Galaxy’s Vanney: MLS Going Through Growing Pains

Greg Vanney takes the captain’s armband from David Beckham for the final minute of his final game and moves on.i-0903bbe4ebd7048232d42a82ac30605f-TS27-Galaxy.SV-778.jpg

Photo by Scott Varley

Conventional wisdom holds MLS has improved since its 1996 debut, but now retired Galaxy defender Greg Vanney has a different perspective.

With almost his last words at a post-game press conference Sunday, the self-described “soccer junkie” who will now forge a coaching career in Arizona gave a thoughtful, cogent analysis of the state of MLS.

His words will have greater resonance for Galaxy fans who have suffered through a season of disparity in the ability and experience of veterans compared to inexpensive youngsters whose greatest attribute it sometimes seems is their willingness to take small paychecks and fit under the salary cap.

Here’s the (virtually unedited) view of a player who believes he “survived in the sport more because of my brain than my athletic ability” and credits discussions “on a different level” with veteran players for being a huge part of his development as a player:

“The league early on was more of a veteran league and there were more guys who had experience and were role players and understood what their role was within the team. And there were certain guys who had special qualities, but they still all fit within the team.

“I think in the (time) when I was here, when I left and when I came back a lot of those sort of role players, those guys who had six, seven, five years experience were replaced with young guys who had potential.

“To me, potential is a frightening word.

“So, we had a lot of guys out there who are talented in their own right, but maybe the thinking side of the game, the decision-making and all that side isn’t quite there yet.

“So, for me, the game is hectic now, it’s wide open, it’s all over the place. I don’t remember that as a young player, when the game made sense, and players did their job and there were roles. The game was much more fluid and now it’s just up and down and all over.

“And to be fair part of the reason I’m sitting here today is because in today’s game, the way its become in this league, I don’t survive very well in this game. Had the game continued where it was going and we wouldn’t have replaced the seven, eight year veterans who understood their day to day jobs with a scheme that’s very fast, almost out of control at times, who knows what would be around.

“That to me is the difference: we’ve replaced the good solid professional with potential.

“Maybe this league will be great in the future, but right now I think it has some growing pains it has to go through in order for it to get there and expansion is not going to change that at all because we’re talking about what, three to four teams in the next few years. And that’s just going to bring more younger players into the league.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I think it’s a growing pain thing. It’s a process we have to get through and it’s a teaching and education process. Now college players go from college to what would be the premier league in this country and there’s no step in between for them to learn what it takes to be a professional.

“They’re thrown out on the field and expected to have an impact. That’s tough, we’re asking a lot of those young guys.”

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  • cristobal

    Doesn’t MLS realize how headlines in U.S. papers would be all over the story if David Beckham’s LA Galaxy were relegated to the USL? Why not come out and admit that their Marketing Scheme did half the job, but that the league structure put out the flames of real publicity. Americans in general have no clue what “Relegation” even means.

    Admit it MLS. You’ve got the structure of the league all wrong.

    Single table. Promotion and Relegation. The ability to sign “real” talent in today’s market (meaning – the salary cap is an anchor).

    Wake up and build a league football fans want to watch. Wow the non-football fans with a league that is completely different. What made you think you could reinvent the wheel?

  • Inigo Montoya

    I don’t think a single table and relegation would fix what’s wrong.

    The world game _is_ in transition and MLS is falling behind, but there are MLS teams, notably Columbus and Houston, who have adapted far better than the Galaxy to the salary cap and the structure of the league.

    Nobody in the league is going to listen to Galaxy whining about the cap and feel bad for a team that blew all its cash on jersey-sellers and seat-fillers and then complained there wasn’t enough money left afterward to field a decent XI. AEG has made its own bed and is now lying in it. Forbes says they’re crying all the way to the bank.

    To be fair to Vanney, he’s right that the MLS game has changed and that the current game doesn’t reward his kind of play. He will be remembered as one of the stalwarts of the 1990s Galaxy and MLS, and even of the US Men’s team. Thank you, Greg. It was fun. We wish you well.

    But it’s important to note that the game has changed all over the world in the last ten or twelve years — just compare video from the 1998 World Cup in France with this year’s WC in Germany/Austria if you doubt me. Or watch UEFA Cup video from 1996 and this year. The old days of drive-the-corner-and-cross over and over again are gone. The game is much more in the midfield now, and requires smart, fit and highly skilled players able to move the ball, adapt quickly and play multiple positions. It’s a faster game, more fluid, and requires excellent coaching and year-round training.

    My hunch is that’s the legacy of at least three things: 1) European teams pressing the evolution of the game triggered by 1970s Dutch Total Football, 2) increasingly fit players all over the world emulating Brazilian creativity and skill, and 3) wealthy clubs creating a fluid market that can draw together the best players from all over the world.

    We don’t see evidence of the first two of those having much impact on the MLS. The game is faster and more chaotic, but not nearly as organized and skilled as in the European, South American or even the Mexican leagues. Still, we do have one big impact: #3 has led to more of the best American players being cherry-picked by European teams.

    My preferred solution for the Galaxy and other MLS franchises would be to give up on the designated player fantasy, build teams from the ground up, develop and retain young players, sign them to longer contracts, and find managers and coaches familiar with world soccer.

    Oh, yeah, and develop a better reffing corps.

  • cristobal

    Inigo – I can tell you know a lot about football, but I think Promotion and Relegation in America is an amazing possibility. If MLS were concerned with football developing they wouldn’t be making the decisions they are making. It’s an AEG product, and their products are always about money as the bottom line.
    I don’t doubt Beckham has been profitable, but once he’s gone, what’s left to sell us? The league is 3rd rate because of the Salary Cap and the American Sports Model it employs. It’s 14 years or so since MLS started and they are as minor league as they were then, maybe worse. They have teams playing in competitions outside of the league and they can’t spend enough on depth to compete. The Galaxy was in a shambles when Becks got there. I never watched more than 5-10 minutes of any MLS game until he came. Granted, I’d only really been a fan for 10 months, but MLS and their “playoff” format DO NOT interest me in the least. I’d rather watch Bolton and Fulham desperate to avoid relegation and playing like its a Cup Final.

  • cristobal

    Inigo, what I’m trying to say is that MLS shone the light on themselves when they OK’d Becks coming. The light is again shining on them because he’s set to leave. Non-football fans were asked to watch, but there was nothing to see. It’s a collection of regular season exibition games for 8 playoff spots. Nothing new, nothing interesting. Now if those people had been drawn in and saw that in MLS, if you fuck up the team, you’re going to be punished and sent down, many people would want to see it happen. By drawing in non-football fans with becks, they could have spotlighted how intense and important every game of football is. that’s what makes football the greatest sport on the planet, in my opinion.

  • JOD

    Cristobal your points are astute . . . and while a lot of MLS fans are astute, the relatively small number of dedicated fans who appreciate the trials and tribulations presented by promotion/relegation just represents too small an economic base to reliably withstand the financial dangers of going down. I look forward to the day American soccer has a multi-tiered setup but right now the conventional wisdom is that the sport’s economy at the pro level is too fragile to subject to pros & rels.

  • cristobal

    JOD – I’m sorry but I think that thinking is just as packaged as MLS. Of course the league can’t support the game their selling. But Anschutz is a billionaire and they have the room to fail yet not go bankrupt. Do you think the league would be where it is at all if they didn’t spend the money on it?
    On the contrary. If promotion and relegation won’t work here it’s only because Anschutz owns the league. Football is played every day in this counry. All it needs is organization and a top league to call “premiere”.