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It Seems To Me . . .

Is MLS shortsighted in its quest for parity at any cost?

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, April 30, 1999) -- Former Major League Soccer deputy commission Sunil Gulati may be gone (and if you read MLSí new media guide he actually has become a non-person), but part of his legacy lives on.

Gulati was a major proponent of parity at any price, and of using league rules like the salary cap and waiver and expansion drafts to achieve parity. It seems clear from the first month of results that the league is closer to achieving what I think was Gulatiís eventual goal: everybody finishing 16-16. Iím just not sure the leagueís methods of achieving parity will serve its best interests, either short term or the long term.

One consistent litany from MLS officials this season is that the quality of play has gotten better. I am not sure that is true. It is true that a number of the really lousy or just plain mediocre teams from last year appear to have gotten better. Without a doubt, New England, the MetroStars, Dallas and San Jose are, if not actually better, at least playing better and getting better results. But I donít think that necessarily means the overall quality of play in the league has gone up.

My problem with MLSí method of achieving parity is that it seeks to do so by improving the weaker teams at the expense of the stronger, rather than trying to leave the strong teams strong, and bringing the other teams up to their level.

The main case in point is D.C. United. For the past year MLS has bragged and bragged about Unitedís achievements of last season: CONCACAF Champions Cup, InterAmerican Cup, as in "United -- Champion of the Americas." But as a reward for success MLS has, if not stripped United, weakened it enough so that at least now the club is a shell of its former self.

With its starting 11 healthy and hitting on all cylinders, United is undoubtedly still among the better squads in MLS. But without a doubt, losing John Harkes and Tony Sanneh has made this yearís edition weaker than last yearís, even given the addition of Diego Sonora and first draft choice Jason Moore.

United was forced to give away Harkes to get to get under the cap. Sanneh left for Germany after he could not reach a new contract agreement with Gulati and MLS. "I really wanted to stay," Sanneh said a while ago when he was back for national team duty. "I was willing to play this year for what they offered me. All I asked was they write into the contract clauses guaranteeing that I would get raises if I became a national team regular and one of the top players in the league. They said they could not do that."

Sanneh said that he also wanted a guarantee that he would stay in Washington. "If I stayed it would have to have been with United. But I was told that would be all but impossible because of Unitedís salary cap problems. So I had to do what was best for me and my family and that was to take (Hertha) Berlinís offer."

Unitedís problem is not just that itís missing two key players in Harkes and Sanneh. Over the past two years the league has stripped United of not just starters like Raul Diaz Arce, but of its bench strength, a critical ingredient in the teamís strength over its first years in MLS. This year its defender Mario Gori, and keeper Scott Garlick that are gone. In the past itís been Jesse Marsch, Kris Kelderman, David Vaudreuil, John Maessner and others.

Now when United goes to its bench its journeymen like Geoff Aunger, Mark Simpson, A.J. Wood, or Carey Talley, or untested youngsters with varying degrees of promise who must come in.

I realize that fans of other teams are heartened to see United get its comeuppance. But in terms of a league trying to establish some degree of legitimacy in the soccer world, wouldnít MLS had been better served to try to keep United as strong as possible while building other squads to Unitedís level, as arguably the Chicago Fire is?

Also, I would think that given MLSís past history of salary cap absolutism and salary limits, fans in places like Chicago, and Columbus should not get too smug. I would think that neither squad will be as strong again as they are this year. I would predict both will lose key players next season.

In last weekís column, I raised the issue of changing the way MLS calculates its standings. MLS says the purpose of the shootout is to encourage offensive play while discouraging teams from playing for draws. I believe the biggest inequity inherent in the shootout system is that teams who lose shootouts go home empty-handed, despite what has perhaps been a valiant effort to secure a regulation time draw.

The A-League is utilizing a point system whereby teams who draw each earn a point, the shootout winner gains an additional point, and to keep the difference between a regulation win and a shootout win significant, four points, not three, are awarded for a regulation victory (a 4-2-1 system). Then to encourage scoring, a bonus point is given any team scoring three goals, win lose or draw, in regulation.

This column, as might be expected, has drawn a deluge of response. I will address a number of issues raised by readers next week. In the meantime, here is an updated comparison of the standings through April 28, using both the official MLS method and the A-league method. This update corrects a couple of computational errors in the initial comparison.

MLS Point System

Eastern Conference:Columbus 8, D.C. United 7, New England 6, MetroStars 5, Miami 5, Tampa Bay 5.

Western Conference: Chicago 12, Dallas 10, Los Angeles 5, Colorado 4, San Jose 4, Kansas City 0.

A-League Method

Eastern Conference: Columbus 13, D.C. United 12, New England 12, Miami 9, MetroStars 8, Tampa Bay 5.

Western Conference: Chicago 20, Dallas 17, Los Angeles 10, Colorado 9, San Jose 8, Kansas City 2.

Robert 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 soccerwag1@aol.com.

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