Last week we recapped a busy week in the Timbers front office in Part I of the Morrison Report’s Omnibus Offseason Edition. But the headquarters on Morrison Street wasn’t the only one that was busy. The MLS front office had a whale of a week as well, releasing the 2013 schedule, preparing for a draft that is quickly losing relevance, and dodging questions about why its trying to trademark the term “Cascadia Cup” in Canada. Let’s discuss, shall we?
The 2013 schedule came out with absolutely no surprise. As promised, it was a mirror image of 2012. The disappointing part, though, was the League’s refusal to fix a glaring – and easily remedied – problem in the schedule.
When the MLS announced the format of its imbalanced schedule in 2012, I assumed the League would take the extra effort to ensure Cascadian balance. While perfect balance is impossible under MLS’s current format, relative scheduling parity can be achieved by making sure that each Cascadian club has three home and three away Cascadia Cup matches each year. It doesn’t take a John Nash to figure out how to do this.
Yet, somehow, the MLS decided to make it so either Portland or Seattle will play four at home and two on the road each year, with the other playing the inverse. Last year, the Timbers were the recipients of the good fortune, which – if we’re being honest with ourselves for a moment – was key to liberating the Cup from the Wharf in the North.
So, before the 2013 schedule came out, I harbored a fool’s hope that MLS would right its mistake from last year and balance the Cascadian schedule. No dice. Maybe MLS just wants to let what went around in 2012 come around in 2013, with plans to right this obvious wrong before 2014. If so, while I would modestly dissent on there’s-no-better-time-than-the-present-to-fix-your-screw-ups grounds, what’s fair is fair, and Timbers supporters can’t complain too much about that.
While I’m sure this sounds trifling to the League office, it’s important. Under the current format, absent a year in which the unduly burdened club is a clear Cascadian hegemon,  or a year in which Vancouver isn’t Cascadianly challenged, either Portland or Seattle will be at a distinct disadvantage, Vancouver a slight one, and the homebody a massive advantage. My prediction is this homebody will take the Cup with Metamucil-like regularity.
The Cup can certainly withstand another year of this. But if, as I predict, the competition becomes too predictable, it will eventually wilt. Sure, the rivalry between Portland and Seattle will endure, but the uniquely awesome three-way competition will eventually wither. That would be just as unfortunate for the League as it would be for Cascadia.
But the League is nothing if not stubborn. The problem didn’t get fixed this year. If it doesn’t happen next, we may be in for the long haul. Let’s hope that’s not the case.
There’s a palpable wah-wah feeling around this year’s SuperDraft. Around Portland, that’s in large part because the likely highlight of the global online stream of the draft for Timbers fans will be the shots of Gavin Wilkinson, Caleb Porter, and Merritt Paulson playing a spirited draft day game of Scrabble.
But the talent pool this year is also way down. While there are surely multiple causes, one major contributor is the emergence of prominent homegrown signings. This is a fantastic development for the League and North American soccer. Simply put, better academies mean better talent and better soccer, both on the league level and the national team level.
It, however, is also a major potential source of competitive disparity in years to come. As young players are shepherded into academies at younger and younger ages, the homegrown signings will largely follow regional lines. Simply put, the Timbers are going to sign kids from Oregon and southwest Washington, the Red Bulls from New York, and the Galaxy from Los Angeles.
The danger here is obvious. There is much more talent in L.A. than Kansas City. If the Galaxy do a halfway decent job of developing their academy, they will have a continuous pipeline of some of the best talent in America, whereas Sporting will have to largely look overseas to stay competitive.
So, how do we reform the way MLS brings young players into the league? Well, the first thing I would do is phase out the SuperDraft in favor of a more market-oriented approach. You see a North American college player you like? Go sign him. MLS could still provide incentives to sign North American high school and collegiate players through the use of salary cap discounts for every such player signed to their first MLS contract.
Then, to incentivize academy development, MLS could essentially borrow restricted free agency from the NBA. Any other MLS team can come in and sign any other team’s academy player, but the parent club gets the first right of refusal on the same terms as the signing club. The parent club would still be at a significant advantage in retaining its own product, but not to the absolute exclusion of the rest of the League. This would mitigate the geographic competitive bias the current homegrown system is likely to produce, while maintaining the strong incentive to build academies and develop top talent at home.
What was that, Don, you don’t like the fact that this deprives you of the opportunity to stream your midday, midweek draft live on the Internet to the entire globe? Fear not, fearless leader. You could still hold a combine for academy and non-academy MLS prospects in early January, and make the first day to sign these youngsters to an MLS contract sometime in the next week. So, instead of having GCA tweet about uncompetitive games, you would have national media covering both the combine and, more importantly, the bidding wars going on behind the scenes. Then you would have the MLS equivalent of NCAA football’s national signing day. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Oh, if only it would happen.
Onward, Rose City!
 I know this because I did it on a legal pad in two minutes at lunch one day. A typical mind should be able to do it in half that time.
 And yes, I, too, grimaced at the logical conclusion of this statement applied to Seattle’s near miss in 2012. But, again, we’re in the spirit of being honest with ourselves.
 Hard to say which is more likely.
 Which they already are.
 For example, MLS could dangle a 50% salary cap discount in the first year of the player’s contract, 35% in the second, and 20% in the third.
 Obviously, the parent club would have a huge advantage in scouting the player, as well.