Major League Soccer has taken a step in the right direction, by loosening the roster restrictions that had been forced upon teams regarding international players. From day one, the MLS had always focused on producing domestic talent, and strengthening the base of American born players. This focus has lead to the drastic improvement of the American national team, and the production of many American born players who used the MLS as a launching pad to move overseas, to play for better clubs. Over the years, the quality of MLS has also risen, because of this strong base that has been established by the MLS. However, although the league has grown significantly, it is still looked at as a secondary league, when compared to many European leagues, and this status as a secondary league will continue to haunt the MLS until they move away from the "America First" frame of mind. Which is why the MLS has slowly but surely taken an important step towards growing into a respected league worldwide.
What the MLS has basically done, is widened the talent pool that is available to every team in the league, and how can you argue against that? By adding one additional international roster spot, and taking away the distinction of a YI and SI, teams now have the ability to pick from more players to improve their team. You will no doubt see more quality players in MLS, which will in turn help bring more respectability to the league. This respectability will come from many different angles. Players will see the MLS as a more realistic option, when the quality rises. Every player wants to play against top competition, and the MLS just doesn't come to many peoples minds when they think of top level football. Fans who choose not to watch the league, because of this lack of quality, will see a rise and hopefully tune in, which brings more revenue. More interest brings more investment, which is always a good thing. This investment is absolutely essential to the leagues success long term.
This move was also a necessary step, when expansion is on the horizon for the league. No matter what, the league would have been in trouble, had they chosen to stick by the old rules. With plans to expand the league to 18 teams by 2011, you would have seen a severe reduction in the available talent to every team. Teams now need to open their doors to the rest of the world, just like other major leagues, and not rely on Americans to fill their rosters. In fact, for those who are complaining about more international spots being available, stating that the MLS is moving away from their original goal, they're not. More teams will mean more jobs for American born players, and a focus on producing players through youth systems may be the decision that makes the biggest impact long term. Major League Soccer is a business, that has the ability to take advantage of the largest sporting market in the world. They see the respect growing, but they also see that fact that this growth could have only gone so far under the old rules. Growth is only going to happen with the introduction of talent from overseas, but the MLS also has one major fence in their way when it comes to attracting talent from across the globe, salaries.
This is a whole other issue that MLS has to address in the near future. Unless salaries rise, they will never attract the best talent. The MLS needs to raise its salary cap. Period. But they also must be very careful. Also, a move that would see the salary cap abolished, would be terrible. The league has one thing going for it, and that is competitive balance, and they must not move away from this. It would destroy the league.
In the future, I would desperately like to see more money invested into the youth systems. I touched on this in another entry, but this also relates to this. If the MLS wants to strengthen the base of American players, then they need to pump money into the youth systems. This is where they should put restrictions. This is where the "America First" frame of mind should be focused, not at the first team level. A focus on improving the quality league wide, will bring more American players to MLS by choice, and these players are the players that will produce for the National teams. The MLS shouldn't force a team to field a mediocre American player who will never have an impact internationally. They should give these spots up to the best available talent, whether they be English, Argentinian, or Brazilian. An improved quality will see a rise in popularity and produce more interest at the grassroots level. And if the MLS is smart, and they pump money into the youth systems, they can catch this interest at a young age and nurture it. These players will then not be on teams because they are forced to, but because they are skilled. The level of competition will be higher, and this will be better for every young player when it comes to their development.
What the MLS is doing is good, but more leniency when it comes to allowing foreigners will improve the league in the future. Less of a focus at the first team level, and more focus at the youth level is where the MLS should move towards in the future. Giving jobs to local players is always good, but if the league want to improve, they must look overseas and welcome any player, regardless of their nationality.
Merry Christmas everyone!