Sporting Kansas City II had their inaugural MLS Next Pro season come to an end with a shootout win over the Western Conference champs, St. Louis City 2 this past weekend. It was a good end to an otherwise up and down season for first year head coach Benny Feilhaber and his staff.
This story isn’t about SKC II, but instead about the league and product as a whole and how it failed it’s fans and more importantly, it’s players, in year one.
2022 was the league’s first season and it only has room to go up from here. Let’s count the ways MLS failed in launching it’s new third division soccer league.
It’s Hard to Watch — Part 1: AI Camera
The first thing that screamed out to fans way back when the season started was how bad the camera looked. MLS Next Pro is using an artificial intelligence camera called Spiideo. It was often very zoomed out and really struggled to keep up with the pace of play. On many occasions, a long ball would be played and the action would be over (including goals being scored) before the camera would catch up.
It was said the technology should get better the more games that were played and it was definitely inconsistent from venue to venue, so maybe location of the camera in the stadium played a role. However, if it got better, it was marginal at best.
The most egregious example, and this isn’t from an MLS Next Pro game so I’m not sure what camera is in use, is an AI camera following a referees bald head instead of the ball.
When #objectrecognition fails.#AI Camera Ruins Soccer Game For Fans After Mistaking Referee's Bald Head For Ball ⚽️ A clear example on why human supervision is needed #ArtificialIntelligence— Mau_Bastien (@Mau_Bastien) October 30, 2020
cc:@gmendozabazan @allen_ai pic.twitter.com/x9GT5JpDCz
I didn’t watch enough MLS Next Pro to know if this happened in the league this year, which brings me to my next point.
It’s Hard To Watch — Part 2: Live Games Only
With so much entertainment vying for our eyeballs week-to-week (so many sports, House of the Dragon, Andor, etc.), it’s hard to make it appointment viewing to watch a subpar product (from a production standpoint). Yet MLS Next Pro only streams their games live. There is no backup that fans have access to. Coaches have full access and as a member of the media I got access to a couple games after they were broadcast, but the vast majority of people are forced to watch live.
Now I realize fans watching these games are in the minority. And there is a cost to doing things with a proper camera crew, but I think there are reasons to do it (see the primary one below).
Until 2022, I had watched nearly every Swope Park Rangers or Sporting KC II game. Often not live, but I watched them. I was consistently informed about the next generation of players coming up the rankings. I’m sad to say, I know very little about what happened in 2022 outside of a couple minute highlight packages and the games I could get to or watch live (and I’m not even mad they played most of them at Rock Chalk Park, I hope it opens up new fans, but I couldn’t get out there).
It’s Hard to Watch — Part 3: Scouting
Perhaps the worst thing about the Spiideo camera was this is all the footage that coaches and scouts got from the games (excluding the Game of the Week which had a full production and some experiments by the Real Monarchs who piloted a full human controlled multi-camera setup).
Imagine if you are preparing for your next opponent and the footage is so bad you can’t see the numbers on the players jerseys at times. The poor commentators were often calling these games from a remote location and relying on this as well.
Without a doubt in my mind, if you are a player in this league, you are pissed off. Because the vast majority of the players are young and trying to make a name for themselves to get moved up the ranks of world football. Whether it’s with their MLS team or somewhere else. Sure their local team has eyes on the ground, but for scouts they don’t have good footage of the players. I’ve seen some scouting videos using this AI technology and it misidentifies players or sometimes their best plays simply aren’t captured on film at all.
If you don’t get an MLS contract, how are other teams and leagues going to scout you to know they want to sign you without the added expense of flying someone to your games? Or what about the guys on MLS deals who are mostly playing in MLSNP? I can foresee a world where players fall through the cracks which is bad for them, bad for US Soccer and just bad for the game.
The Competition is Worse
Okay, three sections for the camera, let’s move on to something else that’s hurting the development of players. MLS Next Pro is essentially a U-23 league. All but one team is owned by an MLS club (so far) and most of their rosters are filled out with players from their youth academy, guys fresh out of college and a few veterans that tend to still be around their mid 20s.
When SKC II (and all these other clubs) played in the USL Championship, they saw a greater mix of opponents. Often times, they played against competitive teams that were doing everything they could to win, including signing more expensive, more talented players. They faced teams stocked with hardened veterans, men who were fighting for their chance to make it to a higher league or to provide a living for their families.
In MLSNP, they are mostly playing against boys. It’s simply not the same. The evidence can even be found within the league. St. Louis City 2 built a roster that would be more at home in the USLC than MLSNP. They won the Western Conference with that roster. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare in the playoffs.
Of all the ways the league has failed this year, poor level of competition was my main concern coming in. Of the games I did watch, it was often evident on the field.
Young Guys Need Minutes
The final way the league failed is a simple one. They didn’t play enough soccer. The MLSNP season only had 24 games for the teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs. The 2022 USL Championship season, where most of these teams came from last year, will play 34 league games (just like MLS). 10 extra games is significant to develop your young players. They need to get minutes.
Also, there is going to be a large gap until they play again. This season started on March 27th for SKC II and ended September 17th. That’s a six month season. Many of these players are eligible for their Academy clubs and hopefully will get some minutes down there, but many more will have quite a few months off before preseason 2023 starts. That doesn’t seem like a win in developing players to my untrained eye.
For 2023, things need to change. First and foremost, the camera. The league is holding back any potential fan growth and more importantly, players putting their highlights on high quality video. That seems like the easiest fix in a league where most of the team’s are owned by billionaires. If youth development is important, seeing the players is a must.
As for the level of competition, hopefully it’ll keep rising. There are far less restrictive roster rules in MLSNP, so teams can and should start to bring in young guys that are loaded in talent and pay them higher salaries. And adding more games should be easy too. Most of these teams don’t get to play in extra competitions like the US Open Cup, so no reason to not up the number of games played other than owners being cheap. I have no problem spending their money for them.
[Update: 9/25/22 at 8:50 PM CST. Charles Altcheck, the President of MLS Next Pro, went on the Flyover Footy podcast and addressed many of these issues. It’s worth a listen.]