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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WOMEN’S PRO SOCCER LEAGUE NO. 3: SMARTER IS BETTER

A new eight-team women’s pro soccer league will kick off next spring, two years after the demise of Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11) and a decade after the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) folded.

The league will have teams in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, western New York and Washington DC.

It reportedly has a handshake agreement with one national sponsor; television coverage is a question mark.  [November 21]

Comment:  After Women’s Professional Soccer went under last January, the reaction in this space was, please don’t come back with another women’s pro soccer league unless there’s a new, inventive approach behind the effort.  Otherwise, the notion of a high-profile women’s pro circuit might be killed off for the foreseeable future.  (To see the original admonishment, go to May 28.)

Thankfully, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the powers that be have chosen not to exercise that classic example of insanity, in which the patient, happily doing the same thing over and over, expects a different result.

In this incarnation, the league will get considerable support from the U.S., Mexican and Canadian soccer federations, whose national team players will benefit from the week-in, week-out competition the league will provide from March-April to September-October.  In a women’s sports sense, the outside help recalls the launch of the WNBA, which would not have been possible without all of its original teams being owned by NBA franchises.

While the clubs in this currently unnamed league will be privately owned, the U.S. Soccer Federation will not only pay the salaries of up to 24 of the league’s American players but fund the league’s front office as well.   The Mexican and Canadian soccer federations, with an eye toward the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, will pay the salaries of some of their players who play in the league.  As a result, each club will be off the hook for the salaries of up to seven of its most valuable players.

Most of the players will be semipros, and gone will be high-priced talent from beyond North America, like Brazil’s Marta and Japan’s Homare Sawa, but  U.S. mainstays like Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe won’t be faced with the prospect of plying their trade in leagues overseas.

As USSF President Sunil Gulati put it, “What we need is a sustainable model:  less hype, better performance.  The hype will come if we have the performance.”

Major League Soccer wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without turning sports management on its ear with the single-entity concept.  Give League Jane Doe credit for trying to turn it on its other ear.



ALAS, NO GOLD, SILVER OR BRONZE FOR U.S. THIS SUMMER

The United States surrendered a goal by Jaime Alas four minutes into added-on time, giving El Salvador a 3-3 tie in Nashville that knocked the Americans out of contention for the 2012 London Olympics.  The Salvadorans finished atop their first-round group and advanced along with Canada to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers in Kansas City, where they will face Mexico and Honduras with two berths in London on the line.  The U.S., at 1-1-1, landed in third place.

After taking a lead on a goal by Terrence Boyd in the first minute, the U.S. was sent reeling by goals by El Salvador’s Lester Blanco and Andres Flores in the 35th and 37th minutes.  Boyd scored an equalizer in the 65th minute and Joe Corona, whose mother is Salvadoran, put the U.S. ahead, 3-2, three minutes later with a header off a cross by captain Freddy Adu, who had also set up Boyd’s second strike.

The Americans, however, couldn’t hold off the relentless Salvadorans.  On a quick counterattack, Alas’ seemingly harmless 25-yard shot squeezed under U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who had replaced the injured Bill Hamid (ankle) in the 39th minute.  [March 26]

Comment:   A disturbing setback, coming as it does on the heels of three other American stumbles in regional or world championship competition over the past 12 months.   A year ago, the U.S. National Under-20 Team gives up a second-half goal against the run of play and is eliminated by host Guatemala, 2-1, in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF qualifiers for the FIFA World Youth Championship.  In June, the U.S. National Team scores twice early, only to give up four unanswered goals to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl.  The following month, the U.S. National Women’s Team is unable to protect a one-goal lead in regulation and again late in overtime and loses to underdog Japan on penalty kicks in the FIFA Women’s World Cup title match in Germany.  And now this.

It’s no time for Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws and their brethren to panic, of course.  The U.S. women, despite their confounding defeat at the hands of Japan last summer, are still No. 1 in the FIFA World Rankings.  And with CONCACAF’s 3 1/2 berths up for grabs, the U.S. men head into 2014 World Cup qualifying this summer with perhaps the two most accomplished attacking players in their history, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, still in their prime.  For the U.S. men, however, it would have to be concluded that, given the U-23s’ disappointing loss to Canada and tie with El Salvador in Nashville, there are no wholesale reinforcements on the horizon.

On the eve of the Olympic qualifiers, MLS spokesman Will Kuhn was on message, telling  the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a strong statement about our league and the development of young players that the Olympic tournament–a reflection of the strongest young players in each country–includes so many that are on our clubs.  It draws a lot of attention to the natural progression of our league.  The level of play keeps advancing each year.  The Olympics gives an opportunity for lots more people to see that progress.”  We’ve heard that sort of thing from MLS for several years now, but it might be time for the league to tone down the rhetoric.

If there’s been progress, it hasn’t be reflected in the play of recent U.S. U-23 teams.  The 2000 U.S. men’s Olympic team qualified for Sydney, where it went 1-0-2 in the first round, defeated Japan on PKs in the quarterfinals, lost to Spain, 3-1, in the semifinals and bowed to Chile, 2-0, in the bronze-medal game–their best showing in an Olympic soccer history that goes back to 1924.  In 2004, the U.S. failed to make it to Athens, the decisive blow a humiliating 4-0 loss to host Mexico in the CONCACAF semifinals as the locals taunted the Americans with chants of “O-sa-ma, O-sa-ma.”  Four years later, the U.S. reached the Beijing Games, where it went 1-1-1 and failed to advance to the quarterfinals.

No one wants to see a return of the 1980s and ’90s, when young American players had two hopes:  star in college, then head to Europe, where there might be an opening with a Scandinavian club or a German regional division side.  And there’s no denying that since 1996 MLS has become an international springboard for several top native sons, from Brian McBride to Tim Howard and Donovan and Dempsey.  Nevertheless, if the Olympics are some kind of reflection on the improvement of MLS, that progress has been decidedly uneven.



A GOLDEN CHALLENGE

CONCACAF unveiled its schedule for the 12-nation 2011 Gold Cup, which will be staged in an unprecedented 11 metro U.S. areas beginning June 5.  The regional championship, which was first held 20 years ago with eight nations in two stadiums (the Rose Bowl and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum), will be played at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX; Ford Field in Detroit; Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC; Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL; Soldier Field in Chicago; KC Soccer Stadium in Kansas City; RFK Stadium in Washington, DC; Reliant Stadium in Houston; FIU Stadium in Miami; Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, and New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ; and, outside Los Angeles, the Home Depot Center and Rose Bowl, site of the June 25 final.

Defending champion Mexico, host U.S. and Canada qualify automatically and will be joined by Caribbean champion Jamaica and area rivals Greneda, Cuba and Guadeloupe.  The remaining five teams will be determined next month at the Copa Centroamericana in Panama.  [December 16]

Comment:  If America’s interest in its World Cup team has any legs, we will find out during this Gold Cup.  This tournament marks the U.S. National Team’s first appearance on a major stage since it drew record television ratings for its four matches at South Africa ’10.  Will a significant number of those same Americans who crowded around TVs last June vote with their feet this June and buy tickets to see some old favorites and new faces playing against lesser teams for lesser stakes?

We’ll see. Provided the U.S. reaches the final and faces the auld enemy, Mexico, perhaps the support for the home team will be better than in 2007, when the Americans beat the Mexicans on a Benny Feilhaber golasso.  That was witnessed by a loud pro-Mexico crowd of 60,000 at Soldier Field.  Or last year, when Mexico humiliated an experimental U.S. side, 5-0, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, in front of an overwhelmingly partisan Mexico crowd of 79,156.  

Will a corner be turned in ’11, or will the U.S. players continue to find that an American stadium is just a home away from home?



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.]