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Our City: A Wide Array of Rules Helps Stabilize MLS

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The rules that govern MLS are complex, baffling, and sometimes downright mysterious. They also provide a platform for stability and growth that is hard to argue against.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Our City is a weekly column dedicated to taking a wide-angled lens to the culture that surrounds Orlando City and Major League Soccer.

If you go anywhere near an MLS social media account you are bound to run into one of the league’s many critics. Despite solid stable growth since the league’s first game in 1996 and the recent successful development of new markets, there are detractors. These individuals run the gamut from your everyday internet troll, who enjoys getting a rise out of someone, to organized bullies who collectively seek to undermine the league and its fans.

Regardless of the credibility of their argument, the lack of vision shown with some of these people displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the league and the history of soccer in the United States.

I should be clear: I don’t believe the league is above criticism. There are aspects of MLS that irritate me as much as anyone. New voices and calls for reform should always be welcome at the table. Some of the quirks and idiosyncrasies are, as my gamer friends might call them, “features, not bugs.” While the crazy rules of MLS challenge even the casual fan, they act to stabilize and grow the sport in a country that has had too many leagues fold over the years.

To illustrate the point, I will make a personal example. I came of age during that dark period between the end of the old NASL and the arrival of MLS. I had played soccer since the before the age of eight and was a good player with hopes of being great. Around the time I should have been trying out for my high school soccer team, I quit the game.

During this period, there were no professional American soccer players for a young player like me to look up to. Sure, there were small leagues where American players could play as semi-pros. When my dad took me to Orlando Lions games, he’d always remind me that these players were carpenters and plumbers during the week. Part-time professionalism with a side gig was a hard sell for a kid in those days.

The U.S. Men’s National Team didn’t qualify for a World Cup until 1990, while in 1994, Cobi Jones signed for Coventry City and Alexi Lalas played for Calcio Padova in Italy. So, as a soccer player in the 1980s, with no national team to speak of, no examples of American professionals to idolize, and no ready access to European games through an expanded cable network or the internet, I gave up my interest in soccer in my teen years. Any soccer I did get to watch was usually in Spanish and featured teams from leagues I couldn’t follow in the United States.

The 1994 World Cup in the United States and the establishment of MLS soon after reignited my interest in soccer. Right after high school I began playing in Orlando’s adult leagues and following the game both domestically and internationally again. Easier access to the internet in the early 1990s helped.

While I’m sure there was never a lucrative professional contract to play soccer looming in my future, my story illustrates a larger black hole of every kid who began the game in the 1970s and 1980s, when youth leagues exploded across the United States, only to reach the important stage of development and lose interest in the game. I know I wasn’t the only teenager who took down his Pele posters and put a Tony Hawk one in its place. It was easier to imagine being a professional skateboarder than a soccer player, and I was much better at the latter!

Major League Soccer has successfully made the game part of the national sports landscape and given young soccer players around the country games to watch, teams with youth systems, and heroes to aspire to. It has given those players channels to develop into national team players and increased the pool of available players exponentially. While there is still a slight prejudice against American players on foreign teams, in a little over 20 years we’ve gone from two players to countless ones who play all around the globe.

Is MLS perfect? Far from it, but all those crazy rules and regulations have a purpose. They keep the league balanced and reigned in. The parity makes for some crazy results, but it also makes nearly every game competitive. Most importantly, these rules are keeping teams on the field and American players aspiring. Our criticisms and complaints, while valid, should be understood in the framework of keeping the project going. Throwing out the rulebook and kicking in the doors to allow free spending transfers will hurt the long-term goals for some short-term desire to recreate La Liga or the Bundesliga in the United States.

What do you think? Have I gone full “MLS apologist?” Do you think the wide net of rules helps or hinders the league? What would you like to see the league do differently? Do you think the rules have helped grow the game? Twitter: @KevinIsHistory.