In a long Al Jazeera interview with FIFA president Sepp Blatter on December 28, the leader of world football took an undeniable swing at Major League Soccer (MLS), the first division of pro soccer in the United States.
Blatter spoke with Al Jazeera reporter Marwan Bishara on a number of globally controversial subjects that raise the ire of regions dealing with those specific issues and his negative comments on MLS were almost a postscript, however cutting. It’s important to consider Blatter’s unvarnished comments on the U.S. league in the overall context of the interview and its worldwide audience before rushing to judgment. But there is some truth in what he said.
Blatter addresses global controversies
Among the controversial issues, Blatter spoke about the institution of new laws prohibiting the transfer of players under the age of 18 between nations, which partly is an attempt to address human trafficking in children, particularly with young African players who pay large sums for European tryouts, but are actually abandoned in foreign countries without a tryout or resources and sometimes routed into the sex trade. In conjunction with the law, Blatter’s solution is develop professional leagues in African countries to encourage those players to remain at home and encourage European nations to develop their own youth instead of cherry picking young internationals.
Additionally, Blatter was asked why Israel was allowed to host the European Under-20 Championship after twice blowing up the stadium in Gaza and imprisoning Palestinian soccer players. Blatter countered that he immediately offered to help rebuild that stadium and that he pressured Israel to allow Palestinian players to travel to games and outside teams to visit, but hedged on the Israel U-20 championship question, instead saying FIFA “cannot interfere in politics.”
These are truly hot and controversial topics, but his negative comments about MLS will not sit well with the league or its fans, who enjoy its growth.
Blatter’s comments on MLS
“The problem in the United States is a little bit different,” said Blatter. “Soccer, as they call football there, is the most popular game in the youth. It’s not American football or baseball, it is soccer. But there is no very strong professional league, they have just the MLS. They have not professional leagues that are recognized by the American society.
It is a question of time, I thought, when we had the World Cup in 1994, but now we are 18 years in and it should have been done now. They are still struggling.”
Tight salary cap, schedule hinder MLS growth
There are issues holding back MLS, which need to be addressed more aggressively.
The low salary cap is a problem that plagues MLS by restricting the quality of players, but at this point some franchises are not prepared to spend more as long as they can remain reasonably competitive at the current funding. Thus the burden of improvement is shifted to the more invested clubs such as the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders to ratchet up the top level to drag the lower clubs along.
Also, Blatter has repeatedly urged MLS to shift to the international calendar, which offers only a short winter break, but the snowy northern North American climates make January and February play impossible in terms of field maintenance and drawing spectators. MLS responded to FIFA’s request by pushing up the start of the season to early March, with 12 teams commencing on March 2 in 2013. However, the 2012 regular season concluded on October 28, despite that November is lovely time to play in northern climes and youth leagues play through it. In addition to the early start, the MLS regular season could run through November and the playoffs continue through December, which is often snow-less and certainly preferable to freezing, stormy March.
But here the conflict with the NFL comes into play. Two MLS teams, one of the best and one of the worst – the Seattle Sounders and New England Revolution – still play in NFL stadiums and there would be a conflict with the scheduling. Additionally, the MLS broadcast partners prioritize the NFL, which draws in millions through tickets, merchandise, sponsorship and television ratings, much more than through their relationship with MLS.
Thus, there is some truth in Blatter’s comments, that MLS has not come far enough, fast enough, although the league certainly has improved across all fronts with beautiful new stadiums, youth academies, strong supporters groups and more technical play. But in light of the gravity of the other global issues he addressed, Blatter’s slight to MLS should be kept in perspective. As one of the richest nations in the world and without a war on home soil, it’s reasonable for Blatter to assume that the United States should do better with MLS.
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