The Throw-In: MLS is bigger and badder

As First Kick approaches, league is entering into a golden period

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Photo Credit: 
Wilf Thorne / Houston Dynamo

I was on a flight back home from New York last week, wrapping up several days in the MLSsoccer.com offices, when I had one of those rare fan-boy moments while absent-mindedly flipping through the in-flight magazine – always a fine bastion of in-flight info-tainment.

Working for the league, I don’t get as many of those moments anymore – it’s professionally wise to sit back and enjoy the soccer in front of you in an objective way, trying to stay levelheaded. But sometimes, man, you just get a little giddy.

Sandwiched between the table of contents and one of those befuddling “Best Steakhouses in America” ads, I happened upon MLS’ print ad for First Kick. And credit to the creative team at my shop, they hammered right on their target audience. In full color, there were Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Juan Pablo Angel, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, and Kasey Keller, all for the glory of next week’s season-opener.

Beneath them, a simple passage: “More teams. More games. More rivalries. The league is bigger than ever.”

Beautiful. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited about the return of MLS. Granted, I’ve got a pretty good excuse to be interested, but I started thinking about the 12-line message in the ad. Intellectually, we’ve all known that 18 teams in the league this year equals more games, more players, more everything. But sometimes you need to take a second to appreciate just how major that is. Consider:

Eighteen teams equals a mega-schedule. It’s obvious, yes. But with this many teams each playing a 34-game regular-season slate, that’s a grand total of 306 games this season. That blows previous seasons out of the water. And that means more soccer to follow.

Eighteen teams also equals mega-rosters. Each team must carry between 28 and 30 players on its active roster. That means if every club is at its maximum, 540 players could be dressed at any time on any given weekend. And that is amazing.

For a nation where so many professional leagues have failed, the fact that this many pros are gainfully employed and working for organizations across the continent is downright spectacular. And with the return of the reserve league – arguably a greater development than the Designated Player rule – close to 1,000 players could be dressing in MLS kits this year.

Playoff mania. Say what you will about the expanded MLS Cup Playoffs format – and we know there are plenty of you detractors out there – but MLS has never had more than eight teams in the postseason before. Regardless of what you think, you can’t argue with more soccer. Including the new play-in round, there will be 13 postseason games this fall, the most since 2002. That’s more thrills of victory, more agonies of defeat.

Conquering the continent. Real Salt Lake should be a shining example to the rest of MLS that we need to take the CONCACAF Champions League seriously. If every participating team made a real go at the regional crown, it could make for more thrilling games to sandwich into a packed schedule.

Assuming FC Dallas and Seattle win their play-in series, and either Toronto or Vancouver make it in as Canada’s representative, that’s another 32 matches involving MLS teams in the group stage of the 2011-12 edition of the tournament, which kicks off this summer.

Watching your favorite team figure out how to balance competitions is another challenge confronting mastermind coaches like Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid.

MLS is keeping it real. Some argue that continued expansion dilutes the talent pool in MLS. Hogwash. The domestic pipeline has never been healthier, with more SuperDraft picks out of college sticking in MLS ranks. And as of Thursday, there are 31 home-grown players on MLS rosters, too – one of the best signs of bringing up our own.

Meanwhile, 18 teams mean 144 international spots across MLS rosters. And that means more brilliant Europeans will enter the league alongside always-strong South Americans, hidden-gem Africans and even an occasional Asian in the batch. Ten of the 14 MLS MVP winners in league history (Belgrade-born Preki won it twice) were born in foreign countries.

Speaking of reigning MVP David Ferreira, it’s been mentioned in this space as well, but as of Thursday, 14 Colombians are on MLS rosters – the most ever. For my money, Cafeteros represent the perfect blend of South American flair mixed with technical ability.

Shocker-specific. With June’s opening of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., the league will have 11 soccer-specific stadiums in operation. Fill them all up and add capacity crowds at the six other MLS venues (if we include Vancouver’s renovated BC Place, scheduled for September re-opening), that’s space for some 400,000 soccer fans. Not bad.

So forgive me for going all gushy about the league for whom I earn my living. Sometimes you forget how exciting this all can be. For this fan boy, the 2011 MLS season is all about going big. Bring on First Kick.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.