So this will be part one of 10 things that I think MLS needs to deal with before 2014, some are changes that can happen right away, while others would take the full time to get accomplished. The list will be in no particular order in this case they all are very related.
First up, adjust roster sizes, no matter if you think MLS needs to bring back reserve division or if you think that a roster size larger than 24 is needed for MLS teams to be competitive in the tournaments that have become part of the MLS season, SuperLiga, CONCACAF Champions League, Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and remain at the top of their form for the MLS season. While MLS has adjusted who plays in what tournaments to spread the wealth as well as the opportunities, in 2010 RSL will play at least 37 competitive matches and 4 of them will be in foreign countries (OK calling Toronto a foreign country may be a stretch but it is accurate).
This means that a 24 man roster will be stretched, with 90 minutes per match that is 3300 minutes of playing time. I will count 13 players per match, as while 3 subs could be used often they aren't played for long; this means that there are roughly 43,290 minutes to be played by the 24 players. The end result is that if each player plays equal minutes, then every player would play 1803 minutes. If you compare that number with 2009, only 8 RSL players logged that much playing time. So it means that it is possible that every player on the roster could surpass that total, in 2009 only 15 RSL players saw more than 208 minutes of action. So it is possible that the core of 2010's action will be seen by 18-20 players if the roster stays at 24. I would expect that if that number jumps to 28 players, then the depth would allow that number to jump up to 22-23 players.
More after the jump
So let's play a little what if; if the top 15 players each play 2,200 minutes in 2010 (6 did in 2009) it would eat up 33,000 of those 43,000 plus minutes meaning that 24 man roster has to cover over 10,000 minutes with less experienced players. However, if that number was 28 it would leave 13 players to cover those minutes. In 2009 players like Andy Williams, Pablo Campos, Ned Grabavoy, and Raphael Cox all saw less than 1,000 minutes of action, but it is likely that all of them will see well over that number in 2010.
If you look at this from the developmental stand point in 2009 RSL had 7 players at the end of the season that saw less than 400 minutes of playing time, with most seeing less than 200 minutes. It means that some players have to spend time on loan with USL sides to get enough action to develop as players. Jean Alexandre, Alex Nimo, David Horst, and Tino Nunez all spent time with other teams in order to continue their development, something that before last year would have more likely been done by the reserve division. So it is clear that something has to be done to ensure that young players have a chance to develop their skills, RSL management sticks by the theory that it takes 3 years for a player to fully develop into a MLS player. So how will players get action in the future to help their development?
Next thing up is to establish a partnership with the second division of soccer in the US. I know that MLS made a bid to purchase USL in 2009, but their bid was rejected for a lower offer and from what I heard a lot of the pressure came from Nike who feared losing more of the US soccer market to Adidas. So while I don't believe that MLS will ever see relegation, I do believe that they must work to establish a second division of soccer in the US. The cost of transporting players to play in reserve action matches, often attended by dozens of people was the major fact in the league dissolving that last season.
If each team could form a partnership with a second division team, it would allow a career path for the second division players to build a relationship with a MLS team, at the same time it would allow younger MLS players a chance to be loaned out to the second division team associated with their team and both help that team with their roster and get playing time to help their development.
Partnerships could also be used to help market the second division teams by allowing injured players from MLS to rehab there, a move that is very popular in AAA baseball. It gives fans a chance to see players that they might not be able to watch play live without travelling to a MLS city and allows teams to get players back to full match fitness more quickly.
While attendance numbers are hardly ever accurate, I believe most USL sides average 4-5,000 people per match. This allows the league to be much more financially viable than the MLS's reserve division; a firm partnership with MLS sides could boost those attendance numbers without adding a lot to their operating expenses.
Expanding rosters, a strong relationship with a second division are good but one more thing needs to take place to meet the obligation of MLS to grow the sport in the US, as well as to provide opportunities for young players in the US. This means that MLS must establish a youth academy system, I am less concerned if this is done under the umbrella of the league or by the individual teams, but we have one of the largest potential talent pools of players and we should be developing some of the best players in the world.
We have 100 million more people than Brazil, a nation that develops far more top level talent in soccer than the US does, we have more than 240 million more people than Argentina but who is the best player in the world? Lionel Messi from Argentina is the best player in the world in 2009, in 2008 the best player in the world came from Portugal a nation with fewer than 11 million people. So with only two nations in the world having more people than the US (China and India), what will it take for the US to develop top level soccer players?
It will take more than a commitment from MLS to develop a youth academy system; it will require US Soccer to do more to promote the sport as well. When US Soccer represents the very best players the USA has to offer, and most of those players do not play in the United States, so while fans can sometimes watch them play, too often the main exposure for them is the USMNT. This means that as often as they can US Soccer has to go out of their way to not only promote those players, but make them available to young players as examples of what is possible to those who work hard to be their best.
In most countries it is the working class and lower class kids who play soccer all day since it is an inexpensive sport that really only needs a ball, but in the US youth league system as it exists today it is more likely that less talented players who come from families who can afford the costs of being on a top youth team will get exposure to the best coaches and best chances to develop their skills. I hope that MLS will embrace a system based on talent alone and while I know youth systems can be expensive, hopefully the MLS, US Soccer, the teams, and the partners and sponsors of all those groups will allow the youth systems to be free for all to participate in.
OFF MY SOAPBOX