MLS: Time to quit playing hardball

You may have already seen former FC Dallas player Bobby Warshaw’s epic takedown of anti-MLS snobbery. If not, please pause here and go read it.

Warshaw makes a realistic case, conceding a few problems with the “crazy, messed-up league.” Pay disparities within a team and attendance disparities between them are hardly unique to MLS, but the meddlesome league office and the lack of free agency are a little disorienting.

Then Warshaw hits Eurosnobbery hard. Manchester United? Barcelona? Bayern Munich? OK, those clubs are worth watching ahead of MLS clubs. But: “If you are saying that you’d rather watch Stoke City vs. West Ham instead of Seattle Sounders vs. Portland, you aren’t being honest.”

And if you’ve been watching a lot of Premier League games this season, you know what Warshaw means. On an individual level, most Premier League players are better than MLS players. Of course. But put them all together on a 14th-place team against a 15th-place team, and you can see some dreadfully dull games. U.S. fans may wince watching Jozy Altidore these days, but the rest of Sunderland’s squad isn’t going to move broadcasters to wax poetic, either.

Warshaw wraps it up pretty well:

I’m not sure why you’d rather watch a random European game with unidentifiable Italian and Spanish players when you could watch an equally entertaining game of players who grew up in cities you’ve been to and who attended colleges you’ve visited. You can identify with the player on the field. You can buy him a drink. He lives down the block from you and drives the same car as you. You can tell stories about how you played with a guy as a kid that played against a guy that dated the girlfriend of the guy that is playing left mid on the field. You can wear your team’s jersey to a Rep Yo City party. You weren’t born in Arsenaltown, were you?

One thing Warshaw omits: You can also see a lot of these players with your own eyes. You can go to games with great atmospheres, melding European and Latin American fan cultures with local American and Canadian twists. Soccer is a good TV sport but a great live sport, and you’re going to get more value out of an MLS game than out of a summer preseason game with AC Milan and Liverpool’s second teams sleepwalking in front of 60,000 people, many of them deluded into thinking they’re soccer fans.

It’s nonsense for a true soccer fan to ignore decent soccer in his or her backyard without a compelling reason to do so. If you live in Sunderland, then go see Sunderland. If you live in Cancun, then go see Atlante.

So congratulations to Warshaw for writing a powerful argument to root for the home league. And kudos to Deadspin for running it as a rebuttal to something the snarky sports blog had run earlier.

Now here’s the problem: MLS’s detractors … have a point. And the league is giving them ammunition as it heads into a very important year.

This is the last season of the league’s TV broadcast deals with ESPN, NBC and Univision. It’s also the last season of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players.

And speaking of collective bargaining, the league is starting the season with replacement referees.

That looks bad. And it is bad. Finding quality referees is already a challenge in any league. Now we’re trotting out retirees to run around with some high-strung players anxious for their first game of the season.

And what kind of tone is the league setting for the collective bargaining ahead? After several years of remarkable growth in which the league’s team have broken open their wallets for big-name players, will MLS really risk a credibility-killing work stoppage to withhold money from the rank and file? Will it insist upon a complex system of allocations and re-entry drafts to avoid bidding wars over five-year MLS veterans while Drake is helping Toronto FC sign Jermain Defoe to a megabucks contract?

MLS is ready to take a step forward. To do that, it needs players. And referees. Now is not the time to play hardball and go backwards.

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