MLS on the right track

GARETH WHEELER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:16 AM ET

With Major League Soccer's 13th season in the books, it's appropriate to ask the question: Where does it go from here?

One suggestion would be to MLS commissioner Don Garber: Know the names of the league's top players.

In fairness, he got the name right, calling for Guillermo Barros Schelotto when presenting the MLS Cup to the Columbus Crew -- the problem being that Frankie Hejduk is the captain of the Crew and not Schelotto.

An embarrassing mistake, but nothing's embarrassing about the growth of MLS over recent years.

Expansion fees have tripled, public awareness is up and franchises have a diverse set of dedicated owners, some who actually are making money!

MLS is on the right track, but is far from perfect.

While small changes are being made to the playoff system, roster composition and schedule for 2009, the changes are incomplete.

In the future, a makeover will have to take place to cope with league growth and to improve the product.

In no particular order, here's what needs to be done:

- Expand and strengthen the U.S. teams -- although Canadian expansion is a popular idea and necessary for the growth of the Canadian national team, it does little for the American fan-base. More teams in strong American markets is better for the future of the league Another Canadian team (Vancouver) makes sense sometime before the MLS hits 20 teams, but for the time being, satisfying the American market should be the priority.

- Raise the salary cap -- the salary structure of MLS is embarrassing. The discrepancy between the league's highest paid players and its lowest paid (as low as $12,900 US) is ridiculous. Not only does it limit what young players make, but it also limits what the best players, who are not designated players, can make. It's a shame a player such as Toronto FC's Carl Robinson, a season after he's named the club's player of the year, has to accept a reduced salary if he wants to stay with his team, simply for salary cap purposes. A cap sitting at $2.3 million, as it did in 2008, makes it extremely difficult to obtain and retain high-quality talent. The designated player spot is not enough to attract high-quality players to North America. A couple of designated players scattered across the league says cash-grab more than anything else. If the league doesn't move to raise the cap when the collective bargaining agreement expires Jan. 31, 2010, look for the players union to push for sweeping changes. If MLS is unwilling to budge, labour problems will loom.

- MLS relinquish control of player contracts -- MLS having control over player contracts was used as a cost control measure in the past. MLS is at a point where teams have proven they can be profitable, and thus should have control over their own product. A team never should have to sell a player overseas for the sole purpose of being a good bit of business for the league.

- Fully recognize FIFA's international calendar -- If you want international quality players in the MLS, then don't have obstacles that stand in the way of them playing both for their club teams and their respective countries. The MLS season starting two weeks earlier and having more mid-week games in '09 is a start, but a complete recognition of international dates will be mandatory as the quality of players coming to MLS continues to improve.

- Make soccer-specific, grass stadiums mandatory -- FieldTurf looks terrible and is bad for the long-term health of the players. As for soccer-specific stadiums, the fact that Seattle is joining the league and playing in a massive football stadium is disconcerting. Whether or not the upper bowl seats are covered is irrelevant; it's the atmosphere that helps make the game and playing in an oversized, stale stadium does nothing for the product.

- Promote players other than Beckham -- David Beckham was supposed to elevate awareness of MLS and its players to the mainstream. Although the league has gained more exposure, the other players have not. Part of what makes global soccer so compelling is its characters. There are not enough story-lines about MLS players.

- Get rid of the playoffs and develop a relegation system -- This is something that's not feasible short-term, however, in moving forward, MLS should establish a single-table league. With league-wide expansion in the works, this will be possible. A balanced schedule would eliminate the playoffs with CONCACAF Champions League, Superliga or US Open Cup games taking the proper stage.

- Playoffs add little in terms of drama or hype -- relegation does, with every game important. With this in mind, MLS should look into establishing a second division, where teams can bounce up and down based on performance.


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