In another pre-season disappointment, Sunderland failed again to score – whatever replays may show about the McClean effort many thought had crossed the line – and went down 1-0 at Leicester. We can but pray managers are right when saying after any pre-season defeat that it’s really only about fitness. So let Robert Simmons whisk us acros the Atlantic again for another look at the game through SAFC-supporting American eyes …
Some of my favorite memories growing up are from going to football games with my dad and brothers. We loved joining in with crowds of over 90,000 screaming, half drunk, and overly passionate fans in cheering our team on.
I’ll never forget those games or those players. I feel like I knew them so well that they were members of my own family. Every afternoon my brothers, cousins, neighbors and me would spend countless hours imitating our favorite players and re-creating moments from the game the previous week. My joy and happiness in my life was directly tied to the success of my team.
I love all of these memories, but there is one thing I would definitely change if I could. We were following a team that played American football because there were no proper football teams nearby. Not only were there not any teams nearby, there were no teams at all. I did have the opportunity to play in competitive youth footy leagues and I knew we had a national team but they were very far removed from the collective knowledge of American sports fans. The days of Pele leading the New York Cosmos were long gone and the sports fans of America were left without a league or teams to follow.
All of that began to change in the build up to the 1994 World Cup that was to take place in America. Word of a professional soccer league started to spread. Major League Soccer (MLS for short) was being organized and there was to be a 10 team league formed soon after the World Cup. Better still, one of the teams was going to be in Tampa, Florida, which was only a 25 minute drive from my home. The icing on the cake was the news that the Columbian international football star Carlos Valderama was going to be playing for the Tampa team. My friends and I were thrilled, finally we had a team and a league to call our own.
Fast forward 11 years and the MLS still existed, Carlos Valderama still lived in the Tampa area (I’ve got some great stories about El Pibe but this isn’t the time for them), but the Tampa team was gone and I was left without an MLS team to follow.
It had been a series of ups and down for the league. The leaders of the league had eyes bigger than their stomachs and they misunderstood the meaning of large crowds of first year and expanded too fast. A few clubs had to shut down, top players didn’t want to stay in the league and fled to Europe and what started out as a league that meant to draw a national and eventually a global audience quickly became a local and regional commodity for the few communities who still had teams.
In 2007 all of that was to change, and England was providing the spark for change. The MLS decided to make changes to their current salary structure and allow teams to pay top players from Europe more money and it would not count against the team’s salary cap. Go here for more information on the rule (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Designated_Player_Rule). The first new player to take advantage of the rule was David Beckham. Beckham was bringing his fame, family, and footballing talents to Los Angeles to join with Landon Donovan at the L.A. Galaxy and together they were going to put the MLS back on the national map. Beckham signed a massive deal to come to America to play and it was hoped that his joining the league would bring people to the stadiums and inject new life in to a faltering league. So my two questions are these: why do stars like Valderama, Beckham, Thierry Henry, and others come to America instead of finishing their careers in Europe (Sunderland could use a striker like Henry right?) and has their coming to the league helped or hurt its development?
First let’s tackle the question as to why these players who had such success in their careers in Europe would move to America to play. The first answer seems pretty obvious. Money. With the Galaxy Beckham makes a guaranteed 4 million dollars. That figure does not take in to account the amount of money he’s able to make off of advertisements, and there is lots of money to be made as L.A. is one of the largest media markets in the world.
Thierry Henry who came over to the New York Red Bulls in 2010 makes more per year than Beckham. His guaranteed salary is $5.6 million a year. Other notable players who fall into the category of this rule are Rafa Marquez ($4.6 million) and Robbie Keane ($3.4 million). While those are impressive salaries and ones that most people would be more than happy to have, that kind of money is available in Europe as well.
Sure they are in the twilight of their careers but there are plenty of teams who would love to have some of those talented players on their rosters. Maybe many of the teams who could still guarantee first team minutes can’t afford those salaries, but I find it hard to believe that players as talented as these couldn’t still have a home in European football.
So money is clearly a motivator, but according Beckham, he also made the move in order to be a catalyst for bringing more notoriety and appeal to soccer in America. He saw it as an opportunity to raise awareness for the league and draw in new fans. It’s hard to say definitively if he accomplished this but attendance has risen both in LA and in the league in general since he arrived. The attendance average for the league from 1996-2006 was 15,112 and from 2007-2011 it was 16,763. In raising the awareness of soccer in America it certainly seems like Beckham and others have done their part.
Now for the trickier question, has this influx of former European stars actually been a good thing for the development of the league? In my opinion I’d say that it hasn’t hindered development, but it hasn’t helped it either.
Since 2007 there have been a total of 53 players that have taken advantage of the designated player rule (the Beckham rule) and a total of one team with a designated player has won the MLS Cup. In fact, it took until this past season for the LA Galaxy led by Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane to lift the championship trophy. This season is holding true to form and the league leaders in both the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference don’t have any players who fall under the designated player rule.
These stats show me that it’s not the teams with the highest payrolls or biggest stars who are winning but rather it’s the teams who are developing younger talent and playing within their means that are having success. While the star players coming to the league have helped raise attendance league wide it has not led to their teams dominating play.
I think the jury is still out on the designated player rule. While it’s clearly helped the league by boosting attendance it has also widened the gap between the financial haves and have nots.
Teams with wealthy owners can afford the financial hit of having designated players and teams in smaller markets have a much more difficult time both convincing players to come and affording them even if they did. However one positive thing the rule has revealed is that having a star player does not guarantee you success. Teams with homegrown talent are still having strong success and don’t seem at all intimidated by teams with financial and star power.
I’d much rather not have these former star players coming over to America to finish their careers. The league struggles financially as it is and I think the burden of paying for them is greater than the reward of what they bring to their clubs and the league. I also wouldn’t mind seeing these players finish their playing days in the red and white stripes of Sunderland instead of seeing them take one last big pay day in the States.
But all that is just my opinion, if you have any thoughts on the MLS, the designated player rule, or whether you’d like to see former stars finish their careers with Sunderland you can send your thoughts my way on twitter @onlysafc