By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (July 24, 2012) US Soccer Players – The insistence on building and keeping a core group of players in professional sports is something we see repeated across North American professional sports. In the National Football League, applying a franchise tag to a quarterback is almost a requirement. The best play the bulk of their careers with one club. In baseball, keeping a team together is the hallmark of heavily financed organizations that can spend enough to re-sign their free agents. The dynasty teams in basketball and hockey win multiple titles by keeping key players together.
Perhaps part of this is because college serves as a developmental platform for both coaches and players in North American sports. That level is all about transition for players, if not for coaches. Four years is as much as any team can get with the same group of players, and it's normally less.
At the professional level, familiarity is a way to build success. So much so, in fact, that it's worth risking the problems it can bring. Teams obviously don't work, but organizations continue to tinker across multiple seasons hoping it all comes together. There's a vocabulary of sports jargon to describe letting a concept go and starting over. From rebuilding to blowing things up, the preference for season-to-season stability is clear.
Then there's Central and South America, where it simply doesn't work that way. The major South American clubs are almost notorious for building teams that are only intended to exist for a specific tournament or season. Players and coaches alike are brought in with an agreed upon purpose, a clear goal. Win or lose, they're brought in for the short haul.
It's the same in leagues like Mexico, where the two seasons per cycle model can see drastically different teams from Fall to Spring. This creates leagues of immediate achievement, where coaches and players aren't given the luxury of time with the same club. That's the key, since coaches and players can expect to be picked up by another club for the next cycle.
Even good players with a notable list of achievements move clubs on a regular basis. Bios can be filled with a long list of stops in the same league. Continuity happens, but it's at a premium.
So far, Major League Soccer's model is decidedly North American. Good players regularly moving clubs is its own story, unique enough to draw attention. Even in the current era where allocation money, designated players, and a loosening of control that's brought the League just short of free agency, a club is still expected to keep a core. They're certainly expected to keep a coach. There's still no greater sign of problems in MLS than a coach leaving, even if it's by choice.
Whether or not this is the best option for MLS is an open question. It certainly seems to be for some clubs. Others end up in that same situation we see in the established major leagues with decades of institutional memory. How long is too long to wait for success?
MLS has skewed this model to a certain extent by fostering such a focus on making the playoffs. Though we've seen teams make substantive changes after making the playoffs, that's not the norm. Playoffs equal doing enough to keep a coach in place and a team together in Major League Soccer. For enough clubs, it's a sigh of relief that they don't have to go through a rebuild.
That's where we see a significant difference between MLS and the other North American leagues. There's not the same patience for multi-season rebuilding efforts. That's not to say the other leagues are filled with the clubs that have a fan base that understands. Attendance takes a hit, public acclaim falls, and teams end up having to rebuild not just their squads but also their ability to draw a crowd willing to pay to see their games. Get it wrong on the field for long enough, and there's no guarantee the club will even be in the same city when things finally turnaround.
In MLS, rebuilding over multiple seasons won't be tolerated by any fan base. There has to be at least the glimpse of glory right now, even for clubs where it's highly unlikely to happen. There is not enough tolerance for any team to hold onto their fans when they're out of contention by August. The grind of the MLS schedule benefits struggling clubs. It's a rarity for one or two teams to put together the kind of season that shows the rest of the League that there's a significant gap in quality. Teams can still play for that final playoff spot over the last couple of weeks of the regular season and point to more than a mediocre record.
At the same time, there's not the intensity of focus that comes with putting together a team with a specific goal in mind. It's not the same to repeat what every team says in the preseason. We're here to win, the playoffs are in reach. Instead, it's publicly setting a goal and going on record. It normally doesn't work. We've seen Mexican clubs build for the ancillary tournaments like the Libertadores and Club World Cup and fail mightily. Yet, that's part of the game. A team putting itself out there tells its own story, even if it stumbles.
For MLS, there are still too many teams lacking anything near that level of focus win or lose. It's going through the motions with the belief that enough will happen to keep a team and coach in place. This is as true for teams with the most resources as it is for the ones on a tight budget. The end result is a lack of intensity round-by-round and a playoff system where anyone can win regardless of planning. That's not parity, it's inconsistency. As hallmarks go, most leagues would prefer something better.
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