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Op-Ed \ Chris Allen

A Doug Logan to-do list.

(Sunday, January 10, 1999) -- An open letter to Major League Soccer commissioner Doug Logan:

After three years of MLS, many things have gone well: No teams have folded, investors appear committed for at least another five years, attendance remained steady in year three, TV ratings are at least at hockey levels, a Harris survey suggests that the popularity of soccer among sports fan continues to grow, and the level of play continues to improve.

However, there are several significant areas to which MLS needs to devote serious attention:

Playoffs: The "best of three" really needs to go. You are aware of the many problems already: unequal amounts of rest for teams with the "extra" game; problems in clearing TV time for the "if necessary" games, the inequity of treating shootout "wins" as normal time wins" the dead time if all series end in two games; the increased number of midweek playoff games which produce v smaller crowds and lower TV ratings, etc.

I'm sure you are now aware that a two-games, total goals series is workable, as it was for D.C. United vs. Vasco da Gama in the InterAmerican Cup; and I'm sure that as one familiar with Mexican soccer you appreciate the two-leg, total-goals series in which any ties in aggregate goals are broken by having the team with the better regular season record going through. So why not introduce this into MLS? One component of this plan -- letting draws stand after each of the two legs (since it's a total goals format) -- would let you address the next issue:

Shootouts: By now, we have a pretty good sense of the MLS fan base. I can't imagine that people who have experienced shootouts would stop coming if we let draws stand after 90 minutes. Unfortunately, there are large numbers of people who WON'T come to MLS games now BECAUSE of the shootout. On a more practical issue, if you don't have shootouts and the games end after 90 minutes you will ALWAYS finish the games in less than two hours, AND there will be more time to run more commercials in all of those games that currently end in shootouts. Finally, hockey deals with draws why can't we? And their TV ratings are about on a par with ours.

Clocks: Now that the FIFA standard of running time clocks counting up with the fourth official holding up a sign indicating in WHOLE MINUTES how much time added on there will be is established in all major leagues around the world, why not in MLS too? MLS teams play under these conditions in the U.S. Open Cup, in CONCACAF club matches, and in the InterAmerican Cup. Our national team plays under this format for World Cup qualifiers and in the World Cup. Would it really be so "alien" if we used the world standard in MLS too?

Shirt sponsorships: I know that MLS chose to not have sponsorships on the front of the shirts for the first three years in order to promote team identification with the fans. The compromise was to put the sponsorships logo on the backs and sleeves. Might it now be possible to put a small logo on the front too, and thereby generate some extra revenue for MLS?

Goals: Not the scoring of goals, but the physical structure of the goals themselves. Why does only Miami use the wonderful "rectangular box" style goals -- as is the case in virtually all other countries -- while all other teams use the much less aesthetically pleasing "Quikgoals?" Watching a goal enter the net should be a sensual experience, as it is when it goes into the net in most other places. I know MLS has a contract with Quikgoal, which is great, but how about asking them to design a special MLS version that is fully rectangular and not the modified trapezoid they use now? If the issue of moving the goals in MLS stadia is an issue, why not ask Quikgoal to emulate the structure of the goals in the Bundesliga which are both rectangular and movable?

Schedule: The lengthening of the schedule to insure 83 percent weekend games is excellent. So too, is not "wasting" the first week with only one game. And by pushing the MLS Cup back to November 21, it removes the competition with the World Series from the sports pages, and maybe forces the sports editors to cover soccer in the process. Also, this lengthening of the season also opens up midweek dates for U.S. Open Cup matches, international friendlies, CONCACAF club matches, and by next year, World Cup qualifiers.

However, the United States Soccer Federationís decision -- quite likely after consultation with MLS -- not to have the national team participate in the Copa America was a shortsighted one. As Tom Hill has pointed out in his "Final Whistle" columns in the New England Revolution Fanzine Pictures of Chairman Mao, MLS could start its season either one or two weeks earlier (March 6 or 1h) and end it at least a week later (October 17, if of course MLS moves to a two-leg playoff format) and leave some time for a break in the season to accommodate the quadrennial (or maybe biennial?) World Cups and the Copa America tournaments. And with several marque MLS players already committed to these tournaments anyway (Jaime Moreno, Marco Echeverry, Giovanni Savarese, Jorge Campos, et al.), what's the point of denying the U.S. national team meaningful international competition? With some judicious scheduling, tournaments like the Copa America could help MLS.

Youth/reserve teams: Perhaps the most important things on your list should be insuring that MLS take a more active role in the scouting and developing of young players. By now it's clear that the current amateur-based system is letting far too many talented players slip through the cracks, with talented American kids at the ages of 15 and 16 being snapped up by foreign clubs. And the more worrisome development of foreign clubs (i.e. Lazio) coming to the U.S. and systematically organizing American talent should be setting off alarm bells. As Dan Roudebush has documented in an encyclopedic fashion on his Soccer Commentary web page, "pros should develop pros."

Such a MLS youth program need not be particularly expensive nor run afoul of the ludicrous NCAA restrictions. MLS clubs would simply "sponsor" these kids like any youth league club team and they would retain amateur status. Yet by a systematic commitment to youth development MLS could develop the "seed capital" it needs to survive and thrive. Major corporations don't scrimp on R&D budgets, neither should MLS.

The beard: From one 50-something dude to another, keep it, it looks cool!

Chris Allen is a political science professor at University of Georgia, a fan of the New England Revolution and Atlanta Silverbacks and maintains the "Shots At Goal" web site at http://shore.net/~csallen/shotgoal.htm.

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