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It Seems To Me . . .

Is MLS plan to follow minor league model?

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Friday, November 13, 1998) -- To me, one of the most interesting statements to come out of MLS Cup í98 was not contained in any of the releases or press conferences. Instead, it came from an offhand remark made by Major League Soccer commissioner Doug Logan to the Los Angeles Times as part of a "state of the league" interview.

Logan told the Times that MLS fans have to realize that soccer in this country will never attain the popularity of baseball, football or basketball. But, he predicted, with a little luck, and if everyone has patience, a decade from now MLS will be well established and might enjoy popularity greater than, say, the National Hockey League.

The interview came amid the news that MLS lost about $20 million this season. Despite the fact the league continues to hemorrhage red ink, its major investors are prepared to pony up another $100 million, or so, to which should sustain it for another few years.

It was also announced that Philip Anschutzís Anschutz Sports has purchased the Los Angeles Galaxy for a record $26 million. This means Anschutz effectively owns a quarter of the League, three franchises: L.A., Chicago and Colorado.

The money guys behind MLS, are not soccer nuts; in fact, most admit to barely understanding the game. They are, however, astute businessmen, so there must be some degree of reason behind their willingness to put fresh millions behind millions already spent. Which takes us back to the Los Angeles Times interview.

Logan lamented the demise of the old North American Soccer League, which he attributed to the huge salaries that were paid big name stars. He vowed that MLS would never fall into that trap. Instead he said: "If we do our job right in developing American players or if we offer a place for players from, say, the West Indies, to come and showcase their wares and become visible, then we become a net seller of players rather than a net buyer and that is interesting from a business standpoint."

Whoa! Let me repeat the key words here: "net seller of players."

Just to make sure he had not been misquoted or misunderstood I asked Logan to confirm what he had said. He did so readily, saying "from a business standpoint it only makes sense."

It does make a lot of sense financially. Look at just one Italian team, Lazio. It spent more than $100 million acquiring only seven players this season. With clubs all over Europe paying multi-million dollar transfer fees seemingly every day, it would only make good business sense for MLS to want a piece of this very lucrative action.

From a fanís standpoint, however, it means something quite different. It means that what MLS wants to become, quietly, in its heart of hearts, is a developmental league, albeit, on a high-class one.

Perhaps the model is the Dutch first division. Football in the Netherlands is very good. It is often hard fought and competitive, and most of its teams draw crowds about what the Galaxy and Revolution draw.

It is, however, despite sides like Ajax and PSV, a clear cut below the top divisions in Germany, Italy, Spain, England. Every year Dutch teams sell players on the international market, many of them Dutch, but many from countries like Denmark and Sweden who they had acquired as youths. In turn, the Dutch clubs use some of that money to acquire new, young players, or to further support their acclaimed youth and developmental programs. The rest goes into the bank, making Dutch teams some of the more profitable in Europe.

MLS is not there yet. Maybe an Eddie Pope, Ben Olsen, Stern John, or Josh Wolff will be the start. Certainly from the players perspective, and from the national team perspective, this will be a positive thing

But back to what this means to fans of MLS clubs. It means that should this plan come to fruition, you will have to approach your teams much the way fans of minor league baseball, or hockey teams approach theirs: love your teams but donít get too close to any player, especially if he is young and good, because tomorrow, or next season, he likely will be gone.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.

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