Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


FOR WHAT THEY’RE WORTH: $157 MILLION PER MLS TEAM

The average worth of Major League Soccer clubs reached $157 million in 2014, up 52 percent from the previous year, according to a valuation by Forbes magazine.

Topping the list were the Seattle Sounders at $245 million, while the Colorado Rapids, worth $105 million, brought up the rear.  The biggest mover was DC United, whose value increased 97 percent, from $71 million in ’13 to $140 million last year.  Average team worth was $103 million in 2013, nearly triple what Forbes valued the teams five years earlier.

Eight of MLS’ then-18 clubs turned a profit in 2014, led by Seattle’s $10 million.  The biggest loser was the New York Red Bulls at $9 million.

2014 valuation of MLS clubs, plus revenue and operating income*:

1.  Seattle Sounders — $245 million, $50 million, $10 million.

2.  Los Angeles Galaxy — $240 million, $44 million, $4 million.

3.  Houston Dynamo — $200 million, $26 million, $5 million.

4.  Portland Timbers — $185 million, $35 million, $4 million.

5.  Toronto FC — $175 million, $32 million, -$7 million.

6.  Sporting Kansas City — $165 million, $29 million, $4 million.

7.  Chicago Fire — $160 million, $21 million, -$6 million.

8.  New England Revolution — $158 million, $25 million, $7 million.

9.  FC Dallas — $148 million, $25 million, -$3 million.

10.  San Jose Earthquakes — $146 million, $13 million, -$1 million.

11.  Philadelphia Union — $145 million, $25 million, $2 million.

12.  New York Red Bulls — $144 million, $22 million, -$9 million.

13.  D.C. United — $140 million, $21 million, -$1 million.

14.  Montreal Impact — $128 million, $22 million, -$3 million.

15.  Vancouver Whitecaps — $125 million, $21 million, -$6 million.

16.  Columbus Crew — $112 million, $18 million, -$4 million.

17.  Real Salt Lake — $108 million, $17 million, $1 million.

18.  Colorado Rapids — $105 million, $15 million, -$3 million.

*Operating income before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization.

Forbes cited a number of reasons for the league’s surging team valuation, including:

o  Growing attendance, which through July averaged 21,000, as MLS continued to widen the gap with the NBA (17,800) and NHL (17,500) in that department.  That average projects to total attendance of 7.2 million in 2015, thanks in part to the addition of new teams in New York and Orlando.   The 2013 total was 6 million.

o  An influx of overseas talent that picked up in 2015 with the arrival of the likes of Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Villa and Didier Drogba–a clear indication that owners are willing to spend to enhance the product on the field.

o  More soccer-specific stadiums throughout MLS.  The latest was San Jose’s Avaya Stadium, which opened in March, and DC United plans be in new digs by 2018.  Like United, the Earthquakes’ value has doubled since ’13.

o  The end of a TV deal with ESPN, NBC and Univision that paid MLS an average $30 million per year.  The new deal, in which Fox replaced NBC, pays $90 million a year.  Hardly NFL figures, or even NHL figures, and average viewship of 232,000 this year on Fox Sports 1 trails even the WNBA, but that represents a 65 percent improvement over NBCSN’s average audience of 141,000.  [September 19]

Comment I:  Total team worth of more than $2.8 billion for a league that as recently as 2002 nearly went under.  No wonder there were no signs of panic when MLS Commissioner Don Garber, during his “State of the League” address in December, revealed that the league was losing more than $100 million a year.

Comment II:  Being part of MLS is still far from being a license to print money, but no wonder the owners of LAFC, which won’t begin play until 2018, paid a league-record expansion fee of $110 million to try to succeed where it predecessor, the ill-fated Chivas USA, failed.  By comparison, the Miami Fusion, one of the league’s first two expansion teams, paid $20 million in 1997 to join MLS.

 

 

 



MAKING THE SQUARE QATAR PEG FIT INTO THE ROUND WORLD CUP HOLE

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be an autumn affair, the first World Cup not to be played in late spring/early summer.

A task force formed to look into ways to avoid the sweltering summer heat in the tiny Gulf state is recommending that Qatar ’22 be played in November and December.  Its report is expected to be ratified by the FIFA Executive Committee when it meets in Zurich on March 19 and 20.

Summer temperatures in Qatar routinely top 100 degrees while the heat drops to the high 70s in late fall.

The task force, headed by Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, considered a January-February tournament,  but that would clash with the Winter Olympics.  April was rejected because Ramadan will be observed in the Muslim world in that month in 2022.

Under the recommendation, it is believed that Qatar ’22 would be shorter than the traditional 31 or 32 days, kicking off November 26 and ending on December 23, two days before Christmas.

Though FIFA says all of its confederations favor the move to November-December, it is expected to encounter fierce opposition from Europe’s top leagues.  Most of those leagues traditionally schedule a winter break of up to four weeks for weather reasons, but the task force’s plan would idle players not involved in the ’22 World Cup for up to eight weeks  [February 25]

Comment:  A very bad idea got worse.

The FIFA Executive Committee’s expected rubber-stamp to this topsy-turvy scheduling of a World Cup is further proof that the world’s soccer-governing body is hell-bent on holding its world championship in Qatar at all costs.  Allegations that the Qataris won over a solid U.S. bid through bribery have been swept under the rug.  Reports that foreign workers involved in World Cup preparations have been mistreated or even died in accidents is worth a shrug, all the more troubling because the stadiums and infrastructure promised by Qatar are being built from scratch.  At No. 109 in the latest FIFA World Rankings, the Qatari National Team is poised to be the worst host side in World Cup history, far weaker than South Africa in 2010.  And if a June World Cup in Qatar is being considered unworkable, then Qatar isn’t likely to be able to host the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup, the tradition World Cup dress rehearsal for a host nation.

On a much, much smaller scale, there’s something for Americans to consider, and it’s not just the fact that, among EuroSnobs, their favorite club’s schedule will be interrupted by a November-December World Cup after just a dozen matches.

TV ratings, those figures that determine in the future how often you can see your favorite European club or whether you can watch UEFA Champions League games on cable or network television here, will take a serious hit if the 2022 World Cup is played in late fall.

At last year’s World Cup, the USA’s first-round match against Portugal was played on a Sunday.  America was sitting on its couch with nothing more than mid-season baseball and a golf tournament as a diversion, and the TV audience for what will be remembered here for Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp, heartbreaking assist, was 24.7 million on ESPN and Univision combined, a record for a soccer telecast in the U.S.  There were no NFL games, no college football games, no NBA games, no NHL games to syphon off viewers.  A similar World Cup game, played on an NFL Sunday in 2022, will be buried in the ratings.  NFL games last season averaged 17.6 million–five pro gridiron games attracted more than 29 million.

Perhaps, in seven years, a November World Cup can steal casual viewers from the NFL.  At present, it’s doubtful.



MLS FINDS ROAD GOALS ARE NOT KRYPTONITE

The Los Angeles Galaxy lost to the Seattle Sounders, 2-1, on a frigid night at CenturyLink Field but won the Western Conference final on away goals to advance to Major League Soccer’s championship game.

The Galaxy, which a week earlier took the first game of its home-and-home series, 1-0, will return to the StubHub Center on December 7 to play host to the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final.  New England defeated the New York Red Bulls, 2-1 and 2-2, in the Eastern Conference finals for a 3-2 aggregate.

Brad Evans, in the 26th minute, and Clint Dempsey, six minutes later, scored to give the Sounders hope of reaching their first MLS final, but nine minutes into the second half L.A. midfielder Juninho pounced on a deflected corner kick by Landon Donovan and ripped a shot in off the left post for his first goal in 13 months.  [November 30]

Comment:  The last stupid MLS idea has died peacefully of natural causes.

And we don’t mean the Columbus Crew’s decision to dump its Village People logo once and for all (that’s called “re-branding”).

MLS finally succumbed to the use of the aways goals rule this playoff season, and the world did not come to an end.  Both the Eastern Coference semifinals and finals were decided on aggregate goals, as did one Western semifinal, won by L.A. over Real Salt Lake.  And when the Galaxy walked off the CenturyLink Field at the final whistle after the road leg of its Western Conference final, the partisan Sounder crowd of 46,758 accepted the fact that its side, winners on the night by a goal, were losers overall.

Some in the media here didn’t quite know what to make of this new gimmick, although it’s used in cup competitions the world over.  “Rules of the road lift Galaxy into the final” read one newspaper headline.  Another:  “Galaxy’s Goal is One for the Road.”  But a worthy winner was produced.  Galaxy coach Bruce Arena called the concept of the away-goals rule–an incentive for the road team to attack in the first leg–“garbage,” and it certainly didn’t inspire Seattle to produce an away goal or two in the first leg.  But no one at CenturyLink exited wringing their hands over an injustice.  Everyone knew the rules going in.  In fact, the Sounders were the first team in MLS history to advance on away goals, eliminating FC Dallas nearly three weeks earlier in the Western semifinals (1-1 in Texas, 0-0 at home).  And there was no effect at the gate:  MLS drew a record average attendance of 19,151 during the regular season–once again better than the NBA and NHL–and 21,275 during the playoffs.  Not a tremendous accomplishment, unless one recalls the days in the not-too-distant past when most MLS post-season matches drew crowds embarrassingly smaller than many regular-season games.

Americans fans, apparently, have been more adaptable than MLS gave them credit for over its 19-season run.  Or at least they were tolerant.  They’ve had to endure earlier MLS playoff concoctions, such as the ponderous best-of-three-games playoff.  And the ridiculous “first-to-five-points” system.  Once it got to the simple home-and-home formula in 2003, it counted road goals equal to home goals, perhaps in the belief that a romp by the visiting team in the opening leg would kill interest in the second leg.

Fans here also–some of them–survived other MLS innovations, like the silly countdown clock, and they survived leftovers from the old NASL, like the shootout, back when it was believed that American DNA made it impossible for folks here to understand, let alone appreciate, the concept of a draw.  Perhaps the seamless debut of away goals signals the end, once and for all, of its “unnecessarily creative” period.

 

 

 

 



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.



ROGERS FORCES THE MEDIA’S HAND … A BIT

Former U.S. international Robbie Rogers, who in February revealed that he is gay, made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut, coming on as a substitute in the 77th minute of  L.A.’s 4-0 rout of the Seattle Sounders at the Home Depot Center.

The crowd of 24,811 greeted Rogers, who grew up in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, with polite applause, and he had five touches in an uneventful cameo.

The 26-year-old outside midfielder earlier played in Major League Soccer for the Columbus Crew and made 18 appearances for the national team.  Two years ago he headed to England, where he played in the second tier for Leeds United and eventually, on loan, in the third tier for Stevenage.  Injuries and the emotional strain of hiding his sexual orientation took their toll, and Rogers parted ways with Leeds last winter.  Although in announcing his homosexuality Rogers said he would take a break from soccer, he was training with the Galaxy two months later.  Two days before the appearance against Seattle, L.A. midfielder-forward Mike Magee was traded to the Chicago Fire, which held Rogers’ MLS rights, for Rogers.  [May 26]

Comment:  Rogers’ return to soccer was truly an historic occasion–an important step in America’s evolution in its view of gays and lesbians.  But that’s for the social scientists.  From a soccer standpoint, it was very revealing.  And no, not because diehard Galaxy fans seemed oblivious of their new midfielder’s sexual orientation.  (Their concern lay with the loss of the popular Magee, the team’s leading scorer.  For the record, Magee wanted a move to his hometown of Chicago for personal reasons.)

The Rogers story revealed a U.S. news media that still has trouble admitting that MLS, the league whose teams average more fans per game than the NBA and NHL, is major league in more than name alone.  Weeks ago, NBA center Jason Collins made headlines with the revelation that he is gay.  However, at age 34, with his season over and his contract with the Golden State Warriors expiring, it is uncertain whether Collins will ever step onto an NBA court again.  Now, along comes Rogers, who has bravely come out of the closet knowing full well that he will spend the next five months in the glare of a spotlight of his own making, thus forcing the media to write, as the cliche goes, the first draft of history.

On one end, there was the Los Angeles Times, whose headline the next day read, “Rogers’ small step onto field is huge.  In Galaxy debut, he is first openly gay male team player in U.S. major pro sports.”

On the other end, there was the New York Times.  Sportswriter John Branch, noting that “you can’t choose your heroes,” followed that with, “Such is the case for the movement of gays in sports–more specifically openly gay men in major North American team sports.”  Four paragraphs later:  “On Sunday night, the soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay male athlete to play a major (sort of) North American team sport.”  Not long after, Branch’s New York Times colleague, Billy Witz, gave MLS a promotion of sorts, calling Rogers the “first … gay man to participate in a prominent North American professional league.”

So is Major League Soccer major league?  “Sort of” major?  Merely “prominent”?  In terms of TV ratings and average player salaries, it’s major league soccer because it is, by far, bigger than the country’s minor soccer leagues.  In terms of gleaming new stadiums, growing ranks of imported stars, plus growth potential based on grassroots participation numbers that make ice hockey’s look laughable, MLS is not only the country’s fifth major sport but its fourth, one rung on the ladder above the NHL.

For now, MLS is what the media tells the public it is.  If it is to gain recognition as a bona fide, honest-to-god major league, it will continue to come grudgingly.  As  the Los Angeles Daily News put it in a preview of the Galaxy’s next game, at New England,  “The Galaxy now play in a ‘major U.S. professional sport,’ according to the latest stories about the addition of Robbie Rogers.  So be it.”



MLS: OLD ENOUGH TO VOTE–AND GLOAT (BUT WON’T)

Major League Soccer will kick off its 18th season Saturday, March 2, with 12 of its 19 clubs in action.  Another six will play the following day.

Aside from the usual player moves and coaching changes, the league remains relatively unchanged from 2012, although the start date marks the earliest kickoff in MLS history.  A record 87 matches will be televised nationally on seven different channels, and the league will be out to top last season’s attendance figures as it drew 6,074,729 fans and averaged a record-18,807–ahead of the NBA and NHL and behind only the NFL and Major League Baseball at the turnstiles.  [February 28]

Comment:  MLS, wisely, has never been a league to look back; given the alphabet soup of leagues that have crashed and burned over the past century, there never was a reason to remind anyone that it has been trying to be the very first one to fly.

But if it did publicly point to the past, it might … discreetly … modestly … pop a very quiet champagne cork and take a quick sip.

Season 18 makes MLS the oldest professional soccer league in American history.  Eighteen is one year older than the North American Soccer League (1968-84), the league formed by the merger of a pair of one-year-old circuits, the long-forgotten United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League.  The NASL was down to five clubs in 1969, then rode the Pele-led New York Cosmos gravy train to 24 teams and a national TV contract in the late ’70s, only to over-spend itself into oblivion a handful of years later.   The only other notable pro league in the U.S. was the original American Soccer League, which was founded in 1921 and was out-drawing the NFL until battles with the USFA (forerunner to U.S. Soccer) and FIFA and the Great Depression killed it off in 1933, although it reorganized and limped along on a minor-league basis until 1983.

MLS, now just three years away from full adulthood, still faces many challenges, not the least of which are poor TV ratings in a sports landscape ruled by the tube, plus too many clubs operating in the red.  And there would not have been an 18th birthday were it not for the likes of Phil Anschutz, who at one point propped up half the clubs in the league. But while the NASL in its 17th season was in its death throes, hemorrhaging money as its number of franchises had dropped to nine and average attendance to a tepid 10,759, MLS is not far from adding its 20th club (a reconstituted New York Cosmos?  Orlando?), and the fan base in many of its cities is made up of young adults who are loyal, knowledgeable and loud.  While NASL clubs shoehorned themselves into all manner of baseball stadiums and pro, college and even high school football stadiums, 14 MLS clubs play in new or relatively new soccer-specific stadiums.  MLS has proven to be one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world–nine different clubs have lifted the MLS Cup and eight have claimed the Supporters Shield–and the quality on the field continues to improve (though some critics would ask, how could it not?).   And while the NASL tried to build itself on the backs of big-name, high-priced foreigners, the MLS this season loses the world’s most recognizable star in David Beckham but has attracted enough stars from abroad to make itself interesting.

With the MLS  now old enough to vote, should it gloat?  Nope.  Would Major League Soccer’s cautious, spendthrift approach, without a legion of Internet-driven 20-something hipsters in the stands, without its soccer-specific stadiums, without the explosion of television-exposure options, have survived back in 1968-84?  Of course not.  In short, after ASL I, ASL II, the International League, USA, NPSL, NASL, MISL, AISL, USL, WSA/WSL, ASL III, APSL and A-League, Major League Soccer can thank the soccer gods that it has proven itself to be the right league at the right time.



IN THE END, A SUCCESSFUL EXPERIMENT

David Beckham closed out his Major League Soccer career in triumph as the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the Houston Dynamo, 3-1, at the Home Depot Center in the 2012 MLS Cup, making defending champion Los Angeles the second club, after DC United, to capture four league titles.

Beckham has not revealed his next move, although he has been linked to clubs ranging from Queens Park Rangers in his native England and Glasgow Celtic to teams in Australia.  A clause in his current contract gives him the opportunity to become part-owner of an MLS club.  [December 1]

Comment:  Beckham exited the championship game in stoppage time to chants of “Thank-you, Beck-ham!” by Galaxy fans, a far cry from the first half of his stay.  He arrived in 2007 as damaged goods and started just two matches in his first season.  The Galaxy lost on a regular basis.  He alienated captain Landon Donovan and other teammates.  He managed to get himself loaned to AC Milan in a cynical and vain attempt to keep alive his England career.

It was all chronicled in the 2009 book, “The Beckham Experiment”–which appears to have been premature by at least three years.

Much has been made in the media of Beckham’s 5 1/2-year stay since he announced his MLS retirement a couple of  weeks ago.  In 2006 BC (Before Beckham), MLS had 12 clubs, the latest of which, Toronto FC, paid $10 million for the right to lose money.  Average attendance was a stagnant 15,504 (2.97 million total) and only four of the league’s stadiums were designed for soccer.  This year, Montreal, having paid $40 million, became the league’s 19th club.  The San Jose Earthquakes broke ground on MLS’s 15th soccer-specific stadium.  Average attendance was 18,807 (6.07 million total)–better than the NBA and NHL for the third straight year.  Each team has a youth academy, up from zero in ’06, and thanks to the so-called “Beckham Rule,” there are 31 star players scattered throughout a previously faceless MLS whose pay, in effect, doesn’t count against a team’s miserly-but-sensible salary cap.

Is it all Beckham’s doing?   Commissioner Don Garber, in his state of the league address five days before the game, went so far as to say, “I don’t think anybody would doubt that he has over delivered ….  There’s arguably not a soccer fan on this planet that doesn’t know the L.A. Galaxy and Major League Soccer, and David played a significant role in making that happen.”

So how much credit does Beckham deserve?  The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.  Clearly, there’s no one like him–think a superstar like Thierry Henry, playing in the nation’s biggest market, could have had the same impact on his own?  What Beckham did–thanks to his splash, flash and the Beckham Rule that was necessary to make his arrival possible–was to show fans, the media, potential investors and corporate America that MLS was through treading water after 10 modestly successful seasons and finally meant business.  Mere survival was no longer an option.

Beckham will be missed.  No sane person ever expected him to lift soccer in the U.S. to the same plane as gridiron football, baseball and basketball, and he didn’t.  He merely moved the ball forward, his customary 35 yards at a time, and on so many fronts soccer now eclipses ice hockey as North America’s fourth-most popular team sport.

What remains for the immediate future is what Beckham left on the field at the Home Depot Center:  a cup final between two clubs owned by the same man, Philip Anschutz.  As Becks departs, that sort of arrangement remains a necessity in an MLS still at the toddler stage.



SO-CALLED ‘BECKHAM EXPERIMENT’ HAS BEEN WORTH IT

A pair of two-time Major League Soccer champions, the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy, will meet Sunday, November 20, before a sellout crowd at the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles in the 2011 MLS Cup final.  Kickoff will be at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m. PST (ESPN and Galavision).  [November 13]

Comment:  The game could mark David Beckham’s final appearance in the U.S., and that’s not a good thing.

The 36-year-old English icon’s five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Galaxy expires at the end of the year, and among Beckham’s reported suitors are Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur and even Queens Park Rangers.

If he leaves, despite the Galaxy’s reported interest in re-signing him, what sort of grade does the so-called “Beckham Experiment”–the title of a rather premature book on his MLS adventure published a couple of years ago–deserve?

Call it a high “B”; not quite a low “A”.   That’s an “A-” for overall effect, dragged down by an “S” (satisfactory) for effort.

There were just as many highs as lows over the five-year period.  More than a quarter-million Galaxy/No. 23 jerseys were sold before Beckham was even introduced as a member of the Galaxy, a media event that attracted 700 journalists.  As advertised, there were memorable free kicks that produced goals, and that crowd of 66,000 that poured into Giants Stadium to see the man with the educated right foot make his Big Apple debut.  There also, however, were injuries, plus the controversial loans to AC Milan and training spells with Arsenal and Tottenham that caused many to question Beckham’s commitment to his American team.  The collapse of  the much-vaunted Beckham youth academy in L.A. didn’t help.  So mixed has been the Beckham legacy in MLS that he earned–or was saddled with–the 2011 MLS Comeback Player of the Year award for assisting on 15 goals in 26 games a year after a torn Achilles limited him to just seven league appearances in 2010.  Oh, and no MLS championships or U.S. National Open Cups or CONCACAF Champions League trophies.

Nevertheless, Beckham will forever be linked with a brief period in MLS history when things went from flat to positive, from indifference to optimism.  The year before Beckham’s arrival, the league had 12 teams, too many of them troubled.  The charter U.S. internationals and key foreign starts like Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry who had given the teams their initial identities back in 1996 had retired.  It wasn’t, to quote Rodney Marsh’s assessment of English soccer in the early ’70s, “A gray game played on gray days by gray men,” but it was close. 

The creation of the so-called Beckham Rule–the introduction of the designated player exception that allowed teams to reach beyond their salary cap and sign marquee foreign players like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Denilson (sorry, FC Dallas), Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and, most recently, Robbie Keane–changed all that.  Beckham’s arrival and how it lured other big names to MLS added the necessary flesh and blood to the brick and mortar as MLS grew by six clubs and added an impressive list of soccer-specific stadiums.

Most Americans aren’t aware that MLS (17,872) has surpassed the NBA (17,323) and NHL (17,132) in average attendance; that the expansion team fee has ballooned from $10 million, pre-Beckham, to $40 million; that the league’s most recent TV rights deal, with outsider NBC, hit $30 million for three years.  What they do know is that they can name one soccer player–David Beckham–where before they didn’t know Tab Ramos from Jamie Moreno from Mike Petke.  Back when the league was just trying to gain any sort of traction, back when the Galaxy was 11th out of 13 teams in 2007 (9-14-7) and 13th out of 14 the following year (8-13-9), people were talking and writing about Becks, or at least the photogenic Becks and wife Posh.

And that’s why Beckham will be missed if he chooses to close out his playing career elsewhere.  If and when he goes, don’t count on the general American public and the typical U.S. sports columnist or commentator to magically shift their attention to Dwayne De Rosario or David Ferreira or even Henry.   In that sense, Beckham has proved to be irreplaceable.



THE BIG QUESTION AS MLS BEGINS ITS 16TH SEASON: WHO WILL FINISH 11TH?

Major League Soccer will kick off its 16th season–one shy of the old North American Soccer League’s 17–tonight with two new clubs, the scheduled mid-season opening of yet another soccer-specific stadium, and the introduction of an expanded playoff format.

The addition of the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps lifts league membership to a robust 18 clubs and creates a three-way rivalry in the Pacific Northwest among those two newcomers and the third-year Seattle Sounders.  A 19th team, what had been the second-division Montreal Impact, will join MLS next season, and a 20th–possibly a reincarnation of the New York Cosmos–will follow in 2013. 

In early summer, Sporting Kansas City (nee Wiz, Wizards) will leave its cozy but highly inadequate minor league baseball stadium for a sparkling new facility, and in the fall the biggest post-season field in league history will battle to lift the MLS Cup.  The first-, second- and third-place finishers from the Western and Eastern conferences qualify, along with the next four teams with the highest point totals, regardless of conference.  Those four wild card teams will be paired and play off for the right to join the top six in the quarterfinals.  [March 15]

Comment:  The 800-pound gorilla that has been seated on the floor at MLS headquarters, just to the right of the receptionist’s desk, since 1996 just gained another 200 pounds.

The expansion of playoff teams from eight to 10 allows MLS to claim that it continues to follow in the proud tradition of the NBA and NHL, where post-season berths are handed out like penny candy and fewer than half the teams go home early–or make that, on time.  However, it only compounds the challenge for a league that desperately wants to make more of its regular-season matches relevant, meaningful … exciting even. 

As always, MLS clubs will slog through what has grown to a regular-season campaign of some 250 games, and most–most–of them will then go into a bizarre sprint in which, too often, the very best team is knocked out before it can prove its mettle in the title game.   Nothing is really proven, except who performed best under knockout circumstances.  The team with the best regular-season record has nothing to show for its efforts but something called the “Supporters Shield” and a hearty handshake from Commissioner Don Garber.

Soccer traditionalists in this country have long pushed MLS to adopt the traditional European model in which 18 or 20 clubs fight it out over a 34- or 38-game, home-and-home schedule to determine who’s No. 1.  The bottom two or three are relegated to the division below to be replaced by that division’s top finishers.  Simple.  There’s pressure at the top to win and at the bottom there’s the pressure not to slip quietly under the waves.   And MLS’s response has been simple as well:  “We’re a single-entity enterprise; it’s an exclusive club not open to newcomers from below.”  And with the splintering and near-demise of the USL’s top division last year, that’s more true than ever.

But what’s to say that MLS can’t become its own first and second division?  Once it reaches a bloated, unwieldy 20 clubs,  it’s high time for the league to split into a 12-team top tier and eight-team second tier.    Promotion/relegation would involve the bottom/top three teams in the two divisions, and the best of the best would scramble for first place and berths in the CONCACAF Champions League.  If there absolutely must be a climactic match at the end of all this, have MLS “host” the Lamar Hunt/U.S. National Open Cup final; what with soccer’s lower regions in disarray for the foreseeable future, chances are very small that we’ll see the Atlanta Silverbacks or Carolina Railhawks or Puerto Rico Islanders crash that party.  It will be what we normally see, year after year, in the English F.A. Cup final:  two Premier League clubs in a death grip at Wembley.

Of course, this sort of arrangement is highly un-American, but MLS fans have proven time and again that they can handle anything un-American the league throws their way:  a game clock that counts up, not down; matches that end in ties; two-legged playoff series.  And as for the concern over what would happen if a club finished last in a proposed  MLS2 for three or four seasons, playing in front of 2,000 fans, the league’s devotion to that magic word “parity” makes that highly improbable.