HARRISON, NJ - SEPTEMBER 11: Thierry Henry  of the New York Red Bulls looks on against the Colorado Rapids on September 11, 2010 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Red Bulls defeat the Rapids 3-1. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

The idea that MLS is headed down a dangerous path with increasing investment in players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry is not a new one.  Nor is the inflammatory notion that doing so will create NASL redux, a repeat of history that will inevitably lead to the league's collapse.

Sports Business Journal is the latest to sound the alarm, though that conclusion comes at the end of a piece on how MLS should focus on younger future talent, and the reasons why.

The key statement:

One need only look at MLS’s newest big investment, Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls, and the three ways he could potentially drive value for MLS — ticket sales, TV deals and sponsorship revenue — to see why MLS would do better rebranding itself as a league for top talent rather than a graveyard for the game’s legendary dinosaurs.

Let's put aside the final paragraph and the unneeded invoking of the NASL name; the statement above is in itself reasonable, and given the right arguments, might even make sense. MLS as a league for top talent - sounds good to me.

But the arguments are wrong and a possible way to make that happen is missing. The idea that MLS should drop the "legendary dinosaur" model in favor of one for "young, aggressive, hungry" players sounds wonderful, but the characterization that the league follows one to the exclusion of the other is pure nonsense. Even worse is the criticizing MLS while providing no method for how to pull off the proposed switch.

It's one thing to say that MLS should look for young talent. It's another for the league to actually go out, find it  and bring it back.

Young players, particularly foreign ones, aren't looking to MLS first; convincing an up-and-coming talent from abroad to sign with an American club is still a very hard sell. Fredy Montero is the exception, not the rule. As a matter of evolution, signing aging greats actually makes sense as a way to make the league more attractive to young players. With countryman Juan Pablo Angel in the league, perhaps Montero's decision to accept the original loan from Deportivo Cali was more easily made. Improving the quality of the league through star players who are *just* past their prime for Europe adds cache to MLS, which in turn might encourage more young players to come here. It's difficult to separate one from the other considering the current condition of the MLS player pool.

There's a reason MLS has thrown dollars at the likes of Beckham and Henry; even if the return on the investment in them isn't immediate, they increase the brand's exposure. The SBJ writers are correct in saying that this hasn't manifested in better television ratings, but the ancillary benefits are clear. In fact, as the DP rule has matured, it might even be unfair to call all of those signed under it "dinosaurs." Alvaro Fernandez, Nery Castillo, and Julian de Guzman might take offense at the label.

The writers trip themselves up by using the Red Bulls and Henry as an example of the league's folly. Noting that Henry's total contract is just $8 million less than the value of the club as of 2008, they miss the point, declaring that "MLS is tying up far too much of its scant resource base in high-profile signings". Unlike much of the league's ownership, Red Bull is in a position to pay Henry's salary without breaking a sweat; because Henry is a DP, the bulk of the money paid to him is not part of the "scant resource base." If New York wasn't paying Thierry Henry that money, they probably wouldn't be spending it at all. The league is better for having an owner like Red Bull in it, opening its purse strings, increasing the profile of MLS with the signing of Henry than it would be without it. Claiming that their approach is wrong because they're spending more than they're making fails to account for the way they view the club. If Red Bull isn't overly concerned about making money from RBNY, I'm not sure why anyone else should be. Red Bull losing money in MLS in no way threatens the league's existence with the single-entity model in place.

Speaking of single-entity and the league's continued existence, I'd be curious to know how SUM factored into SBJ's assessment of Major League Soccer's player strategy (again, I don't believe there is one specific strategy in place across a soon-to-be nineteen team league); the marketing arm of the league brings in significant revenue, and every ownership group in MLS owns a piece. Because those revenues are not directly tied to team operations, they don't hit the bottom lines. That simple fact makes the "profitability" question far less relevant than it seems.

There's a large amount of gray area on this subject that SBJ seems to be missing, as well as the practical issues involved with bringing in this "top talent" they say would better benefit the league. MLS has good young talent throughout it, and has signed a few ageing stars in a bid to increase their visibility. To the ends of finding better new talent, MLS clubs are investing in development programs.

It doesn't seem to me that anyone of that portends of an NASL-style collapse.

Yes, MLS would be better off rebranding itself as a league for top talent.  I see the current situation as a means to that end, part of the slow process that the reality of soccer's place in America dictates.  Apparently the two gentlemen at SBJ see it as a simple matter of switching priorities.

If only it were that easy.
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