Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


WOMEN’S PRO SOCCER: IF IT CAN’T BE DONE RIGHT, DON’T DO IT

Women’s Professional Soccer, home to such top U.S. internationals as Abby Wambach and Hope Solo and Brazilian star Marta, folded, four months after the league cancelled its 2012 season in hopes of returning in 2013.

League officials cited an ongoing battle with the owner of the Boca Raton-based club magicJack as the primary reason for the decision, but WPS also had been plagued by a lack of capital and low attendance (3,535 average in 2011).  The league limped through its last season with six teams, all of them on the East Coast.

The demise of WPS leaves the U.S. with two second-division women’s circuits, the USL’s W-League, which has 30 teams, and the 67-team Women’s Premier Soccer League, which broke away from the W-League in 1997.  [May 18]

Comment:  To those who think they can succeed where the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-2003, R.I.P.) and WPS failed, please don’t step forward unless and until you have the right formula and the financial muscle to weather years of struggle, a la Major League Soccer.  (Note:  Financial muscle means more than the $100 million the WUSA lost during its brief lifetime.)

These vain attempts only sully the sport of women’s soccer in the eyes of the general public and undermine what is one of American sports’ few ongoing feel-good stories, the U.S. National Women’s Team.



A HIGHLY UNLIKELY SOCCER HOTBED

A crowd of 13,822 was on hand at Harder Stadium to see the host UC Santa Barbara men defeat Big West Conference rival Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 2-0.  [November 4]

Comment:  Absolutely anywhere in America can become a soccer hotbed, even the laid-back, sunsplashed, tony beach town of Santa Barbara, CA. 

Consider that when Harder Stadium played host to the most significant soccer match in its history, just 9,127 showed up to see the U.S. National Team–16 months ahead of the 1994 World Cup it would host–hold Romania to a 1-1 draw.

This match’s significance was along the lines of, perhaps, a game in the French fourth division.  In winning, the Gauchos clinched the No. 3 seed in the Big West Conference playoffs and avenged a loss at Cal Poly earlier in the season.  Hardly anyone in U.S. collegiate soccer noticed.   But those among the 13,822 who hadn’t made the trip down the coast from San Luis Obispo went home happy and will be back again.

Somehow, Santa Barbara has become a soccer hotbed, at least on the collegiate level.  Last year, Harder Stadium was site of six of the season’s 10 best-attended men’s matches.  An early-season game against UCLA drew a throng of 15,896; followed by Duke at 11,242.  UCSB hosted the 2010 NCAA Division I men’s final between Akron and Louisville, and that attracted 9,672.  In all, the Gauchos, in 12 home games, led NCAA soccer in total attendance, 70,471, and average turnstile count, 5,873.   By comparison, the late, unlamented Miami Fusion could muster only an additional 1,500 per home game before it was booted out of Major League Soccer.

There are other collegiate soccer hotbeds, like reigning champion Akron, and long-time powers Maryland, UConn, Virginia and Indiana.   Like those schools, UCSB men’s soccer is a winner and represents a school far from any bright lights, but it has the additional advantage of not having to compete for attention with a gridiron football team.  Regardless, most NCAA Division I men’s teams are lucky to break four figures on a regular basis, and nearly every NASL and USL club would kill for the Gauchos’ box office numbers.

Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg must be left marvelling at it all.  When he was a younger man, standout defender Vom Steeg was a member of the now-forgotten Real Santa Barbara (1989 and 1990), then of the Western Soccer League and American Professional Soccer League.   It was the highest level of soccer in the U.S. at the time.  Playing a few miles down the coast at La Playa Stadium on the campus of Santa Barbara City College, Real Santa Barbara faced the likes of Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda, Robin Fraser, Martin Vasquez and Dominic Kinnear.  Announced attendance was always in the neighborhood of 830, but reality said that there were no more than a hundred souls in the stands, and most of them could be caught gazing beyond the field, past the gently swaying palm trees and marina to the blue Pacific.  The prospect of any Real Santa Barbara game being televised nationally–like the UCSB-Cal Poly match–would have been both laughable and embarrassing.

Obviously, things have changed in Santa Barbara.  But there is the suspicion that the biggest change involves the rise of a generation of soccer-savvy young people who are willing to rally around the right team at the right time and who realize that those good times they see beamed from major European stadiums can be replicated here in the U.S.



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.