Changing the channel – A response to Billy Haisley

Last week Deadspin ran an article titled, “Getting Ready for MLS?  Allow Us to Convince You Otherwise.”  In it the author, Billy Haisley, rails against the supposed failings of MLS, and tries to encourage readers to abandon the top U.S. soccer league by shitting all over the people who happen to like MLS.  Allow me the chance to highlight some of his more asinine ramblings and respond.

Haisley starts off strong with some cheap shots about aging players and returning stars:

“It’s about that time of the year again! Timber Joey is gassing up his chainsaw, Thierry Henry is stretching those creaking joints, and Michael Bradley is getting ready to lace up his boots, the prodigal son back on (well, North) American soil after so many years away. Yep, Major League Soccer, the land of has-beens and never-weres, is about to start back up, and nobody cares.”

Of course when Haisley says “nobody cares,” he actually mean he doesn’t care.  I’m sure he was proud of getting so many insults into a single opening paragraph, but all he really accomplished here is to prepare us for the fact that he writes with the subtlety of Timber Joey’s chainsaw.

After that opening, he spends a few moments actually discussing the league in a magnanimous fashion.  I’m sure it was a struggle for him, but he almost complimented MLS for some big offseason moves that brought players like U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) star Michael Bradley back to the league.  As he points out, that means that 3 out of the top 4 American players now play for MLS teams, which just a few years ago would’ve been unthinkable.

Haisley, however, wasn’t about to go a whole three paragraphs before tearing the league down some more.  He quickly moves on to criticize Bradley’s decision to come back from Italy.

“…what the fuck are you thinking, Michael? Yeah, you were already the fourth man in a three-man midfield, and probably dropped to fifth when Roma brought in Radja Nainggolan, but surely somebody else in Europe would’ve picked you up. You could’ve walked into a number of mid-table English starting 11s, maybe helped Jozy find his footing at Sunderland, or maybe joined another decent-to-good Serie A club like the Chievo Verona side Roma plucked you from. In short, you had options, man!”

By Haisley’s thinking, riding the pine in Europe will always be a superior option to playing for – and leading – a team in MLS.  He references USMNT coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, who has consistently said he wants his players challenging themselves at the highest level.  To Haisley, Bradley’s decision to leave Europe for MLS is nothing less than contemptible.  In what he probably thought was witty writing, he quoted On The Waterfront to call Bradley a bum. Haisley can use all the tired clichés he wants, but that isn’t going to stop Bradley from deciding what’s best for his career.

What Haisley is ignoring is that it all comes down to the World Cup later this year.  Men’s national team players like Bradley and Clint Dempsey are coming back to the U.S. because they would rather get playing time, and even be the focus of a team, than sit on the sidelines watching other people play.  Look, the fact is that American players have to fight for respect in the rest of the world.  Bradley himself said that most coaches in Europe, if given the option of an American and player from elsewhere who were equally skilled, wouldn’t choose the American.  Spending the year fighting for playing time on a mid-table European team isn’t necessarily the most effective way for American players to prepare for the World Cup.  Michael Bradley will be the USMNT’s leader and most effective playmaker when the team heads to Brazil this summer.  Playing a similar role in MLS is the best way he can prepare for that.

The fact that Haisley can’t even put that simple concept together makes me seriously question what makes him think he has the qualifications to even write an article criticizing MLS.  He clearly has no idea what he’s talking about.

What’s funny is that Haisley not only admits his ignorance about the league, but takes pride in it.

“There are probably a number of other ‘important’ things to know coming into the new year that only diehards, people being paid to watch, masochists, or some combination of the three could tell you about, but since I am none of those, I have no idea. Why watch MLS anyways? It’s blatantly inferior soccer.”

Haisley has no idea what story lines are worth following in the league, and he’s proud of that fact.  My first thought when reading that is to ask, “Why are you writing about MLS, then?”  I don’t have the slightest interest in what’s going on this year in the South African cricket league, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna spend three thousand words trying to piss off the people who are interested.

I think that’s what really irritates me about this entire article.  Haisley doesn’t like the league, which is fine.  Don’t watch.  Nobody is tying you to a chair Clockwork Orange style and forcing you to pay attention.  Look, I’ve struggled in the past – and still do – with being disdainful or rude about other people’s interests, but the amount of time and effort Haisley has spent just to piss all over something other people like is disturbing.  Seriously dude, get a fuckin’ hobby.

As for MLS being inferior soccer, all I have to say is this:  Yes, yes it is.  You will not find players like Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo playing in MLS.  If players of that quality were here, they would’ve been bought up long ago by bigger leagues who have more money.  That’s the way it works; American soccer fans know this.  It’s the very reason that the return of American stars like Bradley and Dempsey is so important.  For once, the biggest players are coming home in their prime, and bringing their talent to improve the league here.

But just because something is inferior doesn’t mean it’s without merit.  Just because the Sounders don’t play like Bayern Munich doesn’t mean they’re entirely worthless any more than college football is worthless because it’s not the NFL.  Hell, I know people who think college basketball is more entertaining than the NBA because of the very fact that the games rely more on teamwork and tactics than superstars dunking.

By Haisley’s reasoning, however, if something isn’t the very best, it has no worth at all.  Why would you drive a Honda when there are Ferraris out there?  Hell, why would you drive a Ferrari when there are Bugattis out there?  Why would you even drive a Bugatti, there’s aircraft carriers out there!  College sports, minor league baseball, little league sports: all worthless.  In fact, why would you even watch a mid-table EPL team like Everton?  They’re clearly playing an inferior level of soccer when compared to Chelsea.  In fact, if you’re a fan of any team besides Barcelona, you’re just wasting your goddamned time.  You deserve Billy Haisley’s contempt, you lousy waste of space.  How dare you bring your inferior fandom near his beautiful game?

Okay… enough with the hyperbole.  But I hope you take my point.  Let me give one little reason why I might want to follow the Sounders instead of Manchester City.  I don’t live in Manchester.  I can’t exactly get up and go watch A.S. Roma play Juventus every week.  I can however, go watch the Sounders play.  And that has a lot of value to me, regardless of the different levels of competition.

Having said that, I would suggest that MLS isn’t nearly as inferior as Haisley suggests it is.  Here’s how he puts it:

“…we can get into specifics of what makes MLS so shitty. Mainly it’s about the dearth of individual creativity. There will always be the occasional 40-yard cracker that awes the crowd, but how often do we see passages like these two Arsenal goals? Are there even times where inventive one-touch passing like that gets a guy in scoring position before he misses the chance? And how about anything like Messi here, one man completely shredding an entire defense? Not so much, eh?”

Just so we’re clear on what he’s talking about, here are gifs of the two Arsenal goals he’s referencing.

193ozc9mh0wjygifDeadspin

 19ghlf0spajlngifDeadspin

You know what, those are some pretty amazing goals.  As for quality, you’ll get no argument from me.  Though, I think it’s worth noting that Deadspin called the first one “the best goal of the season so far,” so it’s not like goals are happening like that every day.  But the point Haisley is trying to make is that MLS isn’t capable of that kind of one-touch pass build-up to make such a beautiful goal.  Just out of curiosity, let’s see what MLS had to offer in this season’s opening weekend…

Huh.  If I’m not mistaken that looked like a string of one-touch passes which took some great vision and on-field awareness to break down a defense and score a goal.  But surely that can’t be right.  MLS players aren’t supposed to be capable of that type of build-up.

Oh, and what about that little comment about Messi singlehandedly dribbling through defenses?  Well, I can’t embed the video, but go take a look because, seriously, it’s friggin’ brilliant.  Here’s the thing about that.  Nobody does that.  That’s why Lionel Messi is the greatest player in the world.  When you look at his list of awards and accomplishments, it doesn’t seem possible.  Oh, and he’s just 26 years old.

However, let’s see if we can see any MLS players carving through a defense alone…

Okay, so he didn’t finish the play on his own.  Instead, after carving through three defenders, he put a perfect looping cross right on the foot of the open attacker making a run on the far post.  I suppose Haisley would think that’s just garbage compared to any other goal in the world.

We might not have Messi-like talent in the world, but that doesn’t mean we’re without talent.  Those were some great goals demanding a high level of skill both personally and as a team.  And unlike Haisley, I’m not cherry-picking perfect goals out of weeks of play.  Those goals all happened during the eight games played last weekend.

Look, MLS isn’t the biggest league in the world, and it doesn’t have the best players.  Sports in general, and soccer especially, are a meritocracy, and talent goes where the money is.  Sure, a few MLS teams could upset the competitive balance by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on players – in fact, that’s kind of what Toronto did this year – but eventually the league won’t be able to keep up with that kind of budget.  That’s why the NASL failed in the 80’s.  Teams outspent their own earning power, and the league collapsed under the weight of out-of-control contracts.

And yet those very controls that keep the league afloat is yet another criticism Haisley levels at the league.

“Instead of individual owners buying or starting teams of their own, MLS owns all of the teams in the league. The nominal owners of the individual teams make most of the day-to-day decisions but ultimately it’s the MLS front office that has final say on the big decisions. All those conspiracy theories about how the NBA office is constantly figuring out new ways to fuck over the league for the benefit of big market teams are pretty much a given in MLS. Hey, the Galaxy have always been good, so let’s keep shipping them as many Designated Players as we can! The favored teams can’t be too good, though, or no one else would have any hope.”

He includes a link to another Deadspin article from a few years ago that suggests MLS is purposely making the New York and L.A. franchises better than the rest of the league to push an east coast/west coast rivalry.  In short, the article suggests that since the team salaries are higher in N.Y. and L.A. than the rest of the teams, the league is stacking the deck in favor of the big market teams.  This is hardly an original theory, and it was pretty stupid 5 years ago when it was popular, never mind today.  Oh, plus there’s this misleading bit about the league setting the salaries for players instead of the teams.  This is all supposed to be evidence of the dark power of the MLS league overlords playing favorites at the cost of real competition to favor a special few important markets.

To properly answer these attacks by Haisley, I’m going to have to dig pretty deep into the soccer jargon.  I apologize if this is a little hard to follow for people who aren’t soccer fans, but bear with me.  It’s important to understanding why his article was so infuriating and idiotic.  So, join me as we go deep into the rabbit hole of MLS league politics and policy.

Has the league ever manipulated the rules to help out one specific team?  Absolutely.  They created an entire rule to allow the L.A. Galaxy sign English superstar David Beckham in 2007.  The short version of that story is that the league wanted to sign Beckham, but the salary cap that all teams had to abide by was too low for the salary he wanted.  The league’s solution was to create a rule where teams could sign one player who could be paid any level salary, but would only hit the cap at a certain amount.  Eventually the rule was expanded to three Designated Players (DPs) per team.

And that rule is pretty straightforward compared to how the rest of the league works.  For one, the league is built on a single-entity structure.  That means the league owns all the teams and players, and franchises them out to team owners.  Unlike NFL or NBA, the teams are not independent organizations from the league office.  All player contracts are also held by the league.  Also, coaches, general managers, and team owners need to be able to navigate the salary cap, the designated player rule, the SuperDraft, the supplemental draft, the re-entry draft, allocation order, transfer fees, inter-league and extra-league loans, allocation money, and retention funds.  To call it labyrinthine would be an understatement.

But the fact that the rules are confusing doesn’t prove a conspiracy to favor big market teams.  The rules are set up how they are for two main reasons.  First, to create a competitive balance – parity – to ensure that no team becomes so powerful or talented that no one else can compete.  Second is to stop teams and the league from overspending to the point of collapse.

For the first point, there’s an ongoing argument with fans in the league about whether parity is better or not.  I personally think it is.  Part of the reason I watch MLS as opposed to the European leagues that Haisley is so fond of is that no team can take over the league completely.  What’s interesting about La Liga in Spain where every year all the trophies are passed between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and the other teams just serve as punching bags for the monetary powerhouses at the top of the table?  Or you could look to England.  In the 21 years since the founding of the Premier League, only five teams have won the title.  Manchester United has won it thirteen times.  I don’t understand the appeal of following a mid table team like Everton who’s never bad enough to get relegated, but never good enough for challenge for a title.

MLS, on the other hand, has had nine league champions over its eighteen seasons, and no team has won more than four titles.  While teams will certainly go through some bad stretches, any team can be just a couple player signings away from competing for the cup.  There are certainly those who think that’s due to enforced mediocrity by the league office, and perhaps they’re right.  But to me, it makes for a much more fun and interesting league.

As for the second reason, to ensure the continued success of the league, I think results have clearly proved out the effectiveness of that.  MLS just began their 18th season this week, which means that they’ve lasted longer than the old NASL of the 70’s and 80’s.  Not only has this league outlasted its predecessor, but it’s stronger than ever before.

A more salient criticism of the league rules is how the league office is not always up front about how those rules work with the fans and the media.  Time and time again the media is surprised by some move in the league that seemed against the rules only to find out that they were never properly informed of what the rules actually are.  It’s frustrating as hell for the journalists and the fans.  And I have to add that this here is probably a lot of cause for Billy Haisley’s vitriol aimed at the league, but he would have to know something about MLS to know where aim his criticism.  Also, just because the league isn’t always transparent about its inner workings doesn’t prove a nefarious plot to screw over small market teams.

The best example would probably be when the Seattle Sounders acquired Clint Dempsey last year (full disclosure:  if you weren’t already aware, I’m a huge Sounders fan).  The rules, as fans and journalists understood, said that USMNT players returning to the league had to go through an allocation order.  Teams were placed on the allocation list in reverse order of their finish the previous season.  When a USMNT player comes back to the league, the team at the top of the list gets the first chance to sign him.  If they choose to pass on him, then the second team gets the chance, and on down the list.

Dempsey is one of the top 5 players on the USMNT and most teams would be thrilled to have him.  However, whatever team did sign him would have to pay a Designated Player level salary just to get him here.  Most teams in the league couldn’t afford him.  The Sounders, who are one of the wealthiest teams in the league, were in talks with Dempsey, and rumors seemed to confirm that he would join the team.  There was a hiccup, though.  The Sounders were only second in the allocation order; their biggest rivals, the Portland Timbers, held the first spot.  Even if the Sounders could convince Dempsey to come, Portland would likely take him by allocation, or trade their allocation spot to another team who could afford him just to ensure the Sounders didn’t get such a quality player.

Before long, the Sounders announced the signing of Dempsey.  Fans – and not only those in Portland – were left wondering how he skipped the allocation order.  The league then announced that players coming back on Designated Player contracts didn’t have to go through allocation.  People cried foul and claimed that the league changed the rules to make sure that Dempsey ended up with one of the league’s darlings, Seattle.  It especially didn’t help when it was reported that the league paid the $10 million transfer fee instead of the team itself.  People spun conspiracy theories about how the league bosses manipulated the situation.

There’s a catch, though.  Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers, never once complained.  He even said of the deal, “One thing our fans should know: there was no anti-PDX MLS agenda. Internally I believe rules were fairly clear.”  Let me be clear about Merritt Paulson.  If he had a problem with the deal, he would’ve said something.  He’s one of the most outspoken owners in the history of the league, and he’s never let blowback from the league office stop him from saying what he thinks.

While I can’t prove that a secret cabal inside the MLS head office isn’t pulling the strings like Michael Corleone to favor certain teams over the others, it seems more likely that the team owners and GMs know the rules, but fans and media are sometimes left in the dark.

Here’s the important bit to remember.  The only time the league clearly made a move to favor one team over another was the Beckham situation mentioned earlier.  In that situation, MLS clearly and blatantly changed the rules to give a single, incredibly talented player, to one team.  But the rule still applied equally to every team, opening the door for teams to sign some of the biggest names in the world.  Also, in hindsight, it’s important to note that when David Beckham was signed, the league had 13 teams, an average attendance of 16,770 fans per game, and was in the second year of a TV deal worth $8 million.  In contrast, in 2013 MLS had 19 teams with 2 more coming in two years, average attendance 18,594 fans per game, and just signed TV deals worth $70 million.  The numbers show a bigger and massively more successful league compared to just seven years ago.

The only time I can think that MLS clearly made a move that benefited one team over others in the league, the entire league profited.  Perhaps those guys up in the main office know what they’re doing?

Interestingly enough, Haisley mentions Tim Leiweke when talking about these shady deals.  Leiweke was the long time CEO of AEG, owners of the L.A. Galaxy as well as numerous other sports and entertainment franchises. It was Leiweke who authored the deal to bring Beckham to the Galaxy, as well as other player acquisitions like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.  When Leiweke was hired by Toronto FC’s parent company, MLSE, to turn their struggling club around, he managed to convince them to spend millions on Michael Bradley and England National Team player Jermaine Defoe.

Haisley uses these deals as examples of the league’s preferential treatment of certain teams over others and points at the man – who doesn’t work for the league office, mind you – who authored those deals for proof.  Yet it never occurs to him that perhaps Leiweke was hired because he’s capable of working the complex league rules to put together powerhouse teams.  It’s like saying NBA commissioner favored the Chicago Bulls in the 90’s and the L.A. Lakers last decade, and pointing out that Phil Jackson coached both teams as proof.  Wouldn’t the simpler explanation be that Phil Jackson’s a pretty damn good coach?

Okay, enough about the internal workings of MLS.  The point is that Haisley points to the complicated rules of the league as proof of its inferiority without every trying to understand what those rules are or what their purpose might be.  Could the league be more transparent?  Absolutely.  In the end, do these complex rules benefit the league as a whole?  It really seems like it.  Would Haisley care to look at the actual evidence involved before insulting the league more?  Probably not.  To me, he’s like someone saying that they don’t understand evolution and therefore it’s wrong, and stupid as well.

So up to this point Haisley has attacked MLS for its players, quality, structure, and rules while not only making it clear that he doesn’t understand how the league works, but also proudly admitting that he doesn’t care to know.  How might he manage to make himself look like an even bigger idiot?  Why by attacking MLS fans, of course!

“It’s not the average guy drinking a beer and rooting on the local 11 that makes the MLS experience so insufferable. It’s the diehard true believer, enacting his worst Europhiliac impulses by aping the behavior of European fútbol fans as if it were something other than the product of a specific cultural history. The league panders to this cosplay with its ridiculous, at times downright un-American names. (I mean, Real Salt Lake? Didn’t we toss a few crates of tea in the Boston Harbor as an explicit “Fuck you!” to fucking royalty?) How is it more “authentic” and more “fútbol” to call a team Football Club Dallas when the league itself is called Major League Soccer?”

So let me get this straight.  According to Haisley, the league sucks because it’s not European enough, but the fans suck because they’re too European?  How the hell is that supposed to make any sense?  Apparently you have to be European to chant at a soccer match… or South American, or African, or Central American, or Asian.  But you certainly can’t do it as an American, dammit.  That would make you a poseur.

Oh, and as a quick aside, I guess Haisley thinks that since we held a revolution against Great Britain a couple hundred years ago, we must wash all references to any sort of monarchy out of our culture.  Quick!  Somebody contact the Sacramento Kings and Monarchs, the Kansas City Royals, and the L.A. Kings!  Billy Haisley doesn’t approve of their names!  They must be changed immediately!

This is where Haisley is at his most pathetic.  After spending half an article talking about how much better soccer is in Europe, he has the temerity to say,

“That desired demo was the trendy types who believe everything that is done better across the pond, and MLS certainly succeeded in winning their hearts.”  

It’s like he’s never even heard of hypocrisy.  For some reason he thinks people around the world enjoying soccer and the various traditions and ceremonies involved with the game is great, but the moment Americans want to do the same thing with their own league it’s fake and contrived and wrong.  And the worst part is that he seems completely oblivious to the fact that his article is dripping with the condescending bullshit he’s accusing MLS fans of.  That level of stupidity and lack of self-awareness is almost impressive.

Look, I get that MLS is not everyone’s favorite league.  You know what?  That’s fine.  I’m not a big fan of the NBA.  But I don’t rail against people who do enjoy it.  More importantly, since I don’t watch the NBA, I certainly don’t write angry screeds against it while pretending to know what goes on internally in the league.

That’s what I find so confusingly irritating about that article.  MLS isn’t hurting anybody.  It has neither the clout nor the financial backing to force other leagues out of the spotlight.  If you’re a fan of MLS, you have to purposely seek out news sources just to keep up with it.  The major sports outlets have no interest in covering the league (ironically, Deadspin seems to be one of the few major outlets that will write about MLS somewhat regularly).  If I want to keep up with MLS news, I have to find websites and podcasts dedicated to the league, because that’s the only regular and reliable source of information and discussion I can find.  Even the networks that carry the games have no interest in covering the league in their sports news (here’s looking at you ESPN).  Being an MLS fan isn’t easy, and I think those who work hard to build their own community around what’s fun and interesting in the league are remarkable.  What I don’t understand is why somebody would go out of their way to shit all over these marginalized fans.  What the hell did we do to you?  If you don’t like MLS, great.  Don’t watch it.  Don’t go to the bars where MLS fans congregate.  They’re few and far between; it’s easy enough to avoid them.

It takes a special level of stupid asshole to go out of his way to shit on something somebody else loves just for the sheer fun of it.  Unfortunately for us, assholes like Billy Haisley exist, and even occasionally manage to get published.  Haisley is probably proud of that little piece he wrote.  But he didn’t do anything but insult and piss off a bunch of people who don’t deserve his disdain.  Sports journalism isn’t improved by the likes of Haisley.  On the contrary, people like him bring the whole community down.

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