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MLS beginning to mimic NASL with talent imbalance, rapid expansion


Pele isn't dancing at Studio 54. The Cosmos aren't the night-life kings of New York. But suddenly pro soccer is starting to look a lot like 1977, with Major League Soccer morphing into the NASL.

A rush of players who have already reached the summit of mount fútbol, coupled with annual expansion, sees MLS retreading the dance steps of the NASL's disco era.

On Saturday, the New York Red Bulls welcomed the Los Angeles Galaxy in a game that epitomized the positives and negatives of this, the designated player era.

David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Landon Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel -- the biggest names and most skilled players in MLS history -- were all on hand along with 25,000 fans. Meanwhile, across the nation, an admirable bunch of 8,619 die-hards watched a nameless collection of 22 guys slug it out as San Jose played host to Kansas City.

In the NASL's heyday, small towns like Tulsa languished while the Cosmos reached iconic status. The danger is that MLS, too, could become a league dominated by big-market, marquee-player teams. Galaxy president of business operations Tom Payne candidly admitted that there's a certain appeal to the big American cities that MLS' small markets lack.

"The bulk of the top-level designated players want to come to L.A. or New York, to be honest," Payne said. "That's based on the market, what they know is New York or Los Angeles."

Payne said the Galaxy's philosophy of big-time designated players won't stop when Beckham's MLS career ends. In fact, he expects Los Angeles to add a third DP next year. However, he dismissed the idea that one designated player can shift the balance too far in favor of one team because of the wide-open, 11-player nature of soccer. He emphasized that MLS remains committed to its single-entity structure.

That some big-market clubs have drawn well behind star power this season should make it clear that at no time should that business model go away. If it does, teams such as the Wizards, Earthquakes and FC Dallas could also disappear -- all average less than 11,000 this year with San Jose on the bottom at 8,550 per game. Even some big-market teams such as New England are suffering attendance dips in 2010 (the Revs are averaging 11,797).

See, these teams don't enjoy the sponsorship dollars or attendance numbers of places such as Seattle, Los Angeles or Toronto, where crowds average 20,000 or more. The Sounders top the league at 36,154 per game. Perhaps the recent DP signings by San Jose (former Hull midfielder Geovanni) and Kansas City (Mexico's Omar Bravo for the 2011 season) will help redress this imbalance, along with a crying need in the case of San Jose and Kansas City to resolve their respective stadium situations (the Wizards are slated to move into their new stadium in 2011).

Without revenue sharing and cost controls, these clubs could vanish as the overhead of rising salary demands becomes financially unbearable. And the common fan often overlooks the costs of the salaries for front-office staff, advertising, travel, equipment or grounds crews when thinking about a club's total expenditures.

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Fans also support winners regardless of the sport. If small-market teams can't afford the players necessary to compete, they'll suffer from a lack of bandwagon boosters as well.

The late Lamar Hunt, a founding investor in MLS, warned back in 2005 that the designated player could cause resentment much the way the franchise player tag has been largely seen as a negative designation in the NFL. It took all of a few months before resentment surrounded Beckham. It was none other than Donovan who publicly criticized the man the "Beckham rule" was designed to snare. Donovan questioned Beckham's commitment to the team and essentially said the guy making the most money in the league ought to be the hardest worker, but that Becks wasn't. The Galaxy teammates eventually ironed out their differences in a private meeting.

One of the NASL's failures was when small-market teams began trying to spend beyond their means to compete. So far, MLS clubs have avoided that pitfall, through a tight salary cap. However, the danger is growing more real as the lure of the big name becomes greater.

Under the current system, the owners pool their resources to pay the players from a communal fund. However, the designated player rule allows millions to go toward players as long as the individual club is footing the bill. For example, Beckham's annual $6.5 million guaranteed salary is about two or three times what other teams pay their entire roster.

Beyond NASL's competitive imbalance, there was also the rapid expansion, which seems the current trend in MLS with Seattle, Philly, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal. There's also talk of a second New York team.

Will there be enough quality American-born players to go around for a league that was supposed to develop the U.S. athlete? And just as important, will people pay to see it? If the soccer consumer were willing, you could argue there wouldn't be as great a need for designated players.

In 2009, "small-market" club Real Salt Lake knocked off the mighty Galaxy for the MLS Cup. It did so without a designated player, relying instead on the guts of coach Jason Kreis and the philosophy of general manager Garth Lagerwey.

"The emphasis in our model so far is based on depth and continuity," Lagerwey said. "The team is the star and we are better than the sum of our parts."

Lagerwey said expansion is vital to becoming a true national league rather than a regional or niche sport. However, despite the success of 2009, Lagerwey did acknowledge the potential for imbalance.

"A team with three DPs that are particularly good DPs, that fit well in MLS, could provide an overwhelming advantage," he said. "If a team is outspending everyone by $15 million, that does become prohibitive at a point."

That point may be coming sooner rather than later if the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. In 20 years, MLS will still be alive -- there are too many soccer fans, there is the foundation of soccer stadiums and there are just enough committed owners. But here's hoping that come MLS Cup 2030, no one is lamenting the fact that just like today's English Premiership, only a handful of teams realistically have a shot at the title. This would be just as tragic as the demise of the Miami Fusion, Studio 54 or the Cosmos.