Saturday 27 September ~

Autumn can briefly be the most wonderful time of year for foolish football optimists and haters of big clubs. In the Argentinean first division reigning champions River Plate lie in 17th place, having won just one of their opening seven games. Last Saturday, Bundesliga title-holders Bayern Munich lost 5-2 at home to Werder Bremen, outclassed and humiliated in their own stadium. Manchester United have sleepwalked into the start of the Premier League season, while both AC Milan and Barcelona made stumbling starts to their respective domestic campaigns, though both are recovering already. And we know that when the league tables are shaken up and down in a couple of months’ time, the proper order will likely have been restored. But that’s not to detract from the novel enjoyment of glancing at a temporarily lopsided league before the leaves have fallen.

The combination of venom and Schadenfreude directed by the fans of less successful teams at the bigger clubs, when the rare chance arises, raises the question of what we would do if such a gap in talent, wealth and achievement between the Champions League perennials and The Rest no longer existed. For although the odds are stacked heavily in the favour of certain well known clubs before a ball has even been kicked, there is a symbiotic relationship between big and small. Big almost always gets to win, of course, but for those stoics backing lesser teams, success is not just a relative concept (beating Mansfield Town, say, as opposed to beating Chelsea), or a remotely possible historic club event (perhaps beating Chelsea in the Cup). There are also the rewards that come with strutting the moral high ground and verbally exhibiting your inverted snobbery. You know – bragging about bad pies, scalding Bovril, cold Tuesday nights in Hartlepool and all that kind of thing.

Imagine, though, if all teams started equal, with the same squad size, and the same amount of money to spread among its players’ wages. Imagine also that the FA centrally controlled all players’ contracts, and allocated the players to certain teams in a certain strict order, based on arcane rules no normal fan fully understands. A form of sporting communism. To see how it works in practice you’d only need to look at Major League Soccer, the professional league of that well known socialist paradise, the United States.
When MLS began 13 years ago, this structure was a sound idea, aimed at ensuring stability and preventing the league’s collapse like the over-extravagant North American Soccer League of the 1970s and 80s. The idea of parity among teams works reasonably well as far as it goes, but on the pitch it’s beginning to strangle the league. It’s not that the standard of play is bad (it’s not, but it’s nothing to fly across country for either), it’s just that no truly memorable teams have the space to develop. Thanks to the play-offs, almost everyone has a chance right up until the end of the season. In a league without relegation, that helps maintain fan interest, but it can also make for forgettable football. In truth, MLS is crying out for a couple of big, successful teams. Teams you can hate. Dynasties you really, really want to beat. Right now, as LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena once memorably said: “It’s a crapshoot.”
It’s the Galaxy that want to be that big team more urgently than any other side, but on the field they are still one of the easiest to beat. They have only won seven games out of 26 this season (though with four games left, they could still become league champions). Galaxy President Tim Leiweke complained this week that the team had been punished for signing David Beckham, a $400,000 portion of whose massive wage counts against the team’s salary cap. So that Leiweke can sign more and better players, he wants the rules changed to wipe Beckham’s salary completely off the cap, just like he already had the rules changed to sign Beckham in the first place. In fact there’s a school of thought that says the league needs to go all the way and scrap the entire system of central control. MLS has come through its teething years and needs to grow up, and should allow its teams to operate in the free market, buying and selling who the hell they want, just like every other professional team in the world.
There has been too much prolonged self-congratulation at MLS about the Beckham signing and all the publicity it generated, and the fact that so many US and Canadian cities now apparently want an MLS team too. And there’s been way too little thinking about the quality of the actual game. MLS needs a few arrogant, big-moneyed and, most important of all, consistently skilful, entertaining and high-achieving teams to become the objects of envy and vitriol. At the moment, hamstrung by an excess of league rules and restrictions, all that LA and its east coast equivalent DC United can attract are mild derision at their hubris. Ian Plenderleith

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