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Far From A Beckham League

Major League Soccer has evolved remarkably in the last 12 years. The Hispanic market in particular is driving interest in the US league.
Major League Soccer has a message for South American and European players who think they will have an easy rime of it in the United States: “Don’t come over if you’re thinking of taking an extended summer holiday”.
Although the 12-year-old league could never be confused with the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga or Italy’s Serie A, MLS has begun to forge its own path in the world of football. It is a physical league and players need to be in peak shape to play during the long, hot and sometimes humid summers. But that does not mean that there is a shortage of talented players.
This season, for the first time in eight years, there was significant pre-season buzz with the signing of several high-profile players due to a new designated player rule – nicknamed the “Beckham Rule” -that allows each team to sign one player who may earn more than the maximum salary of USD 400,000.
Yet the league is far from a David Beckham league. Yes, the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder is the highest-paid player (USD 6.5 million), but he also helped to open the door for Argentina’s Marcelo Gallardo (D.C. United) and Claudio Lopez (Kansas City Wizards), Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Chicago Fire), Brazil’s Denilson (FC Dallas) and Colombia’s Juan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls).
Angel, who scored 19 goals in 24 games in 2007, feels the league is underrated. “It was far better than I thought it was,” he said. “There were a lot of misconceptions about the league. People who don’t know much about MLS probably don’t give it the credit it deserves. It’s physical. It’s quick. Its tough. It’s not a league that you can get by in just by having a little bit of quality. You have got to be in good shape in order to perform … People think it’s a league where anyone can play and that’s not the case.”
It has been far from a smooth ride though. The league has had to overcome attendance woes, losing two teams in 2001 and many sceptics. “If, in 1995, we had asked ‘in 10 or 15 years from now, what would you like?”, I guess people would have said a dozen, 15, 18 teams. We would like to be playing in soccer-specific venues, we would like a national television contract and we would like a product that is getting better’,” said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, the league’s first deputy commissioner. “I think all of those have happened. It has been a pretty remarkable journey for a league that is only 12 years old.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber believes that the league’s recent momentum has been driven by five factors: the expansion of its ownership group the league has owners for 16 teams (Philip Anschutz once propped up the league by owning five teams), the addition of teams (from 10 to 14), the building of football-specific stadiums, the focus on a game-first initiative and the formation of Soccer United Marketing, which has been a money-maker.
The most important part is the football-specific stadiums. Seven teams play in six of those stadiums — Columbus Crew, Galaxy and Chivas USA (who share a stadium), FC Dallas, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and the Colorado Rapids. Real Salt Lake’s facility is scheduled to open in the autumn and the Red Bulls’ stadium is expected to be ready next year.
“When we all look back on the success of soccer in this country,” says Garber, “whether that success is measured by the number of teams we have or the television ratings, the buzz about the sport around the water cooler or the emergence of our national team, much of the success will be attributed to the fact that our ownership has built permanent facilities to house our teams in our local communities, making a statement to the entire soccer world that we’re here to stay.”
The league also learned some lessons from the old North American Soccer League (1967-1984), which introduced football to the American mainstream with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff helping to start a youth football boom.
“This country is different, in so many ways, to the days of the NASL,” Garber says. “They didn’t have soccer stadiums. The national team wasn’t fully developed. We didn’t have the infrastructure around the sport through the federation, and probably just as importantly, the explosion of the Hispanic market did not take place until 10 years ago. It’s the Hispanic market that is driving the interest in our league. We don’t need to teach Latinos that the game is great. We need to convince them that our league is worthy of their respect and their support.”
Defending champions Houston Dynamo are many observers’ choice to win die title again. D.C. United, Chivas USA and the New England Revolution are also considered to be contenders.
The regular season will run from 29 March until 26 October. Unlike the rest of the world, the MLS title is decided through the playoffs. Eight teams reach the post-season, with the champions crowned at the MLS Cup at The Home Depot Center in Carson, California on 23 November.
Garber is optimistic about the league’s future. Toronto were admitted into MLS in 2007, San Jose welcomed back in 2008. Teams in Seattle and Philadelphia will be added in 2009 and 2010 respectively.
The league has a long line of prospective expansion cities, including St. Louis, Montreal (Canada), Atlanta, Portland,
Las Vegas and a second team in the New York City market. Nevertheless, Garber realises that there is a lot of work ahead. “We have to be sure we stay focused on a very careful strategic plan and not think that we have cracked the code for soccer, making it one of the top major leagues in America,” he admits. “It’s clearly among the major leagues, but it’s got a way to go. As long as we understand that and don’t try to do too much too fast, there’s no place but up for this sport and this league.”