0 for 0: The quickest, cheapest & easiest way to improve MLSNot many single initiatives can impact MLS as greatly as a simple tweak to encourage attacking
by Mike Firpo | Friday, May 18, 2012
Even the most anti of MLS bashers would be hesitant to argue that in the distant future MLS will be a top soccer league worldwide. Even with all their complaints of slow growth, lack of relegation/promotion, measly salary caps and fiscal conservatism there is still belief that eventually these issues will be overcome and that the agonizingly slow but upwardly trending North American love affair with soccer and its top league will finally reach its potential.
The North American fans of yesterday and today are restless. The sports media have little-by-little come around and some (NBC/ESPN/FOX) may even be deemed anxious. Contracts have been inked. The stadiums are here. Presentation is set. The cameras are turned on. Screens are tuned in.
But still, something is wrong. Something is missing.
There is simply not enough major in the league. Not enough entertainment. Not enough theatre. Not enough drama. Not enough excitement. Certainly the case when one inadvertently or intentionally compares it to the easily accessible premium brands of soccer beaming in from Europe on a constant basis.
Oh sure, we are at the outset of an exciting time in North American soccer and the “Rise of the North American Soccer Supporter.” In a complete change, the formerly reluctant acceptance of fan culture has given way to official promotion and propagation by the league office and MLS clubs. They certainly did finally “get” that issue.
But MLS doesn’t compete with singular or small domestic peers in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and countless other sports. It has to do more work, be more cutting-edge, be more creative, be more daring and be more sagacious than almost every sport in the nation. Whereas in most nations around the world soccer is dominant and will not be moved from its perch domestically, in North America (especially the USA) domestic soccer has to do more just to sit at the table.
It is quite possible that if next season MLS owners started investing billions in player transfers and salaries in the coming transfer windows, in less than a decade it would likely rival any league on the planet. That would lead to more fans, bigger stadia, more sponsors, bigger TV contracts and so on. The play on the field would be rivaled by the same magnitude off of it.
Problem is, that is not how MLS was setup and likely only a handful (if that) of MLS owners would want to do that. It would surely not be what most had signed up for originally. Their cooperative business model is based on slow but steady growth in the clubs and overall league in a quickly changing North American demography and sporting landscape.
In the end, MLS’s current owners are just not going to do that. Their families, who succeed their franchise stewardship, might not even do that.
So, MLS can’t buy the best players, at least not in their primes, anytime soon. That also means they can’t have the best play, best teams or the most entertaining league either.
MLS becoming the best is so very long term that many reading this may not even be around to see it.
But there is one thing MLS can do, one thing far easier than finding the land and funding to build academies and hoping they bear fruit; more stable than emboldened officiating policies; less divisive than disciplinary committees; and certainly sooner and cheaper than the aforementioned Man City method of spending billions on global all-star teams.
Shoot they can initiate it on Saturday retroactively and clubs wouldn’t complain too much, fans might rejoice, owners’ wallets wouldn’t be any lighter and the league would be better off long-term and short-term for it.
Well what is it? What could be simple, cheap and quick? Can you stop asking questions Mike?
Ahh sorry, I get carried away.
It’s simple really. Just follow the lead of our mulishly attack-prone and entertainment-inducing soccer culture to our immediate south. All MLS has to do is follow Mexico and the soon-to-be non-federation managed breakaway league into ZERO for ZERO. 0 points for 0 goals. You don’t bother to get a goal, you don’t get a point. In today’s point system that would mean both teams lost. Seems fair and fitting, given you likely gave the fans very little entertainment. Goals are what gets everyone excited.
Amazingly enough, most fans vote for ‘Goals of the Week’ willingly, the same can’t be said for ‘Tackles and Tactics of the Week.’ Outside of the belligerently partisan, brutishly machismo or ultra of Ultras most fans want attacking soccer.
Great passes, skillful touches, audacious backheels, cheeky (not the often negative British version) step-overs, daring give-and-gos, sublimely weighted balls into space, needle-threading through balls, one-time volleys, bicycle kicks, goal olympicos, physics defying bent freekicks, Messi chips, Neymar dashes, Ronaldo flourishes – those are what makes soccer special on the field and provides the impetus for the fan passion off of it, which combined makes the sport of soccer the most supported, universal and man-made recreational endeavor.
If soccer didn’t evolve down a separate path than rugby, gridiron football and Aussie Rules then it would make sense. If soccer’s proponents also favored physicality, aggression and strength over finesse, technique and skill then this would not be an issue. But soccer did make a conscious step away from that more physical path. What we follow today is largely the sport of the world and the sport of the people because of the lack of those very physical attributes it tried to separate itself from ages ago.
Fans of the MLS and North American soccer variety are no different. It’s the attacking midfielders, the strikers, the scorers and the passers who make up most of the Designated Players. The attackers make the big bucks because the fans get more excited by them than they do the destroyers. It is far easier to destruct in soccer than to create. Even today soccer’s rules still act as the sport’s old nemesis of physicality versus technique, the difference today is that is an internal issue not an external one. If international rule-makers FIFA and the IFAB weren’t stuck in another decade (or century), the sport would have kept up with the changes that modern society and time dictated.
They haven’t, but that doesn’t stop MLS. Leagues can tweak scoring and rules almost any way they see fit. Even the FIFA international calendar is, mostly, based upon recommendations. MLS has a lot more wiggle room than people think. FIFA does this because it really is the only singular sports confederation with a grasp on the world. If they were too dictatorial or too inflexible with over 200 member nations, the domestic football governing bodies and their respective soccer cultures might erode. For example, if FIFA imposed a typical August to May preferred Western European soccer league schedule on a nation that is more northern and has more inclement weather, that league very well may falter.
FIFA, for all its many flaws, gets domestic pro league flexibility correct.
MLS can take advantage of that. It already is vying with the EPL to be the first big league to test/initiate goal-line technology. So why not be progressive like our Mexican counterparts who play about two steps above the current MLS level of soccer and initiate an attack-rewarding regular season scoring system.
The first and most important of these new rules would be 0 points for 0 games. No longer would two teams ever think it would be beneficial to just grind out a draw, while giving the paying spectators very little to cheer about.
Here is a look at MLS scoring today, Mexican league scoring for next season and a further evolution MLS could do to take exciting soccer even another step forward.
The only major negative I see is it will take another 10 seconds or so to explain to new soccer fans how the match points are awarded, but there are so many positives with this absurdly simple attack-encouraging change it’s worth it. Here are a few:
Need lots of points? Simple, score lots of goals!
Zero points for 0-0 scores or zero goals should encourage even the most “pragmatic” of MLS coaches to push their squads to ensure they shoot and attack. At least one goal’s worth.
Not much is worse for fans, especially fragile newbies that converts are trying to encourage to fall for MLS and soccer, than a nil-nil borefest. If you're like me, when you bring a potential fan to a soccer match, the one thing you dread would be a 0-0 draw. At about the 60th minute I begin thinking to myself, "I'll take a home loss over a 0-0 draw, just let the fans see goals" and "Please, please Gods of Soccer, do not forsake me tonite with a goal drought”.
With all the other American team sports having higher scoring, tie-breakers and no chance at seeing a match in the zilch-zone come the final whistle, MLS should encourage positive play perhaps more than any other league on the planet.
Without FIFA or the IFAB's consent and very little effort, MLS can fix a modern flaw of soccer.
Encouraging the clubs to score more goals and avoid 0-0 ties, should push the league to a more technique, attacking and ultimately entertaining brand of soccer … and sport.
Though Italian Serie A fans might disagree with their love affair of tactics and the art of defending, most fans, especially Americans, like goals.
This attacking encouragement may not only help the short-term MLS overcome meager budgets and big name scarcity, but through a progressive mindset help differentiate itself from the top 10 soccer leagues in the world. Many of whom lead MLS in most measureable metrics of league health.
Maybe more importantly, MLS can set itself apart from the top 4 team sport leagues. The NFL has MLS beat on top-notch and gigantic coliseums of sport. NBA has far more glitz than MLS. Baseball is American nostalgia and MLS is mistakenly thought of as a new and foreign sport to the US. The NHL has, well … Canada’s heart.
To be different, to have something special besides fan culture, much simpler is just to become the sport of technique, creativity and excitement.
No matter how many memos go to league coaches and pre-season promises that are made in the media about how the team is going to play “attractive,” “positive,” “technical,” “possession” or “attacking” soccer. Come a few rounds in, and certainly by All-Star break and many of the most seemingly Cruyff inspired MLS coaches turn into Crude imposters. The whimsical words, the ambition, the attacking idealism are mostly eroded by jaded coaches trying to preserve their positions.
That is not just MLS but an issue with the modern game. Given the scope it is hard to grasp and harder to change.
But encouraging attacking play, daring and goal-scoring feeds into a coaches eventual progression to self-preservation and the often results over entertainment philosophy. You can see it happening with Toronto FC today. With Aron Winter on the hot seat, does it really matter as much now to him that he plays beautifully or grinds out some points and staves off the inevitable scythe of managerial fortunes? And it is important to note, he could get the same points (1) for a 0-0 match of turtle-ball as he would for an attacking frenzy of 4-4, which would likely delight most fans more. MLS could become a very, very exiting soccer league and American sport.
As mentioned most changes that MLS fans crave in their teenage league won’t occur until they themselves are collecting pensions. The requisite patience needed for soccer stadiums of their own was for most fans, outside of Boston and DC, a decade or so in the making. But to see EPL, La Liga and Champions League level soccer on North American fields will take decades of building ... and waiting.
The implementation of a simple points shift will take just one more post-season to agree. If MLS was bold, they would enact it retroactively this season and like a mongoose in a snake pit, we’d have some fun. They won’t do that, but they could.
If we had to wait for the 2013 season, so be it, we’re likely to see goal-line technology introduced then too. What’s could adding another positive change for the league and sport change? The sooner the better!
Good players can cost a lot and be a gamble. Youth academies pay for themselves in the end but they aren’t cheap or short-term either. And building stadiums can be time sinkholes, requiring Machiavellian political skills and huge loans and financing schemes for the club and/or municipalities.
Changing the points system costs almost nothing to implement. As a way to improve the MLS product on-field, it probably is the most cost-effective change pound-for-pound that MLS can make for itself.
Short of implementing non-soccer gimmicks like regular season tie-breakers, shootouts or changing the on-field rules of play this would have to be the most close to soccer tradition (not of today, but of our technique favoring past) as we can get. That it’s so cheap, or free, makes it smart for MLS long-term and short-term with post-NASL fiscal rationality dictating so many league-wide decisions.
MLS can’t become a soccer league superpower in the foreseeable future nor displace one of the top 4 North American sports leagues, but it can do itself a favor and make itself special and more entertaining quickly, cheaply and simply. One small FIFA-legal tweak can do just that. It certainly can’t hurt.