Micah Rice: MLS in need of boost to compete

Commentary: Micah Rice

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 

The moods couldn't have been more different.

Rap music thumped off the walls of the Major League Soccer All-Stars' locker room. Adversaries and rivals shared hugs and fist-bumps after a 2-1 win on Wednesday.

On the other end of both Providence Park and the emotional spectrum, Bayern Munich's players hurriedly exited their locker room. Most stared at the floor, pretending not to hear questions from the gathered media.

It may have been a "friendly" for Bayern, currently the world's best soccer club, but the MLS All-Stars played to win.

They were loose. They played like underdogs. They were brazen and scrappy to the point that Bayern manager Pep Guardiola refused to shake hands with MLS manager Caleb Porter.

Most importantly, they showed the attitude Major League Soccer must have to establish itself as a top-tier league both in world soccer and the American sports landscape.

In this shrinking world, MLS competes with the world's biggest leagues on a weekly basis.

Any soccer fan with the Internet and cable television can just as easily follow a team in Spain as Seattle. There were enough Bayern fans in Portland last week to make it feel like a mini Munich.

Soccer has never been more popular in the United States. But that hasn't seen Americans gravitate toward the MLS, for which TV ratings are still abysmal. Last year's MLS Cup title match had its lowest TV audience ever (505,000).

Ratings for this summer's World Cup broke records for two reasons. First, casual fans tuned in because the U.S. team tapped into national pride. Just as most people only care about swimming and gymnastics during the Olympics, we love seeing the U.S. take on the world.

Meanwhile, the growing legion of soccer fans showed they will seek out top-level competition. Even World Cup games not involving the U.S. scored high ratings. Broadcasts of the English Premier League on NBC routinely outdraw the MLS. Nearly 110,000 people were in Michigan Stadium when Manchester United played Real Madrid last weekend.

In the quest for U.S. soccer fans' attention, this is what MLS is up against.

What is MLS to do? The league needs to brazenly spend money to keep and bring the best American players here.

We're talking DeAndre Yedlin, the Sounders wunderkind who has been linked to a possible move to Tottenham in London.

We're talking Jermaine Jones, the best U.S. player in the World Cup. Rumors of a move to Chicago from his German club Schalke 04 have yet to bear fruit.

We're talking Julian Green, the 19-year-old Bayern winger who was boisterously cheered on Wednesday. He's used sparingly at Bayern, so the MLS would be wise to pursue a loan arrangement, if not an all-out transfer.

When the league's collective bargaining agreement expires after this year, the salary cap teams can spend on players could double to roughly $6 million a year.

The league and its teams should take that financial ammunition and shoot for the stars.

"The MLS is a lot better league than people think it is," Yedlen said. "So it's just getting the stereotype off the MLS's back that it's a bad league."

What's the best way to kill that stereotype? Be ambitious. Be bold. Embrace conflict and rivalries. Go toe-to-toe with the world's best clubs in order to have the best young American stars play stateside.

Wednesday, a team of all-stars played like scrappy ambitious underdogs against one of soccer's elite names. In doing so, they set an example for the league they represent.