Thursday, April 10, 2014

Is the MLS spread too thin?

Just the right amount. Courtesy wikipedia.
Word out of Atlanta suggests that MLS may be expanding again, with the owner of the Atlanta Falcons being offered a franchise in the rapidly inflating league.

While expansion can be considered good news to the current clubs (a buy-in is likely to produce an immediate cash windfall for each team owner), the pace at which MLS is growing is perhaps slight cause for concern.

In the next four years, the league seems set to increase its membership by at least four, with teams in New York City, Orlando, Miami and now Atlanta ready to join. This next raft of newcomers joins the recent growth into markets as varied in success as Philadelphia, Vancouver, Portland and Montreal.

With current MLS rosters set at 30, there are serious questions as to the ability of the United States and Canada to support an extra 21% growth within three years. Simply put – do the US elite ranks (that is: MLS, college, NASL and USPro leagues) have enough talent to put an extra 120 players into MLS without “watering down” the product that has begun to win so many local fans?

In the league’s past four expansions, the 110 players who comprised opening day rosters came from one of five main sources: 25% came from US minor leagues, 38% from MLS, 22% from International transfers, 11% from college and 4% made their way through their club’s academy.

That would suggest that a further 120 players would need to be pumped from similar sources. So far, 51 players have been “sent down” to the NASL/USPro leagues in 2014, while some notable players without MLS clubs will try to attract further notice in the NASL. The most notable of these is former Vancouver designated player Eric Hassli, who will play this season for the San Antonio Scorpions, while Freddy Adu remains in discussions with Eric Wynalda’s Atlanta Silverbacks.

However, gut feeling suggests that the step up may be too difficult for more than 15-20 of these elite minor leaguers. College ranks might be able to provide more than the above 11% - but enough to cover the shortfall? The simple answer is that there won’t be – at least temporarily. Without a great influx of foreign talent to maintain the requisite standards, the overall quality of the league simply must decrease.

The answer, at least in the long-term, comes from within. MLS academy products are now vastly improved in quality – see the likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Erik Palmer-Brown. Their emergence makes it now imperative that these academies become the future of MLS, just as in their brother leagues abroad. If MLS is to continue expanding both its geographic and power bases, then replenishment must come from the league’s own resources.

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