By Clemente Lisi - NEW YORK, NY (Aug 3, 2010) US Soccer Players -- The 1970’s are in vogue again. Women are stomping around in platform shoes, aviator glasses are a must-have accessory, and the musical “Hair” is a Broadway hit. The announcement on Sunday that the New York Cosmos have returned - with an eye towards joining MLS in the future - is another sign that what was popular over 30 years ago is back. The Cosmos revival could be another sign that this is the Summer soccer really has made its long-promised return to the mainstream American consciousness.
The Cosmos brand isn’t the only thing undergoing a revival. Some MLS teams appear to have embraced the throwback, free-spending days of the old Cosmos, who held a reunion Saturday featuring Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia.
“The most important thing you can do on the professional level is bring in good players and at least three superstars,” said former Brazil captain Carlos Alberto, who played for the Cosmos alongside Pele. “The American people love to see superstars.”
Major League Soccer has lived in fear of repeating the mistakes of the Cosmos and the North American Soccer League as a whole since the new League was launched in 1996. A business structure was put in place - known as single-entity - in an effort to contain costs and stop teams from drowning in a sea of red ink. The League has done well not to repeat the errors committed by the NASL, where several teams, spearheaded by the Cosmos, went scouring the globe looking to sign talent to multimillion-dollar contracts. The NASL was dominated by the star system. While the Cosmos were one of the few clubs that could afford to stack its roster with talent, the practice led to a league split into haves and have-nots.
15 years in, and MLS may be headed in the same direction. The New York Red Bulls, fresh off signing French striker Thierry Henry, unveiled Mexican defender Rafa Marquez on Tuesday to its ever-growing star-studded roster – making the team the only one in the League to have all three Designated Player slots filled. The other DP on the team is striker Juan Pablo Angel.
“Coming to New York and joining Major League Soccer was a chance that I could not refuse,” said Marquez. “I am committed to doing my very best to help the Red Bulls in their playoff push this season and compete for championships in the years to come.”
The 31-year-old Marquez is a veteran of three World Cups and played with Henry at Barcelona before signing with the Red Bulls. Although Marquez was a defender for the Spanish giants, he will likely play as a central midfielder to help the attack-minded Red Bulls try to make the playoffs.
The League has done a lot over the past 15 seasons to keep spending down, but the game’s growing popularity in this country has led to a loosening of the purse strings. Whether it is a positive step for a League still trying to build a fan base and compete against established sports remains to be seen. The rise, and eventual demise, of the NASL remains a model of what can go wrong with a league loaded with teams spending beyond its means.
It all started four months ago when the League announced that teams could sign a third Designated Player (the previous rule had limited it to two). Each player counts $335,000 against a team’s salary cap. Under the original Designated Player Rule guidelines established in 2007, the first DP counted $415,000 against the cap, with the second another $335,000. The rule change was an obvious attempt by the League to create an incentive for teams to buy marquee players.
The League, coming off the heels of a World Cup that saw record TV ratings, sees the move as one way of increasing attendance. The theory goes that if casual fans enjoyed watching big-name players in South Africa, then they will certainly go through the trouble of attending an MLS game if a few teams can sign some of these recognizable stars. At the season’s midway point, MLS has averaged 16,615 fans per game, an increase of nine percent compared to last season. For the Red Bulls, Marquez is an asset to a metropolitan-area loaded with passionate Mexican fans that now have a reason to go to Red Bull Arena.
In a conference call with reporters last April, Todd Durbin, MLS executive vice president for player relations and competition, said the DP rule was amended so that teams could put together a competitive team.
“What we’re trying to do is design a system that gives every team the opportunity to be successful,” he said.
It’s true that having more DP’s will elevate the quality of MLS, but at what cost? And when it comes to success, no team with a Designated Player has ever won the MLS Cup. Real Salt Lake won the title last year with no DP on its roster, defeating the David Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy on penalty kicks. Some DP signings have been total busts. Just ask Dallas FC about Brazilian midfielder Denilson and the Houston Dynamo about Mexican forward Luis Angel Landin.
Whether the League expected it or not, it has created disparity. When the season began, only five of the league's 16 teams had a DP on its roster - with the Galaxy featuring two in Beckham and Landon Donovan. Since the rule change, there are currently 12 DP’s on six teams: three in New York, two in LA, Toronto, Seattle, and Chicago, and one in DC. In competitive terms, that means 10 clubs do not have a designated player.
Big markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago demand star power, while smaller ones are already trending towards going without. MLS will without a doubt be a better product with more Designated Players, but at what price?
Clemente Lisi is the author of “A History of the World Cup: 1930-2006.” His new book "The US Women's Soccer Team: An American Success Story" will be available in June. Contact him at: CAL4477@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/ClementeLisi