MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER doesn't have to look back at history. It has to look only across the pond to see the danger that uncontrolled spending can create for a soccer league.
Portsmouth Football Club, which has been around since 1898, won England's prestigious FA Cup in 2008, and has competed in the Premier League since 2003, is on the verge of folding.
The debt-laden club will need a savior to keep it from going under.
Pressure to stay in the Premier League, one of the world's best and most lucrative soccer leagues, caused the Portsmouth owners to outspend their means. This case is one of the worst examples of the financial tightrope that clubs around the world are walking.
I relate this to MLS, because representatives of the league and the players union soon will resume talks on a collective-bargaining agreement. Technically, the current 5-year agreement has expired, but the deadline for a new agreement has been extended to Feb. 25. Owners have raised the possibility of a lockout.
Amid the labor talk, however, comes a rumor from Europe that New York Red Bulls, one of MLS' signature, if not successful, franchises, is on the verge of acquiring Real Madrid legendary captain Raul Gonzalez Blanco, or simply Raul.
The story, which originated in the Spanish daily Marca, further speculated that the Red Bulls also are pursuing FC Barcelona and French striker Thierry Henry, as well as trying to persuade former AC Milan and Italy defender Paolo Maldini to come out of retirement.
If New York, which opens a new $200 million stadium next month, is indeed trying to emulate Real Madrid's "Galaticos" strategy by building a team packed with high-salaried superstars, it would require MLS to extend and expand the expired "designated player" rule it implemented in 2007.
That rule allowed teams to sign one player to a significant salary, with only a small portion counting against the salary cap. It's what the Los Angeles Galaxy used to sign David Beckham and the Red Bulls already used to ink Juan Pablo Angel.
The Galaxy actually can put other players around Beckham because only $415,000 of his ungodly salary counts against LA's $2.3 million salary cap.
Los Angeles, New York, Seattle FC and D.C. United are said to be among the deep-pocket teams pushing to have the DP rule expanded to two players.
If that happens, the ability to trade for another team's DP slot would allow certain clubs to have even more high-salaried exceptions.
Beyond the fact that owners will have trouble claiming poverty to players averaging $150,000 while simultaneously offering fading imports million-dollar contracts, this type of financial manipulation ultimately doomed the North American Soccer League, which folded in the 1980s.
It's what has smaller clubs in top European Leagues worrying about their prospects for survival.
Staying away from uncontrolled spending has allowed MLS to slowly grow into a stable league with a comfortable niche. To undermine its formula for cost certainty in this financial climate would be dancing with disaster.
For the overall sake of MLS, the smaller clubs must not allow themselves to be enticed or bullied by a few bigger clubs into making a potentially devastating financial decision.
It's not that big-market franchises like New York, Los Angeles and D.C. or well-financed teams such as Seattle, whose owners include billionaire Paul Allen and actor Drew Carey, would spend themselves into the oblivion. They know what they can afford.
But what kind of financial straits would teams in such markets as Kansas City, San Jose, Salt Lake City or Columbus, Ohio, risk to remain competitive?
Having a few superstar-laden teams might be good for the fans in those particular markets, but a lopsided shift in competitive balance could force other teams into a Portsmouth situation.
A soccer system like the Premier League, Italy's Serie A or Spain's La Liga, in which only three or four teams ever have a chance of winning, won't fly in the United States.
American fans in smaller markets want to know they at least have a shot. They want to believe that if the playing field is kept somewhat level, then good scouting, great coaching and proper player development can counteract the inherent advantages of big dollars.
If fans believe that their team has no chance because a few other teams simply can spend their way to championships, they eventually will stop paying their hard-earned cash on no-reward situations.
Considering that a New York franchise has never won an MLS title, it is little wonder that Red Bulls want to change the rules.
What MLS must do is make sure that New York's desire to become a supernova does not force other teams to risk flaming out. *
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