In the summer of 2010, just a few months before his twentieth birthday, Conor Doyle found himself with a choice to make.
Either he could continue his footballing development at Creighton University, in the American Midwest, and live in hope that clubs from the country’s top division, Major League Soccer, might come calling a few years down the line; or he could accept the two-year contract he had been offered by English second-tier side Derby County.
Growing up watching the Premier League with his dad – who played professional indoor soccer in the US – it had always been Doyle’s dream to play in England. But there was a lot to mull over. Things were going well at Creighton. He’d played during the team’s undefeated preseason campaign and already spent one semester at school. He was torn – understandably so – but, when it came down to it, there was only going to be one winner.
And so, on 6th August, Doyle officially signed with Derby County. He was following his dream.
“I always dreamed of playing in England and this opportunity might not rise again so I might as well take it while it’s there,” Doyle tells me over the phone.
Just four days after putting pen to paper, Doyle made his first appearance as a substitute in the second half of a League Cup encounter at Crewe Alexandra – a game Derby lost one-nil. He would make his first start for the club in the team’s next match, against Coventry City, and feature 14 times for the Rams in his first season in England.
Doyle’s career stalled in the wake of a promising debut campaign, however, and the following two seasons saw him struggle for game time on the fringes of the first team. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that his dream had turned into a nightmare, but he certainly wasn’t sleeping easy. He wanted to play, wanted a chance to prove himself. Derby agreed that a loan move would be the best solution for both parties; besides, Doyle, still only 20, was years from his prime and needed a chance to develop. By the time the 2012-13 season came to a close, a move to Major League Soccer made sense.
“It got to the point in England [at Derby] where I wasn’t playing and it got to where I wasn’t really involved in the last half a season to season,” Doyle said. “The whole novelty of being in England and just being there, and being able to say I play for a team in England but don’t really play, kind of got frustrating and, coming back, I thought I’d have an opportunity to play and get a chance to start enjoying soccer again.”
What he quickly learned, however, is that securing a contract with MLS would not be as easy as it had been across the pond.
2015 marks the twentieth year of MLS. It is a league on the cusp of adulthood, but which is still prone to growing pains, and has often struggled to find an identity in the very country that created it. Originally, it tried to pander to a broad American audience, raised on a diet of all-action, high-scoring sporting spectacles. Instead of settling for draws at the end of normal time, early matches ended with penalty shootouts akin to those seen in ice hockey, with run-ups and everything.
But the biggest thing the league needed to ensure was long-term financial stability. Mindful of the inflated player contracts that had contributed to the demise of the short-lived North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1980s, MLS followed the lead of the country’s most successful – and most lucrative – sporting body, the NFL, by installing a salary cap and merging its existing member teams into a single overarching entity. This allowed the league to negotiate on behalf of its members in the global football market, at a time when many team owners had very little experience of doing so.
While attendance was strong in the early years, it dropped off at the turn of the century, with the result that two teams in Florida – the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion – were contracted. Television ratings weren’t great (and, admittedly, still aren’t) and the talent pool seemed to be dwindling. Things were on edge, it seemed. But a revival was near.
Now the league is on more stable footing. Two new teams, New York City and Orlando City, will be added this year, with plans for future expansion already in the pipeline; Chivas FC, a Los Angeles-based franchise that was dissolved at the end of 2014, is set to relaunch in three years’ time.
But for all its (admittedly promising) progress at club level, MLS still struggles when it comes to contracts and player acquisition. In many ways, it’s still stuck in the infant stage; free agency still doesn’t exist – at least, not as we think of it in other parts of the footballing world – and mechanisms that were once in place to facilitate the movement of players have now started to slow the league down, boggling the minds of its own fans.
Take Doyle, for example. He and his club were looking for a loan option in MLS, so Doyle spent two months training with the Colorado Rapids. Naturally, he thought he’d be playing there. But MLS rules weren’t that straightforward; because Doyle had played for the US national team at youth level, he would be assigned a club via a lottery process.
On a Friday night he found out the lottery would take place the following day. On Saturday, he discovered that Washington-based DC United was the lucky winner. By Sunday, he was aboard a flight, bound for the nation’s capital, to join the worst team in the league.
Doyle did well with United. He helped DC win its third US Open Cup – North America’s version of the FA Cup, which dates back to 1914 – despite a miserable regular season, in which the team finished bottom of the Eastern Conference.
His performances were good enough to earn him a full contract with the club, however, and in 2014 Doyle and DC United turned things around. They finished the season atop the Eastern Conference, going from worst to first in just one year. But it’s a reversal of fortune that might not last.
MLS and its players are in the midst of what could become some stressful negotiations. The league has made plenty of changes to the laws governing player acquisition over the years – most notably the ‘David Beckham’ or Designated Player rule, which allows teams to sign high-earning players to lucrative contracts without busting through the ceiling of the salary cap. But free agency is still a hot-button topic, and one that has the potential to undermine the league’s continued growth.
The current agreement between the players and the league expires on 31st January and both sides are steadfast in their demands. Players want greater freedom of movement and are hoping to acquire some form of free agency, while the league contends that it would undermine its ability to negotiate in the international player market. While a work stoppage would not be a desirable outcome for either party, it is beginning to look like a very real possibility.
What is for certain, though, is that MLS is moving in the right direction. The league has come a long way from what Doyle used to see as a kid growing up in Texas, when he’d regularly travel to watch FC Dallas. And he readily admits that the quality of the teams and their personnel has exceeded the expectations he had when he made the decision to return to the US.
“Now people are comparing [MLS] to other leagues,” says Doyle. “Whereas back then [when I was a kid], there wasn’t really a comparison to be made. Now I think it’s a good league. I think it’s not far off from being a very, very good league. I mean, look at the players in the league now.”
Doyle is talking about are the likes of Kaká, Robbie Keane and Jermaine Jones, as well as talented young Latin American players such as Fabian Castillo, David Texeira and Mauro Diaz. Steven Gerrard, David Villa and Giovinco will soon be added to the list.
One of the most encouraging trends for MLS, though, is the return of American players to home shores; World Cup heroes Michael Bradley, Michael Parkhurst, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore (you may laugh, but he’s been a bit unlucky with his transfers) now rub shoulders with mid-level performers such as Doyle, Lee Nguyen and Robbie Rogers. It’s a trend that, it’s hoped, could fuel the development of future stars of the national game – after all, in the long run, MLS is about growing the game, first in the United States, and then globally.
Doyle is certainly optimistic: “I think it’s going to grow and the level of respect from everyone in the world,” he says. “I don’t know how long it will be, but I don’t think it’s far from gaining that respect.”