the benefits of utilizing data to find hidden gems and critical performers. Perhaps, that league is the MLS.