Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


DON GARBER AS SOCCER’S ICARUS

Major League Soccer will expand to 24 teams by 2020.

League Commissioner Don Garber made that announcement during a TV interview at halftime of his league’s all-star game in Kansas City.  It comes on the heels of the addition of New York City FC for the 2015 season, which was believed to cap the number of MLS teams at 20.  The goal of two dozen teams opens the door for hopefuls such as Orlando, Detroit, Atlanta, Sacramento, Oklahoma City and Minneapolis, whose representatives have been trying to woo MLS in recent months.

“As MLS enters a period of accelerated growth, the addition of new teams will allow us to expand our geographic coverage, grow our fan base and help us achieve our vision of being among the best leagues in the world by 2022,” said Garber.  [July 31]

Comment:  Sheer folly.

Without promotion/relegation–and there will never be promotion/relegation involving MLS–even the idea of 20 teams, let alone 24, is ridiculous.

Twenty-four teams would make MLS the world’s biggest top-flight soccer circuit.  Impressive distinction.  But there are reasons why leagues with pro/rel in soccer-mad countries–the Italian Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga 1, the Brasileiro Serie A, etc.–limit membership to 18 or 20 clubs.

Never mind the questionable potential or track records of the possible MLS markets being discussed.  Just go with the numbers.  Twenty-four teams? That means that if each team magically takes turns winning an MLS Cup, the fans in an exemplary market like Portland, where the Timbers are on a 45-game home sellout streak, will have to wait more than a generation between league championships.  Throw in a mini-dynasty by a team from a glamorous market like (gulp)  Oklahoma City or Sacramento and the wait is even longer.  Meanwhile, without promotion/relegation, troubled teams like Chivas USA and Toronto FC, with 10 or more opponents ahead of them in the conference standings, can continue to stink up the bottom of the league into perpetuity while their dwindling, hopeless fan bases look on.

So how does Garber adequately cover two enormous countries while keeping fans of losing teams engaged?  He can’t continue to expand the playoffs–he already throws around playoff berths like penny candy.  He should leave things, then, at an already bloated 20.  And if he must restore MLS’s presence in the Deep South, he should convince the league’s biggest problem child, Chivas USA, to arrange a move to Atlanta or even Orlando (even though Florida has proven to be the black hole of pro soccer over the past three decades).  Moving a team may be seen as a sign of weakness, but it’s the magic formula used for ages by Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL whenever there’s a need to leverage a new stadium or favorable ownership change–or simply scare former fans into showing up again.

It is hoped that Garber and the MLS Board of Governors come to the realization that their league doesn’t have to be anywhere close to the NFL (32 teams), Major League Baseball (30), the NBA (30) or the NHL (30) in membership to be considered major league.  Heck, the NHL was considered major league back in the mid-1960s when it had six teams; it earned that distinction by presenting a major league product.  But if Garber is hell-bent on expanding to two dozen teams, he should have one last look at the U.S. soccer history books.  The last soccer league here to grow to 24 was another without promotion/relegation, the North American Soccer League, in 1978.  Within two years, three weak sisters went belly up, and the panic was on.  Within six years, there were seven left.

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BLATTER BLATHER

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber was struggling to remain diplomatic in the wake of recent comments by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who criticized MLS for its lack of progress.

Blatter told Al Jazeera television, in an interview broadcast December 28, that “there is no very strong professional league” in the U.S.  “They just have the MLS.  But they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

He added that MLS was “still struggling” to lift soccer to the level of gridiron football, baseball and basketball in America.  “We had the World Cup in 1994,” Blatter said.  “But we are now in 2012–it’s been 18 years.  It should’ve been done now.”

Countered Garber in an interview with the New York Times:  “We still have a lot of work to do–we understand and accept that.  But arguably there’s probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years.  [January 2]

Comment:  Blatter’s latest blatherings triggered a firestorm of criticism among American fans of MLS and Americans who simply believe the man should have been unseated when his first term as FIFA chief ended in 2002.  What was disappointing was how a man who, as FIFA general secretary, held America’s hand as it prepared for and pulled off World Cup USA ’94, could still have such a dismal understanding of this country.

Mainstream America really doesn’t know what to make of soccer.  An estimated 18 million of their countrymen and countrywomen and countrykids play the sport.  Its women’s national team is usually No. 1 in the world while its men’s national team, usually ranked around No. 30, is capable of beating Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup and Italy in Genoa, then losing to Jamaica in Kingston. And its official national league, whose average attendance of 18,807 last season topped the NBA and NHL for the second year in a row, making it third behind the NFL and Major League Baseball in average gate, remains a television bust, stuck at 0.1 and 0.2 in the ratings.

What Blatter and mainstream America need to understand is that MLS is no measuring stick of soccer here.  America loves the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA a whole lot more than MLS, not because they’ve had a 74-, 152- and 47-year head start, respectively, on MLS, but because the NFL, MLB and NBA are the best at their craft in the world.  The NFL, MLB and the NBA play their game like they invented it because, well, they have.  Even the National Hockey League can make the same claim, if, for the sake of this argument, we co-opt our Canadian friends.  As for MLS, everyone in America knows that it’s not the best soccer league in the world, even those who know nothing about the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the Italian Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga or the Brazilian and Argentine championships.  And it’s hard to imagine a time when an MLS, which has gone from crawl to hobble to jog in those 18 years, will have the means and talent to challenge those leagues.

MLS will continue to be a symbol, a happy, regular rallying point, for soccer here, but it will never be the heart–or reliable barometer–of our sport.  While the NFL can boast of astronomical television ratings and Major League Baseball can point to its tremendous total attendance figures, soccer in the U.S. quietly moves forward with a balance that should be the envy of the so-called “big four” pro team sports:  a professional league that continues to grow and improve, a competitive men’s national team, a world-class women’s national team, and those millions and millions or participants of all ages and both genders.  All underscored by a patience that Blatter doesn’t seem to possess.



MLS: DRAWN AND MORE THAN QUARTERED

This Saturday, Major League Soccer will kick off its 17th season, tying it with the old North American Soccer League (1968-84) as the country’s longest tenured national pro soccer league.  With the addition of its 19th club, the expansion Montreal Impact, the league will play 323 regular-season games, 17 more than in 2011.  The climactic MLS Cup is scheduled for Saturday, December 1, making this the league’s longest campaign in its history.  And for the first time, every match will be televised, thanks to ESPN, Univision, new partner NBC and various Canadian networks.  [March 7]

Comment:  Another set of milestones for a league that a dozen years ago was in danger of falling flat on its back, but for those who care about what goes on down on the field, perhaps we’ll see some improvement in the standings, where wins and losses are in danger of being surpassed by ties, draws and deadlocks.

Last season, with 18 MLS teams each playing 34 regular-season games for a total of 306, a whopping 106 of those matches ended in a tie.  That’s 34.6 percent, or more than a third.  The New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire registered 16 draws apiece, breaking the record of 14 set the previous season by FC Dallas.  Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union were next at 15, and another nine teams posted 10 draws or more.  In fact, 11 teams finished with more ties than victories, including all those who made up the bottom nine.

Is there a trend in place?  In 2010, in a 16-team MLS, only three clubs hit double digits in ties, and just one club, the New England Revolution (5-16-13), had more ties than wins.  Teams each played 30 games that year and they racked up 58 draws–24.1 percent of all results.

To a disdainful general American public, soccer and ties are almost synonymous.  But compare MLS with the Italy, the land where, as popular perception would have it, the scoreless tie was invented, and games are so tight, oftentimes so negative, that the players walk onto the field hoping for that one, blissful penalty-kick call.  Yet in 2010-2011, Serie A’s 20 clubs, each playing 38 matches, had 97 ties in 380 games–25.5 percent, just more than a quarter of all results.  Half of the teams tied at least 10 games, led by Fiorentina, with 16.

“We’re not going to eliminate ties from Major League Soccer, but we have way too many ties and way too many zero-zero ties,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told the Newark Star-Ledger in July, as the draws were piling up at an alarming rate.  “What could we do as a league to make it more valuable for a club to play to win every game as opposed to playing for just a point?  We’re looking at what those initiatives could be.  And that is a league initiative.”

[For the record, Commissioner, of those 106 ties last year, 27 were scoreless.]

What’s troubling here is that not only has MLS not taken concrete steps to reverse the trend (meaningful player bonuses for victories, perhaps?), it has offered little in the way of explanation beyond praising its parity and competitiveness.

MLS is catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to intimate stadiums and boisterous followings, thus creating in many cities the home-field advantage factor that was so missing in the league’s first decade.  As a result, however, is MLS also becoming yet another league in which teams are more than happy to escape most road games with a single point?  If that’s the case, it’s all the more reason for the league to take the necessary steps to foster a climate in which those large, loud and loyal followers go home happy on a more regular basis.



PERHAPS A GOOSE AT THE GATE?

Two clubs that have never won a league championship, the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, will meet Sunday, November 21, at Toronto’s BMO Field in the MLS Cup final.  [November 20]

Comment:  The MLS report card came in last month and the results were mixed as TV ratings remained flat while attendance improved by 7.7 percent.

Average league attendance was 16,675, thanks in part to the Seattle Sounders, who increased Qwest Field capacity and saw its attendance jump from last season’s 30,897  to 36,173 in ’10.  The New York Red Bulls, who moved from the cavernous, lifeless Giants Stadium (12,490 average last season) to the sparkling Red Bull Arena (18,441 this year), also helped get MLS above its overall average of 16,037 in 2009.  In all, the 2010 numbers were the third-best in the league’s 15-year history, behind the novelty-inspired 17,406 of 1996 and 2007’s 16,770.

Where does this place MLS as a gate attraction?  It’s far behind the world’s best-attended soccer league, Germany’s Bundesliga (42,790), but as soccer leagues go, it’s not far down the list.  Next is the vaunted English Premier League (34,088), followed by Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Mexico’s Primera Division, Argentina’s Primera Division, France’s Ligue 1, Holland’s Eredivise, the J-League,  the Campeonato Serie A of soccer-crazed Brazil, and MLS.  And in the U.S., the NFL, whose teams play eight home games a year, leads at 67,508 in 2009, followed by Major League Baseball (81 home games per team, 30,213 average in 2010).  The battle for third is tight, with the NBA (41 home games per team, 17,110 in 2009-10) ahead of the National Hockey League (41 home games, 17,004 in 2009-10) and MLS.  (You could pick nits, regarding number of games and stadium/arena capacity, but it would have to start with baseball’s total attendance of nearly 80 million compared to pro football’s 17.4).

Not bad for a league that nearly shuttered its doors after the 2001 season, when its winningest team, the late, unlamented Miami Fusion, averaged an abysmal 11, 177 at Ft. Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium, a converted high school football stadium.  MLS contracted that winter, killing off the Fusion and its other poorly supported Florida cousin, the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

It is hoped, then, that a win by Colorado or Dallas inspires a spin at the turnstiles in 2011 for at least one of the finalists.  Despite each being blessed with new, soccer-specific stadiums, only 13,329 a game turned out for Colorado at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park this season–12th-worst in the 16-team league–and just 10,815 supported Dallas at its Pizza Hut Park.  After Sunday night, soccer fans in Dallas-Ft. Worth or Denver can’t use a lack of a champion as an excuse not to support the home town team.

[A note regarding MLS’s bottom-feeders:  Kansas City (10,287), which played its home matches in a minor league baseball park, and San Jose (9,659), confined to a small college football stadium, brought up the rear.  K.C. (2000) and the original Earthquakes (2001, 2003) have each won the MLS Cup, so a title isn’t a cure-all at the ticket window.]