The US Men’s National team manager made headlines last night after a press conference with FOX Soccer in which he took yet another shot at MLS. Jürgen Klinnsman criticized the league’s nine-month season claiming it severely hurt player development and fitness. He urged MLS officials to alter the season to be structured as an 11-month season, comparable with the rest of the world’s leagues operate. He felt that the inadequate training that MLS players are subjected to is a major reason for last week’s loss to Chile in an international friendly. “The MLS season goes nine months, and they should take a month off but then they should then go back to preparing themselves for their next year. A couple of guys haven’t done that and that’s why they are looking a little bit shaky right now. But we’re going to get them back on track and hopefully they learn out of it,” Klinnsman explained. While his words are another stab at MLS, Klinnsman might have a point.
The US went to half against Chile winning the match 2-1. The Chilean team stormed back and scored twice in the second half to come away with a 3-2 win. It was an international friendly, so it really doesn’t mean anything, but the United States is still fighting to prove that it belongs on the world soccer stage. Klinnsman was not wrong that the US looked a little out of shape in the second half of the match. He made the comparison to other major American sports, pointing out the expectations set forth for them. Klinnsman said, “Soccer is not there yet where the NFL or the NBA or the NHL are in terms of peer pressure. They don’t have that same sense of accountability here in the U.S. that they would have in Europe.” He is right. MLS is not there yet and the nine-month cycle probably is not helping.
The American soccer system has, for whatever reason, resisted conforming to the world format of soccer. The 11-month structure gives players time off during July and into August. My best guess is that MLS authorities have recognized that the summer months tend to be rather slow as far as sports go. The NBA and NHL wrap up in June and the NFL is in the lifeless part of its cycle, leaving just Major League Baseball. Competing with just one sport during those months makes it much easier for the league for the league to draw viewers and sponsorships. Unfortunately, MLS, as a result, finds itself out of sync with the transfer window that every other country uses. It leads to a confusing mismatch of off seasons that forms a disconnect. This means that while US teams are trying to build their rosters heading toward the season, as they are right now, the European leagues have ended their transfer period. It no longer allows players competing in league around the world to make the jump to the MLS right when teams are looking to add valuable pieces. It instead seals off MLS clubs from building to the potential that it could. This might not have been Klinnsman point but it plays into his argument.
Getting more specific regarding player acquisition and player development vastly differs from the US to Europe. The youth soccer system in Europe most notably does not include college soccer. Most European teams sign players to contracts as young as 16 and simply loan them to other teams in lower divisions to gain experience. College soccer is a great program in the US, but the level of competition and the availability of resources are well below that of youth systems in Europe. The development process simply is not strong enough to make it a top choice for the world’s best players. However, I think the culture of college soccer could change. In a world where college basketball players only spend one year in school and college football players frequently leave after their junior year, MLS could begin to see a shift to this model. Three out of the top six picks selected in the MLS SuperDraft were students who were leaving school early. That might not seem like much but it is a start.
The simple fact is that this isn’t basketball, hockey or football. Soccer does not have the nationwide popularity the other major sports do. It could come eventually. American soccer is growing in popularity and support. We saw that this past summer with the 2014 World Cup. MLS is slowly beginning to allure more fans with rising attendance rates and larger television deals. I have mentioned the impact that the stars of the 2014 World Cup for the US could have on MLS popularity. This is a big year for MLS. It has all the right ingredients to take another large step in the direction of being nationally recognized as a major US sport as well as a competitive domestic league on the world stage. Does the MLS need to switch to an 11-month system to really push its success? Maybe. I don’t think it would hurt and it would certainly help with getting on the same page with the National team manager. If you ask me, eventually they will have to, if the league truly wants to be taken seriously. Klinnsman has a point. Change is needed in MLS. It is coming. Just not as soon as he would like.