The worldwide financial downturn has come at precisely the time when Major League Soccer was preparing to spread its wings.
The conundrum of whether to plow ahead with expansion, ambitious investment and development, or to tighten belts, will go a long way toward determining the league's progress in the near future.
"These are not easy times," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "But we feel we are in good shape to move forward with confidence. That has not happened by accident. It is a result of policies that we have believed in and stuck to for many years."
The core principles of MLS are reserved and solid, unlike those of the ill-fated North American Soccer League, which briefly soared and then collapsed in a mass of broken dreams and twisted finances in the 1980s. NASL – in a business sense – was more like a pyramid scheme than a sports league.
MLS owes its survival to a more realistic approach based around steady, if unspectacular, growth. If the key challenges that lie in wait over the next few years are surmounted, then a brighter future beckons.
Problem is, the league must make do without deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who is widely regarded as the brains of MLS and will be leaving at the end of the year to become Arsenal's chief executive.
Below is a look at the issues at the heart of MLS and how Garber and his associates should address them.
Big business is lining up to grab a slice of the MLS pie, even with franchise fees having gone up to $40 million.
The two new clubs awarded for the 2011 season are being pursued by six strong investment groups, including a Barcelona-backed Miami bid and a slick Vancouver presentation fronted by NBA star Steve Nash.
Every time a new team joins the league, another injection of cash is added to the coffers. However, MLS must avoid growing too quickly. If that means saying no to some business world superstars that MLS would previously have jumped at the chance to get involved with, so be it.
Any plans to go above the 18-team plateau which will be reached in 2011 should be treated with extreme caution. Dilution of talent is an issue that will raise its head with every new club, and the legitimacy of the on-field product must be protected.
2. Cornering the right market
MLS's primary concern should not be worrying about how to build a big soccer following in the United States – because it already exists. Television ratings for World Cups, European Championships and UEFA Champions League are all strong, and interest in the top competitions and leagues continues to rise.
The challenge is to grab a greater slice of the soccer market that is already in place. The only way that will happen is by investment in talent to raise the overall level of play.
The American viewing audience wants to see the best in action and with more access than ever before to the finest club and international action in the world, armchair fans will need to be convinced that they are watching a serious product.
3. Designated player rule
The so-called "Beckham Rule" has had mixed success so far. David Beckham has been unable to lift the Los Angeles Galaxy out of the doldrums, while D.C. United's signing of Marcelo Gallardo coincided with a drastic downturn in fortunes.
While the concept is an ideal way to bring in high-profile superstars, it is important it is used in the right way. Over time, hopefully the average age of the highly-paid talent being brought in will come down sharply, and MLS will be able to tap into players still closer to their peak.
4. Transfer market
For several years, there was little in the way of a transfer market involving MLS clubs. But now, American players are being targeted with regularity by European teams, with Jozy Altidore headlining the 2008 exports with a $10 million switch to Spanish side Villarreal. Landon Donovan and Kenny Cooper could be the next permanent departures.
Players performing well in MLS are certainly going to get offers from Europe. The league must ensure those departing stars are replaced with similarly talented players, with South America likely to provide a fertile hunting ground for recruitment.
- Major League Soccer
- North American Soccer League