SuperLiga adds spice to MLS intensity

January 15, 2007
CarlisleBy Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet
(Archive)

Ever since David Beckham announced he was coming to MLS, much of the focus has centered on what the Englishman could do in terms of attendance, television ratings, and generally raising the awareness level surrounding the league. There has been little talk about such niceties as the actual product on the field, or increasing passion for MLS and its teams as opposed to a certain individual player. It's been all Beckham, all the time.

Blanco
WireImage / Juan MirandaCuauhtemoc Blanco and Club America will compete against MLS teams in the SuperLiga this year.

Fortunately, the focus at MLS headquarters hasn't been so narrow. Along with the Mexican Soccer Federation, the league announced Saturday the creation of the SuperLiga; an eight-team tournament involving teams from both leagues that will crown an unofficial North American champion.

So how does MLS actually benefit from this newfangled competition? Let me count the ways. Since its inception, the league has been plagued by several problems, the biggest being a thoroughly devalued regular season that has served to stunt the development of its players. At times during the league's history, 80 percent of the teams qualified for the playoffs. Courtesy of expansion, the number now rests at a cozy 61 percent, but that figure is still greater than that of other sports in the U.S.

As a result, many regular-season matches in MLS lack that sense of urgency that is so evident overseas, where the motivation of either qualifying for the Champions League or avoiding relegation places a premium on every game. MLS sides know that if a semblance of form can be found at some point during the year, it is often enough to qualify for the playoffs, and hence, get a crack at the championship. The 2005 edition of the Los Angeles Galaxy, who had only the ninth-best record in the league that year, yet still found themselves hoisting the MLS Cup, are Exhibit A.

But it isn't just the strugglers who have had this approach. Teams blessed with getting off to good starts lose their edge as well, content in the knowledge that the points they have racked up early are enough to qualify for the postseason. That attitude has led to a lot of meaningless games where there was little to no pressure, at least until the crunch-time months of August, September and October arrive. And that reduced exposure to pressurized situations meant MLS players weren't developing as fast as they could, and the on-field product suffered as a result.

While the SuperLiga won't solve this problem on its own, the fact that a team's regular-season record will be used to qualify for future incarnations of the tournament -- and a shot at its $1 million purse -- is a huge step in the right direction, a fact not lost on MLS commissioner Don Garber.

"Next year, it will be a qualifying process that will be balanced," Garber told MLSNet. "That's going to be an incentive for [teams] to play harder and make every regular-season game count, because they've got to win those games to reach what will be a very valuable tournament."

But the pressure to perform won't come solely from attempting to qualify for the SuperLiga or from the potential winnings available to each player. The hope is that by tapping into the fierce rivalry between the two nations at the international level, a similar vibe will become evident at club level as well. Even though all of the games will be held on U.S. soil, the matches are bound to be well-supported by Mexican fans. Playing in front of hostile, passionate crowds should further prepare MLS players for the day when they might don a national team jersey.

It also represents an opportunity for MLS fans to further connect with their teams. After all, there is nothing like a little nationalistic fervor to increase the passion one feels for his club.

That said, the first incarnation of the SuperLiga will be far from perfect. The fact that the games will be held in the U.S. and during the Mexican Soccer Federation's preseason makes this an uneven playing field, and might serve to take some of the luster off the SuperLiga trophy, should an MLS side win it.

The tournament also raises plenty of questions. What will this do to the CONCACAF Champions Cup, which heretofore has been the sole international club competition on the continent? Both Garber and U.S. Soccer Federation head Sunil Gulati went to great lengths during Saturday's conference call to state that the CCC would continue and that the SuperLiga had the blessings of CONCACAF head Chuck Blazer. But one wonders if the marketing and media muscle behind the SuperLiga -- which includes such powerhouses as Univision, Televisa and TV Azteca -- will soon render the CCC obsolete.

There is also the matter of scheduling congestion for MLS participants Houston, Los Angeles, Dallas and D.C. United. August is typically the time for the final rounds of the U.S. Open Cup, and while the Cup dates have been flexible in the past, I can see how the enthusiasm of an MLS coach for that competition -- which in some quarters is already low to begin with -- might diminish even further when faced with an already crowded calendar.

Still, from my vantage point, the increase in competitive games that the SuperLiga will provide, as well as the passion that will likely accompany it, will only accelerate the development of MLS players, making this a winning proposition all around. And with any luck, it may outlast the MLS career of you-know-who.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.