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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.

 

 

 

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ONE LAST VOTE FOR LANDON DONOVAN

Landon Donovan went out a winner on his last day as a professional player as the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the New England Revolution, 2-1, in extra time at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA, to capture its third MLS Cup in four years and its Major League Soccer-record fifth overall.

Donovan, 32, announced in August that he would retire after the MLS season.  Thanks to the Galaxy’s victories over Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders in the playoffs, his season was extended through November into December.

Though he had an unspectacular afternoon against New England–drawing a caution at the end of the first half and missing on a 20-yard free kick in OT that would have put L.A. ahead–Donovan in the end lifted the MLS Cup trophy for a record sixth time.

He also exits as MLS’s all-time scoring leader and assist leader, and he holds so many other league regular-season and post-season marks that the only ones left involve either goalkeeping or defender-of-the-year awards.  His list of U.S. international records is equally long.  Donovan’s 57 goals include five in the World Cup and 10 game-winners, nine multi-goal games, 14 goals scored in the final 15 minutes of a match, nine alone in 2007 (tied with Eric Wynalda for most in a year) and 15 penalty kicks in 15 attempts.  His 58 assists–10 of which were recorded in 2009 alone–are 36 ahead of No. 2 on the list, Cobi Jones.  Donovan is second all-time in international appearances at 156 games, and if he weren’t left off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup, he might have picked up seven more caps (three World Cup warm-ups and four games in Brazil itself), leaving him one behind Jones’ American mark of 164.  Of course, if Donovan, who logged nearly 13,000 minutes–nine days on the field–for the national team, hadn’t been dumped by U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, he might have continued adding to his numbers into 2015 and beyond.  (He’s only 32.  Galaxy teammate Robbie Keane, 34, says he expects to play until he’s 38.  The great Pele retired just shy of his 37th birthday.)

The individual awards in his trophy case are topped by the Golden Ball he was handed as the best player at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 Tournament, and he was voted the 2002 World Cup’s Best Young Player.  [December 7]

Comment:  Donovan has won several other individual honors during his career, including the U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year (2003, ’04, ’09 and ’10) and Futbol de Primera Player of the Year (2002, ’03, ’04, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10).  His exclusion from the U.S. World Cup team, of course, left him out of the running for either trophy this year.

Howard was the clear favorite for both awards as he set U.S. records for career wins, 55, and goalkeeper appearances, 104, blowing past the now-retired Kasey Keller (53 and 102).  His 15 shutouts in 2013-14 helped his club, Everton, finish fifth in the English Premier League.  And there were those World Cup-record 16 saves in the USA’s 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium in the second round in Brazil.  Howard won the U.S. Soccer award with 64 percent of the vote from a panel of U.S. players, coaches, administrators and others; midfielder Jermaine Jones was second with 19 percent.  Some 200 journalists made Howard the runaway winner in the FDP balloting, giving him 363 points to Jones’ 160 and Clint Dempsey’s 147.

Anticipating the Howard landslide, one FDP voter gave Donovan one final first-place vote (with Howard second and Jones third).  However, it was based not on sentimentality but a nagging doubt.

Naming Donovan the best player in America in 2014 requires a look through a different prism.  That is, Donovan may have demonstrated his value to the U.S. National Team at the 2014 World Cup not through his presence but through his absence.

Watching players who took his place on the roster, like Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski, struggle in Brazil, must have made Donovan squirm.  Couldn’t the greatest player in American history, perhaps a year beyond his prime, have made a difference in this or that situation?  Should he have been left behind in favor of 18-year-old Julian Green, and could he have scored the goal Green scored against Belgium in overtime?  Many would say no and yes–Donovan wouldn’t have mis-hit his shot like Green’s star-kissed volley.  As for what Donovan might have done with Wonolowski’s chance at the end of regulation against the Belgians . . . .

This upside-down look at a player’s value isn’t new.  Long ago, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, coming off an NBA championship in his rookie season, suffered a serious knee injury midway through his second, in 1980-81.  The Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and the argument was raised in many quarters that Johnson proved that he deserved the league’s Most Valuable Player award because the Lakers struggled and ultimately crashed without him.

As for Donovan, it was only one Futbol de Primera vote in the face of a landslide.  It mattered not.  It was worth using it to lift the question “What if?” into a statement.

 



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.

 

 

 

 



PREDICTIONS, PREDICTIONS

The 20th World Cup will kick off Thursday, June 12, in Sao Paulo when host Brazil plays Croatia in a Group “A” match.  The Brazilians go into the 32-nation, 64-game tournament as an 11-4 favorite to lift the World Cup trophy for a record sixth time.  Oddsmakers also have established Argentina as a 4-1 pick to win it, followed by defending champ Spain and Germany, both at 6-1.  The United States is a 250-1 longshot.  [June 11]

Comment:  Here are predictions for Brasil ’14:

o  Argentina will defeat Brazil in the final on July 13 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium, site of Brazil’s nightmare 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the last match of the 1950 World Cup.  This time, the Argentines will win an end-to-end thriller, 3-2, to capture its third world championship and its first in 28 years.  Why?  Because of Lionel Messi, who four years ago in South Africa played a part in several Argentine goals but scored only one.  This time, the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year runs wild.  Along with Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, the Argentine attack builds momentum against soft Group “F” opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria, a momentum that only grows in the knockout rounds.  In the third-place match, a banged-up Germany defeats an aging Spain … unless an outsider crashes the semifinals.  Uruguay and Belgium are popular picks for that role, but Switzerland lurks.

o  The U.S. will confound the experts, defy common sense, and advance out of Group “G”, the so-called “Group of Death”–and it won’t require a brutal tackle on Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo.  Juergen Klinsmann’s side has enjoyed an encouraging run-up to Brazil without suffering injury, and its considerable fitness level gives it an edge in the heat of coastal cities Natal and Recife and the Amazon jungle’s Manaus.  Under Klinsmann the U.S. has become the attack-minded side it was not under then-coach Bob Bradley four years ago, and he has established a culture of winning, from placing first in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers to taking the 2013 Gold Cup to beating Italy in Italy.  More important, he has instilled in his team the belief that it’s not just Germany that’s capable of a late miracle comeback.  The U.S. enters its seventh straight World Cup without international stars, as usual, but as goalkeeper Brad Friedel, hero of the USA’s 2002 quarterfinal run, said in a recent interview, the Americans can do it as a team, if every player earns a 1-to-10 rating of 7 for every match.

o  World Cup television viewership in the U.S. will dwarf the ratings numbers established at South Africa ’10.  No matter where a World Cup is played, a World Cup game is scheduled to kick off in what is prime time in Europe, or close to it–the rest of the world be damned. With this being the first World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere in two decades, we Americans finally get reasonable game times:  noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. EDT on most days.  That’s a far cry from Korea/Japan 2002, when some games started at 2 a.m. on the West Coast.  Meanwhile, greasing the skids is the fact that, with apps and expanded streaming services, this will be the most digitally interactive World Cup ever.

o  ESPN/ESPN2/ABC has once again gone all-British with its play-by-play commentators.  Ian Darke rightfully gets the choice assignments, including the final, but it will only influence more in the American soccer media to go Brit.  A player, wearing a “kit” and a pair of “boots” and playing not on a field but a “pitch” will score two goals, which will be referred to as a “brace.”   One goal will have been made possible by a teammate who, at “pace,” sends him an “inch-perfect pass.”  That will leave the opposition “on its back foot” yet possibly inspire it into a “purple patch.”  Anyway, look forward to another four-year period in which an increasingly number of Americans who know better refer to any singular thing in soccer as a collective:  “France are,” “Uruguay are,” and the “Real Salt Lake are.”  I are looking forward to it.  Or we am looking forward to it.

o  Americans who really, really don’t like soccer–that is, those who feel threatened by it–will dig in their heels even further over the next four weeks.  Everyone from newspaper columnists and radio sports talkers to Internet commentators will call the World Cup a dull, overblown waste of time and make xenophobic remarks about the participating nations and their fans.  But with each World Cup, their footing is growing more unsteady.  Those cracks about foreigners and soccer can’t be so easily excused anymore, not with some of our cherished sports–like golf, basketball, hockey and tennis–now a virtual United Nations of participants.  Those jokes about one-named Brazilian soccer players?  See “LeBron,” “Kobe.”  The argument that soccer in the U.S. is a game for kids?  The estimated number of soccer players in this country has ballooned from 8 million in 1982 to 25 million today.  Hard to believe that a few of those millions aren’t adult players, particularly when what we see at the local park doesn’t say otherwise.  And the line about soccer and 1-0 games leaving Americans bored beyond belief?  That kinda lost something with Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria four years ago.  What’s left is the complaint that penalty kicks are ridiculous and the charge that players feigning injury make soccer players crying, whining wimps.  PKs are ridiculous, and a Nobel Prize awaits the first person who figures out a better tie-breaker.  As for the macho involved in playing soccer compared to more manful, manly and masculine American sports, you could start with the hundreds of thousands of soccer players recovering from concussions caused by head-to-head contact.  Or ACL tears.  Or you could go straight to last Saturday, when Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo and Mexico’s Luis Montes sustained broken legs–in friendlies.

o  Finally, this official World Cup song will be forgotten three days after the Brazil-Croatia opener:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGtWWb9emYI



KLINSMANN’S UNNECESSARY DONOVAN GAMBLE

Juergen Klinsmann, the coach hired to shake up the U.S. National Team, dropped the biggest bombshell of his controversial tenure by announcing a 23-man World Cup squad that does not include all-time U.S. scoring  leader Landon Donovan, a player considered the best ever produced by this country.

Klinsmann had until June 2 to reveal his final roster, but with his preliminary squad still training at Stanford University ahead of final World Cup tune-ups against Azerbaijan (May 27), Turkey (June 1) and Nigeria (June 7), he pulled the trigger, sending home Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona, Terence Boyd, and the man considered the face of American soccer.

The final 23 headed to Brasil ’14:

Goalkeepers — Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Tim Howard (Everton, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS);

Defenders — DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City, MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg, Germany), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim, Germany), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders, MLS);

Midfielders — Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC, MLS), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Julian Green (Bayern Munich, Germany), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City);

Forwards — Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders, MLS), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS).  [May 22]

Comment:  This isn’t on a par with the decision to leave Eric Cantona off the roster of what would become 1998 World Cup champion France, but by American standards, it’s close.  And, on the face of it, a completely unnecessary gamble.

In a perfect world, Klinsy’s grateful selection of players melds in Brazil and beats Ghana, upsets Portugal and walks arm-in-arm with Group “G” favorite Germany into the round of 16.

But in this imperfect world of Klinsmann’s own making, the U.S. could be tied late with Ghana or trailing Portugal or Germany by a goal, and  standing at the halfway line, ready to ride to the rescue, will be Wondolowski or the 18-year-old Green (total international experience: one half hour), not the guy who’s scored 57 career goals, including five in his 12 World Cup matches (all U.S. records).  In short, by omitting Donovan and assembling a team that includes Yedlin, Brooks, Gonzalez and 15 other players with no World Cup experience, Klinsmann, the coach whose aim is to motivate his players by making them uncomfortable, has succeeded in leaving everyone unsettled, including fans who, over the years, have derided Donovan with the nickname “Landycakes.”

Klinsmann described the decision as a matter of 23 players being better than the 32-year-old forward/midfielder:  “… I just think the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”   Perhaps it’s true.  But in soccer, player selection can be a very subjective thing.  Perhaps the coach is still holding a grudge against Donovan for his well-publicized sabbatical in late 2012 and early 2013 that caused him to miss the USA’s first matches of the final round of World Cup qualifiers.

Whatever the reason, Klinsmann has created a potential nightmare for himself.  Some have speculated that he has concluded that getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” is impossible and it’s best to blood young players like Yedlin (total U.S. minutes played:  34) in Brazil in preparation for the 2018 World Cup.  But this isn’t the 1990 World Cup all over again, where then-coach Bob Gansler, looking to the ’94 World Cup the U.S. would host, threw a team averaging 23 years of age to the wolves.  Three and out is no longer acceptable under any circumstances.

If the U.S. somehow advances out of Group “G” next month, Klinsmann is a bloody genius.  But if the U.S. crashes, Klinsmann will be hounded by the spectre of Donovan and what might have been.  And that will cast doubt on every decision he makes–whether risky or mundane–from now through Russia ’18.



MLS: CROWN YOUR TRUE CHAMPION

Seattle Sounders FC bowed to the Philadelphia Union, 2-0, at CenturyLink Field, ending Seattle’s bid to head off the Los Angeles Galaxy for the 2011 MLS Supporters’ Shield.

With two rounds remaining in the regular season, the Galaxy leads all teams with an insurmountable 64 points (18-4-10).  The Sounders, second in the Western Conference, trail by seven points (16-7-9).  Real Salt Lake (15-11-6, 51 points) is third in the West, and the next-best club, fourth overall, is the Eastern Conference-leading Union (11-7-14, 47 points). 

Los Angeles thus joins DC United as the only team to top the league in points four times. [October 8]

Comment:  Over its 16-season lifespan, Major League Soccer has repeatedly caved to the traditionalists.  It’s time for one more cave.

Quite simply, beginning next season, it should declare the Supporters’ Shield winner–the club with the best regular-season record–the one and true league champion, and stop pretending that the MLS Cup winner is somehow the best team in MLS.  We’re all grown-ups here; we can handle it, just as we’ve handled the concept of ties and game clocks that count up, not down.

A post-match comment by Sounders coach Sigi Schmid perhaps best illustrates the current Supporters’ Shield/MLS Cup dichotomy:  “You look at who won the MLS Cup last year, Colorado.  Did they win the Supporters’ Shield?  No.  Who won the MLS Cup the year before?  Salt Lake.  Did they win the Supporters’ Shield?  No.  So maybe winning the Supporters’ Shield isn’t all that necessary to win the MLS Cup, and at the end of the day that’s our goal.” 

Such an adjustment in emphasis and perception might not have been possible until recently.  In the beginning, MLS was trying to woo a fan base accustomed to American sports in which teams shift late in a season from a league format to a knockout format (gee, kinda like the World Cup), and it all ends with a climactic game or series.  Nowadays, many of those spectators at MLS matches know full well that the league is the league and a cup is a cup–the English F.A. Cup winner, the team that hoists Spain’s King Juan Carlos Cup, Germany’s DFB-Pokal Sieger, is oftentimes not the best team in the country. 

And seldom is the MLS Cup winner.  Only five times has the team with the best record in MLS gone on to win the MLS Cup (1997 and 1999 DC United, 2000 Kansas City Wizards, 2002 Galaxy, 2008 Columbus Crew).  The MLS Cup is what it is:  a crap shoot to which even the ninth- and 10th-worst teams in the final standings are invited to bring their bankroll and toss the dice.  In the end, 67 percent of the time, the team that didn’t win the Supporters’ Shield but best embraced a do-or-die atmosphere and capitalized on a break or two, or three, has taken home the MLS Cup and the perception that it is somehow the league’s finest.

More important, MLS has gone to a balanced schedule after years in which it cut travel costs by having its teams play more games within its own region.  Now, more than ever, the playing field has been leveled:  Each team plays the other twice, home and away, and that top point-getter did it without beating up on a weak conference.

There are concrete ways in which MLS can make this shift.  At present, the Supporters’ Shield winner gets a nifty trophy, a pairing against the last MLS Cup qualifier, home-field advantage through the playoffs up to the final itself, and an undisclosed amount of cash to help it beef up its roster for the CONCACAF Champions League, for which it qualifies automatically.  But MLS should drop the other shoe and declare that team the host of the MLS Cup final, regardless of whether it wins its way there.  So far, the organizational geniuses at MLS headquarters have done a great job of staging all manner of galas and special events when the site of the MLS Cup has been pre-determined by months.  Surely they can do a very good job when that site isn’t known for sure until four, five or six weeks in advance.

In the end, MLS gains credibility and loses nothing.  Its best team, after nearly three dozen weeks of competition, is properly identified and recognized.  Its post-season last-chance saloon for also-rans still stands.  Its best team has a well-deserved advantage in winning a league-cup double.   And MLS still ends it all with a climactic match made for TV.



REAL MADRID vs. … REAL SALT LAKE?

Real Salt Lake scrambled to earn a 2-2 draw with host Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, setting up a climactic second-leg showdown April 27 at Sandy, Utah.  The winner advances to the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup in December in Japan.

Argentine midfielder Javier Morales scored the equalizer in the 89th minute to lift the overall record of MLS clubs in Mexico to 0-21-4.  Real Salt Lake heads into the deciding leg having gone unbeaten in 37 matches in all competitions at Rio Tinto Stadium.  However, it will be without playmaker and captain Kyle Beckermann, an occasional U.S. international who will serve a yellow-card suspension.  [April 20]

Comment:  Major League Soccer has an international reputation of being on a par with, say, the Belgian second division and, an aging David Beckham or Thierry Henry aside, that’s not likely to change any time soon.*  Rapid expansion in recent years hasn’t helped as the native talent pool has been repeatedly dilluted, but Real Salt Lake could deliver a minor blow to that perception when it meets Monterrey needing nothing more than a 1-1 draw to become only the third U.S. club in the competition’s 49-year history to finish first.

Geophysicists rule out the major continental shift necessary for MLS clubs to compete in the UEFA Champions League, so the only way MLS can lift its image is by winning the CONCACAF Champions League on a regular basis, beginning with Real Salt Lake next week.  Since the North/Central America/Caribbean region began playing a club championship in 1962, better-paid, better-organized, better-supported Mexican teams have won 26 times (Club America and Cruz Azul five apiece), and no other country is even close.  Costa Rica has nearly half as many winners, six, as Mexico has runners-up, 13.  After El Salvador’s three winners, the U.S. is tied with Guatemala, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti and Surinam.

What makes this showdown significant for MLS is not just a CONCACAF Champions League trophy at stake but a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup.  Back in 1998, when DC United defeated Toluca of Mexico to capture what was then called the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the first-ever FIFA Club World Cup was two years away.   In 2000, the Los Angeles Galaxy beat Olimpia of Honduras in the CONCACAF final and thought it had booked a place in the following year’s Club World Cup in Spain, only for that competition to be cancelled for a number of reasons, chief among them the collapse of FIFA’s marking arm, ISL.   (As some may recall, the Galaxy was grouped with Real Madrid and scheduled to play the reigning European champion in the first round at the Bernabeu.)

The FIFA Club World Cup, which officially replaced the Intercontinental Cup–the long-running meeting of European and South American club champs–in 2005, certainly is not the most gripping competition on the international soccer calendar.   To some Euro champs, it’s been an annoying obligation in the heart of the regular league season, one in which winning is expected.  To South American champs, it’s a chance to prove that the Copa Libertadores holder is the world’s best.  But for the rest–the continental champions of Africa, Asia, Oceania and, yes, CONCACAF–the Club World Cup presents a priceless opportunity to show their wares to an Eurocentric soccer world.

*According to the most recent rankings of national leagues by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, Major League Soccer comes in at No. 42.  Spain tops the list, followed by England, then Italy, Brazil, Germany, France and Argentina, as well as No. 11 Belgium, No. 12 Mexico, No. 18 Paraguay, No. 27 Japan and No. 32 Israel.  Immediately ahead of MLS are Croatia, Moldova, Serbia, Georgia and Tunisia.  Immediately after are Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Poland and Sweden.   Five notches below America’s league is the Sudan.   Obviously, MLS Commissioner Don Garber continues to have some work ahead of him.