Gregg Berhalter should be the Next USMNT Head Coach

Last week, I revisited my thoughts on the USMNT crashing out of World Cup Qualifying. Now it’s time to assess the recovery and answer the question on everyone’s lips: who should be the next USMNT coach? Word on the street is that we may know as soon as November 1st.

In order to answer this question I’ll give a quick recap of what the interim coach Dave Sarachan has done and I’ll list the qualities I would like the next USMNT coach to have. I have someone in mind, so I’ll make my pitch for one coach in particular.

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Whoever the next coach is for the USMNT will have a young star to work with in Christian Pulisic. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dave Sarachan was announced as the interim head coach for the USMNT within days of the team’s loss to Trinidad & Tobago. So far, Sarachan has lead the team in half a dozen friendlies with a mixed bag of results. Generally, he has done a good job of calling in youth who will play a large role in years to come, namely, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Matt Miazga, and Timothy Weah. They have earned multiple caps over the last year and each will certainly be part of the team’s core going forward. It’s unfortunate Christian Pulisic has yet to join them, but I am excited to see him in the upcoming friendlies against Columbia and Peru. Sarachan has built a solid foundation of players for this team going forward.

Something that is often overlooked is what he has done for the mentality of this team. These young players are hungry when they are playing, despite these games meaning next to nothing. It’s something which has been sorely missed on the team over the last few years. I credit Sarachan here even if he has passively allowed the players to set the tone. The truth is past head coaches haven’t fostered the same environment where players want to fight for all 90 minutes.

That being said, Sarachan’s tenure hasn’t been all roses. Tactically, he suffers from some of the same ills that plagued Bruce Arena’s team. That is, his tactics are outdated, and his 4-1-4-1 formation probably won’t maximize our best XI’s talent. For an interim head coach, that’s fine. None of this should make the USMNT worse for the wear by the time competitive games come around. By that point, the permanent head coach will establish their system. Fingers crossed it’s a good one.

What do we want this new head coach to do? Here’s what I would like to see:

  1. Man-Manager/Motivator – Someone who can make any game feel like the World Cup Final. I think a few of our core players (at least Pulisic, Adams, Miazga, and Yedlin) are fairly self-motivated. They won’t need much of a push. Letting those players set an example and rewarding them appropriately will go a long way. The inverse is also true. If a player has a toxic attitude, they should be punished/benched. Similar to Sarachan, perhaps all this coach needs to do is let the players motivate each other.
  2. Tactician – Someone who can create a team identity. Personally, I’d like to see the USMNT play some attractive, possession-based soccer, but I’d be happy if we were a bunker-and-counter team or a pressing team, or any other style so long as we had an identity.
  3. Pragmatist – On the other hand, I think the head coach needs to be practical. If the next head coach wants us to be a pressing team, we can’t run a high press every game, all game. Depending on our opponent, line-up, conditions, etc. it may be more beneficial to play a different style for that one game. 
  4. Scout – Someone who will find talented Americans in all leagues and consider them for national team camps. You could also include winning over dual-nationals under this category. Recently the US lost a great potential player in Jonathan Gonzalez to Mexico because he got called into their camp first. That trend can’t continue. 
  5. Developer of Youth – Someone who knows when to bring in a young player, when to stick with a young player, and when to let go of an older player. The USMNT has sorely missed this over the last decade.
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Berhalter made 44 appearances on the US National team. (Wikimedia Commons)

If we can find a head coach who does all of the above, then we will be in a good position to achieve all of our future goals. With that said, I think Gregg Berhalter checks all of these boxes better than any other candidate. For those unaware, Berhalter is a former center back who currently coaches the Columbus Crew in MLS.  Let me walk you through my thought process:

  1. Man-Manager/Motivator – Berhalter falls under the man-manager heading more than the motivator. The best example is Kei Kamara. In 2015, Kei Kamara lead the league in goals for Berhalter’s Columbus Crew. They lost the MLS Cup to Portland and proceeded to collapse the following year. It was no secret that Kamara was a toxic presence in the locker room when the results weren’t going their way. Soon enough Kei Kamara gets traded to New England. A vocal, bad attitude can ruin a locker room. Despite Kamara being the top goal-scorer, Berhalter wasn’t afraid to move on from him. And like I said before, with vocal guys like Adams, McKennie, and Pulisic in the locker room, a coach may be able to pass these duties onto those guys. 
  2. Tactician – Berhalter’s teams regularly play some of the prettiest soccer in MLS. It’s possession-based, it’s methodical, and Berhalter has been able to plug and play different players into his system. Look at Gyassi Zardes. The LA Galaxy were playing him at right back at the end of last season because he wasn’t scoring goals. He gets traded to Columbus and he has 16 goals on the season. Ola Kamara scored a similar amount after being plucked out of a Scandinavian League, and before him it was Kei Kamara. Plug. And. Play. In the words of Will Trapp, Berhalter is great at “making guys on the field understand the clarity of the picture.” I have no doubts of Berhalter’s tactical know-how.
  3. Pragmatist – In 2015, the New York Red Bulls won their 2nd Supporter’s Shield in 3 years. They were playing a high-press style which was quite new and few teams knew how to counter it. The Red Bulls were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Final by none other than Berhalter’s Columbus Crew. One would expect New York’s high press to rip apart Columbus’ possession-based style. Instead, Columbus sat back, let New York have the ball, and killed them on the counter (a strategy which is effective against New York to this day). Point being: Berhalter wasn’t afraid to deviate from his tactical norm in order to get a result. That’s pragmatic coaching and something the US needs. He did something similar against Atlanta United in the 2017 playoffs, holding Atlanta scoreless and winning on penalties. 
  4. Scout – Not only is Berhalter Columbus’ head coach, but he is also the sporting director, meaning he makes the decisions when it comes to signing, trading and releasing players. With that role, he has brought in players like Artur, Ola Kamara and Milton Valenzuela to Columbus. Artur has become the perfect partner for Will Trapp and Valenzuela is arguably the best left back in the league. Berhalter has also done this on a low-budget team in Columbus. It’s not like he has the money to buy the best players; he had to find the right guy and get him for the right price. It hasn’t been all good for Berhalter in that regard. Pedro Santos is one of Columbus highest paid players and he has one goal over the course of the last year as a winger. Everyone whiffs on a signing from time to time. Despite Pedro Santos’ poor play, I still think Berhalter has more good than bad in this category.  
  5. Developer of Youth – This one is tougher as Columbus doesn’t exactly have the most prolific academy. Only Will Trapp and Alex Crognale are current Crew academy products on the roster and Crognale has been loaned out for the year. This is not the fault of Berhalter, as I doubt the Crew’s ownership has devoted that much money to their academy. That being said, Trapp is a commensurate professional. Say what you want about his play on the field, no one has a bad thing to say about him off the field. Additionally, half of developing youth is letting go of veteran players. Berhalter has shown a tendency to do just that as exemplified with Kei Kamara, and Tony Tchani. Tchani was Trapp’s partner in that 2015 season before he was traded and Artur filled the same role.

All of the above is why I have been on the Berhalter train for the past couple of months. Don’t get me wrong, there are other candidates I would be content with, such as Oscar Pareja, Jesse Marsch, or Tata Martino. But Pareja’s teams play more defensively than I’d like, and both Marsch and Tata seem to over-think big games and get the tactics wrong (For Marsh, look at the Red Bulls CONCACAF Champions League exit to Chivas, and for Tata look at Atlanta’s loss to Columbus last year in the playoffs and their recent loss to the Red Bulls). No candidate is perfect, I could just as easily point to Berhalter’s inexperience with developing youth as a weakness. I would rather take that unknown with Berhalter than known flaws with other coaches. 

And with that, I will see you next week where I will dissect the recent USMNT roster, examining my likes/dislikes, and project a starting XI! 

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Evaluating the USMNT a Year Later

One year ago I wrote about the US Men’s National Team’s (USMNT) World Cup Qualifying cycle. At the time it was as much an emotional exercise as it was an intellectual one. Here I am revisiting the piece and seeing how my opinions have changed. Additions from this year are in italics. So, here goes nothing!

The USMNT 2018 World Cup Qualifying Cycle: A Post-Mortem

In theater, after the actors have taken their final bow, the members of the cast and crew will sometimes come together and discuss what went well and what did not. This process, is called a “post-mortem”; once the show is done and dusted, it must be laid to rest.

In this article, I hope to do the same for the USMNT 2018 WCQ cycle. Honestly, I am writing this in the hopes that I can help other people understand how we got here and what comes next. Additionally, I believe that I writing this will be therapeutic for me on some level. Without further ado…

THE PAST: Who can we blame?
After something unexpected like this, everyone wants to start pointing fingers. However, no single person can be blamed for this lost World Cup cycle. Here are a few people who played a major role.

Jurgen Klinsmann
Klinsmann has the second-highest winning percentage of any U.S. manager, trailing only Bruce Arean. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jurgen Klinsmann– Klinsmann was the head coach at the start of this 2018 WCQ cycle before he was fired for losing the first two games of qualifying. One game was home to Mexico, while the other was away to Costa Rica; neither of those games are easy games but losing both of them was unacceptable. Plus, there were plenty of problems on this team before those two losses.

I personally disliked many of Klinsmann’s quirks, but let me focus on things which affected this qualifying cycle. He believed in creating competition at every position. In an attempt to produce that ideal, he gave many different players minutes at crucial positions. What this caused was an overall lack of consistency, and lack of chemistry. Before the 2016 Copa America, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron had barely played together as a center-back pairing with Michael Bradley in front of them as a defensive midfielder. That was a foundational piece of the team at that tournament. Years of this little consistency gave Bruce Arena less to work with when he took over at the beginning of 2017.

There were also a number of players who Jurgen inexplicably would not call up to the national team. Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Benny Feilhaber, and Sacha Kljestan (to name a few) could each have had another 20+ caps under their belts throughout this cycle if they were called up when they should have been. Meanwhile the likes of Julian Greene, Michael Orozco, and Mix Diskerud consistently received call-ups and panned out into next to nothing. When Arena took over, he brought in a few of these shunned players but they had to quickly acclimate to team.

Both of the above issues, lack of consistency and exclusion of useful players, may not seem super important but I firmly believe that both of them eroded the maximum potential of the core players on this USMNT.

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Bruce Arena managed the U.S. at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, but missed qualification in 2018. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bruce Arena– He was brought in to steady the ship and ensure that the US would qualify for the World Cup. He failed. To be fair, as mentioned above, Arena was handed some tough cards to play with; two games played and both were losses. He had to get the results of ten games in eight games. As difficult asthe job was, it was not impossible.
Up until September, we looked good. We were undefeated and it looked like we would be fine. The loss to Costa Rica in September was tough to swallow but not damning. The US could survive that. We could not survive a loss to Trinidad & Tobago (T&T). Playing a line-up on short rest, in poor conditions, in a practically must-win game turned out to be pretty costly. Oddly, this was uncharacteristic of Arena. He rotated his squad between the home and away games of every other international break so far. I think he owns a lot of the blame for the loss to T&T and that loss is ultimately what eliminated the US. At the very least, in post-game interviews he owned that responsibility. I think people have been putting more blame on Arena than anyone else. That’s probably fair, but he’s not the only one to be blamed.

Sunil Gulati (I honestly forgot about this guy)- Gulati is the president of US Soccer Federation (USSF) and appointed both Jurgen and Bruce. First, it is strange for a national team head coach to last more than one World Cup cycle. Despite that, Sunil Gulati re-signed Klinsmann before the 2014 World Cup draw of pools even occurred. Then to keep him on after losing the 2015 Gold Cup in the semi-finals to Jamaica, and missing out on the 2017 Confederations Cup only to fire him after losing two WCQ matches really put the US in a pickle. Had Klinsmann been fired earlier, or not re-signed in the first place, the national team could have sailed a straighter course.

Then, picking Bruce Arena as a stop-gap seemed like the most logical choice at the time. And it probably was the best choice given the tough scenario. But Sunil Gulati put himself in that difficult position by waiting so long to fire Klinsmann. You reap what you sow.

The Players– As important as the above is, the team’s fate was decided on the field. And to be honest, it looked like the US were playing a preseason friendly for most of the final game that solidified their elimination. They knew what was at stake, and yet there was a decided lack of urgency to the team from the start. Despite this being the most talented and skilled USMNT ever, Alexi Lalas was right when he said that the US players were missing the grit of the old national teams. I still standby this sentiment.

Others– I will not entertain any arguments that US players playing in MLS is to blame for this. Even if it does own some level of blame in an indirect way it is negligible compared to what is stated above. In fact, besides Mexico, every other team in CONCACAF have a substantial number of national team players playing in MLS. If anything, MLS made the US’s qualifying more difficult because it has boosted programs like Panama and Honduras, not because it has deteriorated the play of American players.

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Christian Pulisic is the face of the youth movement giving hope to fans of U.S. men’s soccer. (Wikimedia Commons)

Conversely, I understand the desire to use the US academy system as a scapegoat. However, players “in their prime” are the players who should have carried this team to the World Cup. Those are players ages 23 – 28ish. Those players did not show up as much as we needed them to and so we had to rely on the old-guard (Dempsey and Howard). But those “in their prime” players were in US academies approximately 10 years ago. If you believe that the US academy system has not changed since Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore came out of it you are sorely mistaken. The youngsters like Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Erik Palmer-Brown, Andrew Carleton, etc. are of a different breed of USMNT player. I am not saying that the US academy system is perfect, but it is improving and will continue to improve as time goes on.

Lastly, I will admit that I am not old enough to know this, but it feels like there are more young talented players coming out of the US than ever before. The key then, is continuing to develop those players once they join the senior team and mold them into a cohesive unit. That will be the job of the next head coach. Speaking of which …

THE PRESENT: What are the immediate next steps for US Soccer?

Changes- I would not be surprised if Bruce Arena resigns before this article is even posted online (He did). Sunil Gulati will almost certainly be out of a job as well but I do not know whether that will be of his own accord, or how quickly that will occur. USSF will definitely need to find replacements for them, but that process needs to be well thought-out, which may take some time. Plus, as much as it may not feel like it, USSF has some time, especially for the head coach position. Many head coaches looking to coach a national team may not be available until after the World Cup next summer.

USSF PresidentCarlos Cordeiro won the USSF election in Febuary. My prior speculation on this isn’t really interesting now. Jury is still out on whether Cordeiro was the right choice.

Head Coach- For the head coaching job, that will depend a lot on who is available and what the new USSF President wants. I think they will be looking for someone 1. Who is familiar with the US system/MLS 2. With national team coaching experience 3. Who has a record of developing youth. As of right now, Tata Martino of Atlanta United checks all of those boxes. Other candidates who check some of them are Peter Vermes of Sporting Kansas City, and Oscar Pareja of FC Dallas. Still, all of those names are within MLS. It is very possible that USSF look far and wide for the next head coach. A dark horse candidate that no one is talking about because he is relatively unproven is Patrick Viera (formerly) of NYCFC. He has done a very good job of getting the most out of his youth (see: Jack Harrison recently playing for the English U-21s)

For now, Dave Sarachan is the interim Head Coach. He’s done fine for an interim head coach. Since the end of the spring I’ve been rooting for Gregg Berhalter to win the position. I plan on writing a whole different column about that next week. Stay tuned.

THE FUTURE: What does the USMNT have to do to get back on track?

Owning CONCACAF- I think Matt Doyle phrased it well on “Club & Country: After the Whistle” when he said that the US needs to “start beating up on CONCACAF teams again”. The US need to be the best team on this continent before we can do anything major on the world stage. Don Garber, MLS Commissioner, has expressed similar sentiments about MLS. MLS needs to be the best league in CONCACAF before it can be compared to other leagues around the world. This is a natural progression for the league to take, and I agree with the Armchair Analyst himself that it is a progression for the US as well. (If you’re interested in soccer in the US, then Matt Doyle is a must-read)

Integrating Youth- In addition to re-becoming the shark which eats CONCACAF minnows, the US have to get better at incorporating youth into the national team. This is a separate process from developing youth in our academies. I am referring to making the leap from our youth teams to our full senior national team. For example, Matt Miazga is 22 (now 23) years old and starting in the Dutch League. Yet the most action he has seen for the senior team was one Gold Cup appearance this summer and some other cameos. At this point, he should be somewhat integrated into our center back rotation. I think Bobby Wood also integrated slowly onto this team. At this point he is in the rotation at striker but it feels like it came a year or two too late.

Dave Sarachan has laid a great foundation for this in recent friendlies. The rise of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, et al. bodes well for the USMNT.

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Clint Dempsey retired from international soccer in 2018, finishing his career third in caps and tied first in scoring. (Wikimedia Commons)

Saying Goodbye- Part of our problem with integrating youth is that we struggle to move on from older players. This problem will likely evaporate for a year or two as our oldest players retire (Thanks Clint Dempsey!).

With that, we have to say goodbye to some USMNT legends once and for all. Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and DeMarcus Beasley will never play a competitive match again for the USMNT. These guys won’t see more than one or two more caps as celebrations of their careers (Clint didn’t even get that).

Additionally, say goodbye to the roles of players aged 27-30 on this team. Michael Bradley will be on the cusp of 35 by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around. The young end of this cohort include Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe who will be 31 in 2022, but also include Gonzalez and Besler who will both be 34 by then. I do not expect the US to abandon these players completely. However, when do we let go of players of this age group? I have a feeling the 2019 Gold Cup may be the last hurrah for many of them.

Seeing how well Miazga and Brooks paired together in recent friendlies, I do not see a reason to call any older center-backs. I still think Jozy and Nagbe could be useful for this team, especially over the next two years. After that I really hope some youth beat them out for their positions. After recent reports of Bradley’s ‘alpha dog’ mentality, I honestly think his presence will only be a hindrance.

Looking Forward- And with that I will leave everyone with some hope that it will get better from here. Christian Pulisic, the wonder-boy himself, the most talented player is US history, is only 20 years old. He played in that elimination game and you can bet he will never forget it. The most expensive player is US history (who was injured for the last few qualifiers), John Brooks, is 25 years old. The US U-20 team made it to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup this summer without Pulisic and Shalke midfielder Weston McKennie and other notable absences. Their only loss was to the team that ended up getting second place. 19 year old Tyler Adams scored his first USMNT goal against Mexico. The future is bright.

After another year, I have some idea on who should be key players going forward. At this point, I would definitely put Pulisic, Adams, McKennie, Brooks, Miazga, Yedlin, and Steffen on the field for a must win game. The other four starting positions are still up for grabs, which is fine for now. Our next competitive game is in the summer of 2019 and it’s the Gold Cup. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win the Gold Cup, but if we’re still working out a kink or two I won’t cry about it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we worry about that we should worry about who the head coach is going to be. Come back next week to hear my thoughts on the head coach search!

US 40-man roster for Copa America analyzed

By Jack Venezia

Jurgen Klinsmann
Klinsmann has won the second most matches as manager of the US in team history behind only Bruce Arena. (Wikimedia Commons)

On Sunday night US Men’s National Team Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann named 40 players to his provisional roster for the Copa America this summer. Copa America will be hosted in the United States. High level international teams such as Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina will be playing in Copa America along with the US. This summer will be the halfway point between the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, making this Copa America competition a benchmark for the USMNT’s progress (or lack thereof).

Here is the roster:

GOALKEEPERS (5): David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Ethan Horvath (Molde), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

DEFENDERS (15): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Ventura Alvarado (Club America), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea FC), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)

MIDFIELDERS (12): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (FC Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Perry Kitchen (Heart of Midlothian), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading FC), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

FORWARDS (8): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund),Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

Keepers
This is the exact group I expected to be selected. There was some doubt as to whether Will Yarabrough would steal a spot from the aging Nick Rimando, but that does not seem to be the case. As for the final roster, Howard and Guzan are locks, after that is anyone’s guess.

Defense
All of the selections at centerback make sense; we shall see who makes the final roster though. I am excited for the futures of Birnbaum and Miazga. At the leftback position, I take issue with bringing on Timmy Chandler and not Brek Shea. Chandler has never been consistent for the national team and Brek Shea has been killing it for Orlando since returning from injury. Plus, Brek Shea has been called up by Jurgen multiple times in the past which makes this even more baffling. Lastly, Eric Lichaj comes out of nowhere to join this roster. He has not been called up in quite some time.

Midfield
All of the regulars are here, which bodes well for the team’s chances in the tournament, i.e. no one crucial is injured or in an awful run of form. It is nice to see Perry Kitchen called up as many have been saying he should be the defensive midfield heir to Kyle Beckerman’s throne. He likely won this spot over Will Trapp, who has not been playing well with Columbus in MLS. Also interesting to see Nagbe listed among this group since these all seem to be central midfielders. Hopefully this means we will see Nagbe play in his preferred role rather than being pushed out to the wing as he has been in the past.

 

Clint_Dempsey
Dempsey has a chance to pass DeMarcus Beasly for fifth-most caps wearing a US uniform. (Wikimedia Commons)

Forwards
It looks like Jurgen has listed the wingers (Finlay, Pulisic, and others at times) with the forwards, which leads me to believe the US will play a 4-3-3. Pulisic’s inclusion is exciting as he has been getting minutes and goals for German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund as a teenager. Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood have also been hot scorers recently. The real question is, who plays the center forward position of that 4-3-3, Jozy or Clint? Dempsey has been playing on the wing occasionally for Seattle, but with varying amounts of success.

It is worth noting that training camp starts on May 16 for the USMNT. US Soccer must submit the final 23-player roster no later than May 20. On May 22, 25 and 28 the 23-man roster will play three warm up games against Puerto Rico, Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively. Copa America opens on June 3 with the US playing Columbia.

The pressure is on for Klinsmann to find some success in this tournament. After failing to win the Gold Cup last summer and a poor run in World Cup Qualifying. This is going to be a much tougher test, but the US should come away with a couple positive results.

MLS’ alternative to tiered system

Just about every other soccer league in the world uses a tiered system. What that means is the bottom handful of teams from that season are relegated to the lower league while the top teams from the second league achieve promotion. For some reason though, MLS has avoided it, despite having the North American Soccer League (NASL) and United Soccer League (USL Pro) below MLS.

I have been a strong advocate for MLS to adopt this method. I think it would be a great improvement to US soccer and create more interest in the sport stateside. The other aspect that promotion and relegation introduces is that every games matters. All other American sports, particularly football, basketball and hockey all have an incentive to tank. Losing is rewarded with a top draft pick. Relegation prevents tanking and keeps teams fighting to the very end.

Yet MLS doesn’t have that. The teams at the bottom could easily just bail and begin tanking. After all the league has its own draft. Teams could attempt to move up in the draft order by losing more games. MLS has a different solution to that problem other than the threat of relegation.

Through careful control of roster building and the allocation of Designated Player Spots, MLS has kept every club fairly competitive. The season is about two thirds of the way through and pretty much every team is alive in the playoff hunt. The Chicago Fire and the Colorado Rapids sit in last place of the Eastern and Western Conference respectively. Heading into the weekend, both clubs were only eight points out of a playoff spot though. I’m not saying it easy to make up that ground but it is more than possible. In both conferences as well, the three through six seeds were only separated by a matter of two points. That’s a single match that could shake up the whole conference standings. That is absurd with almost every team having played 20 games.

The two seed isn’t even that far out of reach either. The Columbus Crew and Montreal Impact each held the second spot in their respective conferences. The distance between themselves and the sixth seed was only four points. Everyone is still playing for something because no one has an insurmountable deficit or an unassailable lead. There will be no tanking because everyone is still in it. If Chicago suddenly strung together a four game winning streak they could find themselves on the fringes of the playoff picture, rather than in last place. If FC Dallas dropped two straight games against Western Conference opponents, it could find itself clinging to the final playoff spot rather than in control of the West.

Parity is what every professional league strives for but few achieve. MLS has come about as close as you can get to achieving it. The league has prevented the creation of super teams that simply dominate the competition. It is hard to head into an MLS season with the champion a foregone conclusion. Many thought Orlando City and New York City would be top playoff contenders. Currently, neither of them hold a playoff spot. Many thought Seattle and Los Angeles would dominate the West again but it is Dallas who sits atop the table. MLS has prevented teams tanking by keeping everyone interested in winning. Everyone is able to still rise up into or fall completely out of the playoff picture. That is incredible work by MLS and a very creative solution to team’s tanking.

Now the design isn’t perfect. LA dominated the league recently. Overall though, MLS has avoided super teams with the limit on spending. English, Spanish, French, German and Italian soccer is dominated by the same five or six teams (actually only three in Spain) every single year. In Germany a team not named Bayern, Dortmond or Wolfsburg hasn’t won the league in eight years. Since 1992, only one team not named Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester (City or United) has won the English League. On the Italian side, only two times since 1991 has a team other than Juventus, Inter or AC Milan won the title. France isn’t much better as Lyon and PSG have combined to win 10 of the last 14 titles. Spain is the worst culprit of all. Only once since 2000 has a team outside of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Sevilla won the league. MLS has a very different story as nine teams have won the league since its inception in 1996.

Very few times can you truly sit back and think that MLS has found a way to solve a problem the European Leagues can’t solve. This is probably one of them.