The changing identity of … Major League Soccer

24 Comments

In time, Saturday night will be seen as a watershed moment in Major League Soccer, the first time the 17-year-old league was able to convince both a prominent player and his club to play ball on a big transfer from Europe. That the player happened to be the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team makes the occasion more memorable (and Seattle’s circumstances are certainly different from almost every other team’s in Major League Soccer), but luring any player of renown who is still capable of dressing for one of England’s top teams would be celebrated as a league-wide victory.

Euro-centric fans will downplay the significance, and not without  reason, but within the scope of the league, Dempsey’s acquisition is undeniable progress. This is a milestone many fans have wanted to hit for some time. In addition to keeping the Omar Gonzalez-types from jumping once their first contracts play out, fans want to be able to compete for European-caliber talent; specifically, U.S. internationals. That the U.S international is the first to be reeled in makes this a boon.

It’s worth asking whether Major League Soccer, considered by many as more of a selling league, is now a buyer. Put another way, is the immediate future that of an importer, not an exporter? Given MLS’s structure, there’s no single answer to that. Even though they sold Fredy Montero earlier this year, Seattle’s clearly a buyer. When the LA Galaxy (seemingly inevitably) join Seattle and spend big for a third DP, they’ll affirm their status as heavy hitters. But the vast majority of MLS clubs still can’t compete with strong bids from clubs from even mid-tier European leagues. Still, between the established powers, the Pacific Northwest teams, and the two Eastern Canada clubs, more and more MLS clubs are capable of being players, not spectators.

[MORE: The changing identity of … Seattle Sounders FC]

But not everything is sunshine and roses in MLS Land. Seattle’s spending is worrisome for some in the league, particularly those concerned that the growth of a few clubs threatens to dwarf the capabilities of others. Between expanding the Designated Player rules and instituting retention funds, the league’s affluent teams have more avenues to distance themselves from the pack. The extent to which that (as opposed to Seattle’s unique circumstances) influenced the Dempsey deal is debatable, but as part of the overall landscape, some see it as cause for concern.

Then there’s fan frustration, most present in Portland, who not only are Seattle’s chief rivals but sat on top of the allocation order when Dempsey rejoined the league. Many’s readings of the rules assumed the Timbers should get the rights to the returning U.S. international, even though those rules conflicted with the Designated Player guidelines. The Claudio Reyna precedent of 2007 seemed to solve that matter (the former U.S. captain returned straight to Red Bull on a DP deal), but for those suspicious of the league’s motives, the conflict was enough to fuel ire …

Ire that was on display Saturday night at JELD-WEN Field:

Infuriated by their rival’s coup, Timbers fans may be taking an excessively literal, inflexible view of the rules, which is not to say they don’t have a point. The written rules available on MLS’s web site do conflict, so much so that the league felt the need to issue a clarification after Dempsey was signed. The explanation was clear, consistent, and may have answered many’s questions, but for those who’d already decided the Dempsey deal was shaky, there was no tearing the tin foil from their heads.

[MORE: In pictures, Clint Dempsey is unveiled in Seattle.]

If Major League Soccer really is in that adolescence we discussed in the Seattle post, this is their teenage naivete. And like all mistakes of our high school days, this is mostly innocent – something to learn from. It is, however, a small reminder that it’s time to grow up. There are responsibilities and expectations that come with adulthood, and any hint that you’re making things up as you go along will lead people to question your maturity.

But this isn’t a matter of two steps forward, one step back for MLS. The Dempsey capture is a decided leap forward, even if there’s a stubbed toe on the landing. For all the confusion people found in MLS’s rules, the league is in a notably better place today than they were two days ago. That’s almost the definition of progress.