Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


HOW NOW, THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Homegrown player Jordan Morris signed with the Seattle Sounders in a splashy ceremony at the team’s fan clubhouse in Pioneer Square, capping a whirlwind six weeks in which the 21-year-old striker led Stanford University to the 2015 NCAA Division I men’s national championship, was awarded the Hermann Trophy as the country’s top collegiate player and took part in a trial with Werder Bremen that left the German Bundesliga club poised to offer a contract.

Morris earned seven caps with the U.S. National Team last year, scoring in a 2-0 victory over Mexico in April and becoming the first college player to make an appearance with the full national team since UCLA forward Ante Razov in 1995.  He also scored six goals and added four assists in 11 appearances in ’15 for the U.S. under-23 side, including two goals in a 3-1 victory over Canada in its opening qualifier for the ’16 Rio de Janeiro Olympics; that campaign will be decided in March with a home-and-home playoff with Colombia .

The signing of Morris reunites the Mercer Island, Wash., native with U.S. and Sounder striker Clint Dempsey.  Sounder coach Sigi Schmid was delighted by Morris’ signing, saying he possesses “unteachable” qualities.  The Sounder rookie, however, is expected to spend his first MLS season in a supporting role, watching Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez start ahead of him.  [January 21]

Comment:   Here comes Mr. Jordan, and possibly others.  Can embattled U.S. National Team coach Juergen Klinsmann channel his inner 2006?

In recent months Klinsmann has been blessed by an interesting wave of fresh young talent.  Before the broad-shouldered, baby-faced Morris there was another forward, Bobby Wood, 23, a promising poacher who scored late winners in friendlies against Holland and Germany last spring, plus equalizers against Mexico in the CONCACAF playoff and the World Cup qualifying opener against St. Vincent & the Grenadines.  Wood continues to produce for his club, Union Berlin of the Bundesliga 2.  There’s also midfielder Darlington Nagbe.  Born in Liberia, raised in the U.S., the 25-year-old naturalized American made his U.S. debut against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and dazzled in leading the Portland Timbers to their first MLS Cup title.  Finally, defender Matt Miazga, 6-foot-4 and a mere 20.  He went from buried on the New York Red Bulls roster last spring to becoming one of MLS’s best central defenders in ’15.  Before bowing in with the full national team in the St. Vincent match, Miaza helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and became a starter on the U-23 team.

Then there are youngsters who appeared in the 2014 World Cup:  defender John Brooks, 23, of Hertha Berlin, defender-midfielder DeAndre Yedlin, 22, of Sunderland, and forward Aron Johannsson, 25, of Werder Bremen.  Johannsson battled injuries in 2015 but Yedlin and another attacking player, Gyasi Zardes, 24, of the Los Angeles Galaxy, appeared in 19 of the USA’s 20 matches in ’15.

Is this the cavalry thundering down the hill?  Klinsmann can only hope so.  Dempsey is 32.  Defensive midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman and left back DaMarcus Beasley are 33.  Goalkeeper Tim Howard is 36.

Klinsmann, in his fifth year as national team coach, is on a hot seat, becoming the first national team coach in this soccer-averse country to experience a modicum of public scrutiny.  In 2015, after historic wins against the Netherlands in Amsterdam and Germany in Cologne, the U.S. stumbled badly at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, finishing fourth, its worst showing in a Gold Cup in 15 years.  A humiliating 4-1 loss to Brazil in Foxboro followed, which served as a warm-up (or down) to the lifeless 3-2 overtime defeat to Mexico in a CONCACAF playoff at the Rose Bowl that cost the Americans a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.  Three days later the U.S. tumbled to Costa Rica, 1-0, in a friendly in New Jersey, but it salvaged the year by opening a new World Cup cycle by routing St. Vincent & the Grenadines, 6-1, in St. Louis and escaping Port of Spain with a scoreless draw and a point against Trinidad & Tobago.

As the mixed results mounted, Klinsmann came under increasing criticism for his often baffling player selections, his lineups (20 different lineups in 20 games), his tinkering with formations (a 3-5-2, a 4-2-3-1, a flat 4-4-2 and a diamond 4-4-2) and tactics.  At one point, former U.S. star Landon Donovan said that Klinsmann should lose his job if Mexico won at the Rose Bowl.  The U.S. lost, and Klinsmann got a half-hearted vote of confidence from USSF President Sunil Gulati.

This cavalry of young talent may yield a couple of riders or, in Klinsmann’s dreams, a full platoon.  And what the U.S. coach does with it will determine the course of the national team for the near-term, although it figures to be closing in on a 2018 World Cup berth when 2017 dawns.  He’s nurtured young talent before, steering a bunch of young Germans to third place at the 2006 World Cup, becoming a national hero in the bargain.  Among his players were defenders Philipp Lahm, then 22, and Per Mertesacker, 21, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, 21, and forward Lukas Podolski, 21.  That was a generation of talent that would go on to win the 2014 World Cup.

Can Klinsmann do it again?  He could succeed.  He could fail.  This new crop–and possibly others to emerge over the next 18 months–could win in spite of him.  Or too many of them could prove to be all false promise.  Time will tell.  But for the U.S. to nail down a World Cup berth and go into Russia ’18 with any hope of a better showing than the last World Cup, Klinsmann is going to have to succeed, and once again engineer a successful changing of the guard.

 



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.

 

 

 



SIGI SCHMID: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, SEEN IT ALL

Four-time World Cup goalkeeper Kasey Keller, longtime MLS and collegiate coach Sigi Schmid and the late Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, a U.S. international and USSF youth coach, have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Keller, who made 102 international appearances for the U.S. from 1990 through 2007, played in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga before ending his career with the Seattle Sounders.  Schmid, elected on the builder ballot, is the winningest coach in MLS history and a two-time winner of the league’s Coach of the Year award.  Myernick, elected on the veteran player ballot as an American soccer pioneer, earned 10 U.S. caps and starred for the NASL’s Portland Timbers before coaching the U.S. national under-23 and under-17 teams and the MLS Colorado Rapids.

Details on the induction ceremony for Keller, Schmid and Myernick have yet to be announced.  [April 8]

Comment:  For interesting stories among this trio, you could probably start with Keller and his family living in an honest-to-goodness castle in Germany while he played for Borussia Moenchengladbach 10 years ago.  But for a career that has amounted to a sweeping panorama of the recent history of American soccer, nothing tops what Sigi Schmid has seen over the past half-century.

It’s not Forrest Gump-ian, but it’s close.

Born in West Germany, Schmid moved with his family to Southern California as a child in time to play for the Firefighters, one of the first four teams in the history of the hopefully named American Youth Soccer Organization, in 1964.  Little is know of what became of Schmid’s teammates and opponents, some of whom played this strange new sport in high-top basketball shoes.  None could have known that AYSO would grow to become a national program with, currently, more than a half-million players.

Young Schmid, on his way to becoming a CPA, played midfield at UCLA from 1972 through 1975, then coached the Bruins from 1980 through 1999.  He could have padded his lineup with foreign-born talent, which was common in the college game at the time, but he insisted on American players, most of them Californians.   Led by future U.S. internationals like Paul Caligiuri, Cobi Jones and David Vanole, Schmid’s UCLA won three NCAA championships.

An assistant on the USA’s 1994 World Cup team, he served two stints as coach of the U.S. National Under-20 Team and won MLS Cups with the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy.  Now, he’s the only coach the six-year-old Seattle Sounders have ever known, having guided that club to four U.S. National Open Cups, and his team regularly plays home matches before crowds of nearly 50,000.

But before USA ’94, MLS and the Sounders, Schmid can remember other days.  Like how AYSO, to a ragtag collection of 11- and 12-year-olds, had no business catching on and going nationwide.  And despite 16 NCAA playoff appearances, how UCLA–and top-tier collegiate soccer–seemed destined to continue to labor in complete obscurity, as the Bruins drew about 300 for many home matches.  And in 1989, how, while Schmid was filling a summer coaching the California Kickers, the World Cup the Americans would host in five years seemed headed for disaster on the field and at the gate.  The Kickers played in the Western Soccer League, which along with the East Coast’s American Soccer League, was home to nearly every U.S. international player at the time.   No one, from Tab Ramos and John Harkes to Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda, was paid a living wage.  Each club that year played all of 16 regular-season matches.  And as for the Kickers, their home games were played in a rickety high school football stadium.

The Kickers once played the visiting Arizona Condors in front of 72 spectators.  Seventy-two.  But Schmid, in retrospect, needn’t have worried.  Add 43,662, and that was the average number of fans at cavernous CenturyLink Field in Seattle who last season looked down and saw a former AYSO kid pulling the strings in front of the Sounders’ bench.



18-YEAR-OLD MLS BRINGS US THE NEW 40

Pedro Morales converted a penalty kick in the 19th minute and struck again on a 20-yard shot a minute later to lead the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer match before a crowd of 21,000 at BC Place.

The meeting commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first game between the Whitecaps and Earthquakes, who opened the North American Soccer League season at Empire Stadium as expansion franchises on May 5, 1974.  Fans at BC Place were encouraged to dress ’70s retro, which many did with long-haired wigs, sunglasses, fake mustaches and bell-bottom pants.  [May 3]

Comment:  The match was played about a month after the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders battled to an entertaining 4-4 draw before yet another standing-room-only crowd of 20,814 at Portland’s Providence Park.  The Associated Press referred to that encounter as “one of the wilder match ups of a rivalry dating to the mid-1970s.”  NBC, which televised the game, called it “the 85th meeting of the two teams.”  MLS noted earlier that the Sounders, along with a third Cascadia rival, the Whitecaps, and the ‘Quakes would mark their 40th anniversary seasons this year, with the Timbers celebrating No. 39.

What a stretch of the imagination.

Those clubs have as much right to claim a 40th anniversary as a married couple who experiences divorce, death, ressurection, marriage to other partners, further divorces, identity changes, separation, multiple relocations, and, finally, rebirth, all since the days that Richard Nixon was in the White House.

True, the Sounders, Whitecaps and ‘Quakes were born in 1974 as NASL teams, followed by the Timbers in ’75.  However, Portland, which once boldly called itself “Soccer City USA,” folded after the 1982 season, and Seattle, Vancouver and San Jose (known as Golden Bay for its final two seasons) went down with the ship when the NASL itself died after the 1984 campaign.

A year later, with professional soccer in the U.S. resembling a moonscape, two new teams, FC Portland and FC Seattle, joined with a reconstituted San Jose Earthquakes and the soon-to-be-forgotten Victoria Riptides to play in a hopeful attempt to revive high-level soccer called the Western Alliance Challenge Series (San Jose finished first with a 4-2-1 record).  The WACS morphed into the Western Soccer Alliance, then the Western Soccer League, then, through a 1990 merger with the East Coast’s year-old American Soccer League, the American Professional Soccer League.  FC Portland, born as an all-amateur side made up primarily of University of Portland players like Kasey Keller, and their rival, since renamed FC Seattle Storm, folded after that year.

As for the San Jose Earthquakes, they were replaced by the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in 1989; after U.S. internationals like Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and John Doyle led them the to APSL title in ’91, they dropped into the USISL by ’93 as the San Jose Hawks and then folded.  After three years of darkness, the San Jose Clash became a charter member of MLS.  It shed the regrettable Clash nickname in 1999 and went on to win two MLS championships as the ‘Quakes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the poorly supported team from moving to Houston in 2006.  Two years later, an MLS expansion team, named the Earthquakes, was awarded to San Jose; this fourth version of the ‘Quakes will move into a new, soccer-specific stadium, in 2015.

Vancouver?  It returned to action in 1986 as a freelance team, then joined the new, short-lived Canadian Soccer League the following year.  After six seasons as a CSL power, the 86ers embarked on an 18-year odyssey that took them to the APSL, A-League and USL-1.  Along the way, the 86es nickname was changed to Whitecaps.

These 40-year anniversaries are all well and good, but they ignore the difficult days between NASL and MLS, when there was genuine doubt that pro outdoor soccer would ever be seen again.  Ask those in the crowd of 34,012 who watched the Sounders beat the Timbers at the Kingdome in 1979 if any of them were among the 1,500 or so who saw an amateur Portland team play a semi-pro Seattle team at the old Memorial Stadium eight or nine years later.  Would any of them have drawn any sort of parallel between the two games?  Could any of them have foreseen a day when an MLS Portland Timbers and MLS Seattle Sounders would meet at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in front of 66,452 in 2012 or 67,385 last season?

Given the ups and downs–and glaring gaps–in these and every other major soccer-playing market in the U.S., creating milestones like this is a shameless example of revisionist history.  If not, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) should’ve just claimed the legacy of the New York Cosmos as their own and begun life in MLS in 1996 with five NASL titles to their name.  Better yet, the New England Revolution should’ve simply traced their roots to the Fall River Marksmen, founded in 1921.  That would’ve given the Revs an immediate 75-year history, plus seven American Soccer League championships and four U.S. National Open Cup crowns.  A stretch?  Fall River, which of course is part of New England, is only 36 miles from the Revolution’s home field, Gillette Stadium.

These MLS clubs are right to give a nod to their respective cities’ rich soccer histories.  But the Whitecaps, Earthquakes (with their new stadium on the horizon), and Timbers and Sounders (with their routine sellouts) should celebrate the here and now without trying to re-write history–especially without forcing themselves to drag memories of mutton chop sideburns, Watergate and disco into the equation.



THE KASEY KELLER EFFECT

They threw open the gates to the upper deck at CenturyLink Field and 64,140 turned out to see the Sounders defeat the San Jose Earthquakes, 2-1, in the final 2011 regular-season match in Seattle.  Sammy Ochoa and Fredy Montero scored in the last 10 minutes and goalkeeper Kasey Kelly stopped seven shots to send the throng home happy. 

This was not part of a doubleheader, and there was no fireworks spectacular offered.  Both sides had qualified for the playoffs.  The attraction was goalkeeper and native son Keller, who plans to retire at the end of the season.  [October15]

Comment I:  Appropriate, and well deserved.

With all due respect to Brad Friedel, Tony Meola and Tim Howard, Keller, 41, will step down as the best goalkeeper produced by a country known, internationally, for its goalkeepers.  The pride of Olympia, WA, never had a three-week stretch like Friedel, who started ahead of Keller at the 2002 World Cup and was spectacular for a hot team.   And Keller largely went down with the ship as a starter at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups.   But from 1990 to 2008, he was world class in England (Millwall, Leicester City, Tottenham, Southampton, Fulham), Spain (Rayo Vallecano), and Germany (Borussia Moenchengladbach), blazing a trail for the likes of Alexi Lalas, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Clint Dempsey, Frankie Hejduk, Brian McBride and, yes, Friedel and Howard.

Keller’s career spans an amazing stretch in U.S. soccer history.  A star at the University of Portland, he played for FC Portland of the Western Soccer League in 1989.   The WSL’s players were semipro for the most part, but Portland was made up of college players protecting their amateur status; young Keller posted a 0.38 goals-against average and won the league’s MVP award ahead of players like Marcelo Balboa, Dominick Kinnear and John Doyle.  Twenty-one years after playing in front of  hundreds at Portland’s Civic Stadium (future home of the MLS Portland Timbers), the crowd watching him is an adoring 64,140, the third-largest for a stand-alone game in MLS history. 

At least Keller will always have the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where he made 10 saves–most of them bordering on the miraculous–to turn away Romario, Edmundo and Brazil, 1-0, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the semifinals.  It was the greatest performance ever by an American goalkeeper in a high-profile match.  But some will speculate what might have been had coach Bora Milutinovic decided to put up with what was then a young, headstrong Kasey Keller and chosen him ahead of Meola, Friedel and Juergen Sommer for his 1994 World Cup squad.  If Keller, not Meola, was covering the near post during the USA’s final first-round match, a 1-0 loss to Romania, maybe the U.S. wouldn’t have had to face Brazil in the second round.  Instead, the opponent would have been a somewhat softer Spain, in Washington DC, and hard to say if Bora’s Boys wouldn’t have bought an appearance in the rarified air of the quarterfinals and with it another week in the national spotlight.

Comment II:  The crowd at CenturyLink Field was the fourth-largest worldwide that weekend–trailing only those at FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  It lifted Seattle to a final average attendance for the regular season of 38,496 (nearly 3,000 above stadium capacity) and made the Sounders the best draw in MLS for all three years of their existence.  More important, it helped boost the league’s average gate for 2011 to 17,795 with one week remaining, thus breaking the record of 17,406 set in MLS’s inaugural 1996 season.

There were a few factors that made that 17,406 possible.  First and foremost, there was the novelty factor as an entire league debuted.  There also was the blessing and curse of the many gridiron football stadiums the teams were forced to call home:  While four-figure crowds looked pathetic in these cavernous stadiums, when it came to home openers or games with post-game fireworks shows, there were plenty of seats for all, like the Rose Bowl crowd of 69,255 that saw the Los Angeles Galaxy’s first match.  And there were turnstile counts that deserved an asterisk, like the 92,216 back at the Rose Bowl on hand for a twinbill involving the Galaxy against the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny and the U.S. National Team versus Mexico.  (Easy to conclude that it wasn’t Mutiny fans who flooded the stadium that day.)

No such gimmicks or mitigating factors today, which only makes Keller’s big night all the more impressive.  No fireworks, no giveaways, no glitzy foreign opposition–just a love affair between the Sounders’ amazing following and a hometown boy who makes good and returns to close out his career.   Think of it–an American soccer player as a major drawing card, at least for one night.   The Emerald City is the exception to the rule in so many things MLS, but Keller’s big night suggests the possibility that the league has reached the point where its clubs should consider staging testimonial matches for its most popular American players.

The last true testimonial match held here was Pele’s farewell at Giants Stadium in 1977, when he played one half each for the Cosmos and his former Brazilian club, Santos, before a packed house.  Since then, the only thing close was the 2004 farewell tour by the U.S. National Women’s Team as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett called it a career.  It’s too late for favorites such as Cobi Jones (L.A.), McBride (Columbus) and Balboa (Colorado), but it’s time for MLS to recognize that the pull of certain popular, long-time players is stronger than it may have previously realized.



SING BEFORE YOU’RE WINNING

Backed by a raucous sellout crowd of 18,627 at Jeld-Wen Field, the expansion Portland Timbers defeated the Chicago Fire, 4-2, in their Major League Soccer home opener.  Forward Jorge Perlaza scored twice for the Timbers, who were playing in their first big-league soccer match in Portland since the original Timbers folded after the 1982 North American Soccer League season.  [April 14]

Comment:  Plenty of goals, but the highlight of the evening came before kickoff, when the national anthem was boomed out, a cappella, by thousands of members of the Timbers Army.  It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but the supporters’ eardrum-shattering rendition gave their side a tremendous emotional advantage and invited comparisons to the atmosphere at some of Europe’s most storied soccer venues.

It is hoped that the Timbers Army’s performance was noted not only by the 17 other MLS clubs but by those in sports throughout the United States.  For decades now spectators at professional and collegiate sporting events have been subjected to all kinds of Whitney Houston wannabes who sing the anthem as though they were auditioning for “American Idol.”  Some are good, many are quite bad, and some sing so slowly or throw in so much melisma they could be timed by a calendar.  But above all, they completely suck the energy and anticipation out of the crowd, who moments before was getting pumped up during player introductions but now stands in complete silence and waits and waits for that obligatory high note during “O’er the laa-hand of the free-EEEEE.”

So please, in-stadium game presentation people from coast to coast, dump the Whitney Houstons and let your fans sing the anthem.  Better yet, let the Timbers Army sing it for them.  They can’t hit any high notes, it’s true, but they’ll shake the rafters.



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.