Soccer

MLS Soccer: Can it Grow and Thrive?

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"If you want to go down in history you don't just need to win, you have to entertain." -- Arrigo Sacchi

It seems every time you have a hot button topic, for instance gun control, the issue itself tends to get obscured by political rhetoric ... or whomever can yell the loudest.

In a lot of ways, that's the unfortunate situation MLS finds itself in. Ask any soccer fan in America and they'll have a myriad of opinions on the league itself and how to improve it. Ask them to identify Andy Najar out of a lineup or name the starting goalie on the San Jose Earthquakes, well, prepare yourself for a blank, vacant stare.

As much as I want to throw my unabashed support behind our American domestic league, for all the time I spend actually watching the matches themselves, I find myself in that first category, coming up with ways to tinker or improve the league than accepting it for what it is.

Above all, when we're done with this post, I'd like more people to be in that second category, because that's how the league is going to grow. You want the fans of the league counting down the days and minutes until matchday. You want people looking forward to attending a game live. In short, you want to win over the hearts and minds.

Or better yet, how fans of NFL teams can't wait until Sunday. (A much smaller scale, but that level of passion.)

Perhaps the biggest obstacle MLS will always -- at least in the immediate future -- is soccer fans in America know this isn't the top of the line when it comes to pro leagues. We call the Major League Baseball championship the World Series, although it's a domestic competition, still we realize it's the best of the best on the baseball diamond.

MLS? It still has the stigma, rightly or wrongly, of being minor league.

The best comparison that can be made for MLS' standing might be by looking across the border to our friends in the Great White North, Canada. The CFL has thrived for years in Canada despite it's second-tier gridiron status. That didn't stop over 46,000 people from attending the 2009 Grey Cup final in Calagary, a nuetral site.

Better yet, fans in Japan pack J-League stadiums despite it not being the Premier League or the Bundesliga. People still go to matches in Mexico and Argentina despite it not being La Liga or Serie A.

When you boil it down, the average 2009 MLS attendance of 16,000 is quite respectable across the world, albeit dwarfed by our other American team sports.

Less respectable, the fact WNBA telecasts are drawing a bigger rating than MLS matches on ESPN2. If there is a more embarrassing indictment on MLS, it would be hard to find.

Clearly there are people that care about MLS and their respective favorite teams, yet mainstream crossover appeal simply isn't there.

And MLS is already fighting uphill battle that in fact is two-front war, which would be tough for any sports league to handle. You've got the soccer fan who can dial up better games, on his television or computer, coupled with the fact their is a global competition for the best soccer talent, unlike, say the NFL. Then you have American sports fan who has so many alternatives, which isn't always the case around the world.

Another two-front war the league faces on a daily basis is the on-field issues vs. it's media perceptions. As ticket-buying entertainment, MLS isn't too far off. As a media commodity? Well, no need to harp on those ratings. It makes me feel bad.

Although I mostly fall on the negative side of MLS, but I've come to accept we haven't seen a league start from scratch almost half a century. If we look at MLB, the NFL and NBA in their infancy we'd probably see the same pratfalls and growing pains experienced by MLS, except missing the levels of communication and the need for instant gratification that we have now in 2010.

Since tonight is the 2010 MLS All-Star Game, which in-and-of itself encapsulates everything that is right, wrong and unique about the league. It is an event that is perfectly exhibits the hybrid set of challenges the league faces on a daily basis, doing things the "American way" to its position as a truly global sport.

Without getting into too many details, what does MLS gain from having its best play against a second-string Manchester United Wednesday in Houston, especially with Philadelphia and Kansas City playing United straight-up? It's a nice showcase, I suppose, and an easier sell for ESPN, but still, it further reinforces the notion that the league is second-rate and (gasp) "Mickey Mouse."

While it's easy to rail against the ills of MLS, there is room to grow. Plus the mere fact its survived this long and is slowly starting to thrive in certain pockets is reason to remain optimistic.

Here are a couple thoughts on the league four years after my first "Manifesto", or areas it could improve. This is mostly done from the approach of a media viewer/critic then anything else. It's also not everything right or wrong about MLS -- addressing the league's quest to covert Hispanic fans is worth a post by itself -- just some stuff I've been writing down since March which I felt like sharing.

Issues:

* Promotion/Relegation/Single Table -- These are things that soccer-heads/purists want and MLS commish Don Garber is hell bent against (for the time being). Sure it would be cool if MLS were integrated with either the USL or nascent NASL, but that's a pie in the sky thinking. With a slew of new franchises and owners ponying up fees to join the league, it's not fiscally realistic to have clubs face the utter obscurity that is the joint second division. Once MLS establishes a ceiling on franchises or the second division rises to more prominence, it's unrealistic. Sure it would be cool, but we're a long way off. I can understand why people want this, but getting hung up on it, for the time being, is futile. As it stands, a drop from MLS to USL wouldn't nearly be as dramatic as Premier League to Championship, although the novelty of it in America could create some kind of a buzzworthy ripple.

* Low stakes regular season -- Around the globe, as we know, the majority of league champions are determined by the regular season. This isn't the case with MLS, which has its Playoffs and then championship Cup. Since the league began in 1996, only five times has the team with the best overall regular season record won the playoffs. In the last two seasons we've seen the No. 8 seeded Real Salt Lake win in 2009 while in 2008 the Red Bulls reachthe final.

Again, this is a tricky, hybrid situation.

It probably depends what you think is the better measure of a team, over 30 games of a regular season or a three-tiered, four-match playoff system? Essentially this is Cup football, which is different than League football, where it's much easier for the weaker team to get a result.

The border-line irrelevancy of the U.S. Open Cup further muddles the matter.

Since this is America we're always going to have some kind of playoff, but beyond the regular season champ earning the "Supporters Shield" -- aka an award that means nothing other than the ability to put up a banner or placard in the stadium -- added credence needs to be added to the season.

MLS wouldn't do it, but why not cut the playoff teams to six. Since Garber is insistent on divisions, give the regular season conference winners an automatic bye into the conference championship game. It only seems fair. This would solve two issues at once, it would make the regular season count much more on a game-to-game basis with only six playoff teams, meanwhile giving some incentive to placing first at the end of 30 games.

* Sparse Attendance -- MLS falls into the trap that even when there's a good crowd, of say, 15,000+ most of the time on television it looks like an empty stadium. It's very hard to disguise these empty seats unlike, say, the NBA which can keep the camera close and the lighting dark in empty sections. Appearance is everything and that shapes perceptions. Early in the 2010 season there was a nationally televised ESPN2 match at Pizza Hunt Park. If there were 1,000 fans, I'd be stunned. If you're scanning channels, you're less inclined to watch something from your couch nobody deems worthy enough to attend in person. There's really no solution for the league, aside from scheduling all its national telecasts from Seattle, Salt Lake, Toronto, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

* Getting more from ESPN -- We can talk about the minuscule ratings MLS puts up on EPSN all we like, but for me it's a two-way street. Yes, it's wonderful the Worldwide Leader, out of the goodness of its heart, airs one MLS match per week -- usually buried on Thursday nights. Yet, that's essentially the alpha and omega of MLS on ESPN.

Do we ever see highlights from matches on "Sportscenter"? Better yet, does the bottom line ticker ever even list MLS goal scorers? These are little things, but it helps create brand awareness. A simple three-minute weekly around-the-league package to run on ESPNEWS every week would help.

We saw what ESPN's promotion did in June and July for the World Cup. Granted, MLS isn't the World Cup, but if ESPN threw it a little support from a marketing/general news standpoint, it would certainly increase ratings.

The best suggestion for ESPN, particularly in the summer when there is minimal live programming, why not show MLS matches on a better night, like Sunday or Monday? What's its competition? World Series of Poker? People are actively looking for sports to watch those days and MLS would be a nice counterweight to those unwatchable national baseball telecasts they parachute into. There are only so many times a human being can watch an ESPN-produced Cubs/Cardinals game before going on a homicidal rampage.

* Market the players -- How many truly world class players currently play in MLS? You could probably count them on one hand. Doesn't matter. The league doesn't do a good enough job marketing it's players outside of the Donovan and Beckhams of the world.

Every soccer league around the world has its own set of stars, heroes, villains and cult heroes.

Outside of the marquee names, the average MLS player seems like a nondescript, gray nobody. Maybe this is partly true, but the league could do better.

The Internet denizens know Bobby Boswell is a funny, out-going, genuine character. Why not the rest of America, or at least casual soccer fans, as an example?

* Playing style -- On the plus side, MLS is competitive. The quality of the athletes is quite good, especially since they have to play mostly in the warm summer months.

At the same time, the technical level of quality soccer players is sometimes lacking. This isn't suggest MLS should adopt an old-school 1980s English mentality of kick-and-chase, rock'em sock'em soccer, far from it.

It's just, how often do you see players cracking shots from distance? Or sustained levels of creativity? Dribbling wizards? Trickery? Stuff that people actively want to upload

Think back to the league's inception. At least back then the league was wise enough to import foreign ball wizards like Marco Etchevarry, Carlos Valderamma and even Roberto Donadoni. Nowadays the only consistently creative players with vision seem to be Donovan, Guillermo Barros Scheltto and Dewayne DeRosario.

Not sure if you can simply import these players, or try to create them out of thin air.

If MLS were able to raise the skill level, instead of defining itself by hard tackles it would make more people want to watch.

* Balancing act -- How does MLS present itself as a viable career option for young Americans or even established Americans? You'd think the league would be able to build and market around American players, yet many flee to the greener pastures of Europe, even if its the backwaters of Scandinavia.

For now, MLS will probably be stuck in the pattern where it develops players like DaMarcus Beasley or Bobby Convey, watch them go to Europe, then have them return when they've run out of other options. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, it simply is what it is.

As it stands, no matter how you slice it, since its inception in 1996 MLS has indeed helped the U.S. National Team by increasing the player pool.

* Better uniforms -- It's nice that Adidas furnishes the whole league with a similar-looking generic duds. One minor thing for me would be to create more distinctive looks, at least with away kits. Why not add some crazy neon designs or something eye-catching on the road. It's a small issue for me, but it couldn't hurt.

* The SuperDraft -- Much like the All-Star game, quintessentially American, yet almost pointless, as more-and-more high-level talents turn down MLS offers for looks overseas. It doesn't seem to make sense that a club can't develop its own talent through academies, but it can randomly draft a 23-year-old college player. Somehow MLS needs to find a way to stop splitting the baby in half, yes, its American league but soccer is a global sport. Trying to do it both ways doesn't work.

One big issue

* Growing Dichotomy Between New and Old Blood -- At it's inception, MLS was unique. A single-entity, league with a collectivist mentality to keep costs down so the owner-operators losses were at least manageable. Professional soccer in America? It was laughed at in 1995, but through thick and thin, the original MLS group made it work, sticking with their vision.

At its lowest ebb in 2001, Tampa Bay and Miami were contracted. The charity of Phil Anschutz essentially kept the league alive.

That old guard of owners, the Hunts (Dallas/Columbus), the Krafts (New England) and AEG were there in the lean times. They were there when profit and MLS in the same sentence were a pipe dream. These were men who lived in utter fear of MLS becoming financially reckless like the old NASL.

Yet in the last few years we've seen new owners in Chicago and New York who seem to want to dream big. We've gotten buzzworthy expansion teams in Seattle, Toronto and Philly, with Vancouver, Montreal and Portland on the way. Plus the Galaxy, ever since they bought Beckham, have wanted to be a global team. These teams, or at least owners, weren't around for the hard times, when the league was about to go under.

It'll be fascinating to see what direction the league takes with more-and-more owners, with bigger ideas joining up.

In a way, it's not fair to the old guard, who helped put the footprint of the league down, establish soccer specific stadiums -- some, let's face it unaesthetic eye soars -- across the country and pump money into a losing cause.

But how long with the single-entity structure last? We've seen the laxing and creation of the designated player(s). Pretty soon the new blood is going to start dreaming bigger. Henry! Ronaldinho! Marquez!

This is probably, in the long run, a good thing. We don't need an evangelist, like the foolish trust-fund "Ho-Ho" from last season of "Mad Men" who was convinced that Jai-Alai was the wave of the future. It wouldn't hurt, though, if MLS owners or the powers running the league didn't operate like they were afraid of their own shadows.

Dare to be great, this is America after all.

I'd rather MLS dreaming big, even if it falls short, rather than accepting continued mediocrity, like we see in the Midwest trioka of Kansas City, Colorado and Dallas. The longer MLS operates in its tiny little bubble, where there's minimal outside pressures or interest, it'll continue to hold up it's low end of the sports totem pole, even as soccer's prominence in America continues to rise. If MLS continues to embrace the status quo, it'll remain stuck appealing to its small, hardcore audience, getting criticized by yahoo's like me and be ignored by the population at large.

What was good in 1996 or in 2001 isn't exactly in line with where we are in 2010.

Within five years, maybe less, I sense a seismic shift in the way MLS does its business. As Eddie Vedder said, "It's evolution, baby."

One big question:

* Why does Chivas USA still exist? -- Not to be mean-spirited, or sophomoric or myopic. Seriously, what function does Chivas USA serve other than confusing non-MLS fans as to its geographic location?

I can see why they were invited into the league in 2004, when nobody wanted to invest in MLS it made sense for Meixcan businessman Jorge Vergara to invest in the league and try to bring some of the CD Guadalajara spark to Los Angeles.

Aside from some decent matches against the Galaxy, what else is Chivas bringing to the table?

I'm just looking at this rationally.

If you're a soccer fan in Los Angeles, why would you go to Chivas games over the Galaxy? Better yet, with the Mexican League readily available on television, why not just watch the real Chivas or Club America or Cruz Azul or what-have-you?

Chivas is averaging around 14,500 per game, which isn't terrible, yet any time I see one of their games on tv it looks like there are 5,000 people there.

Part of the appeal of the Mexican parent club is that is fields solely Mexican players. That obviously was impossible in MLS, yet why has the club's best products been young Americans Brad Guzan, Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan? Hell, why last week did young American Sal Zizzo get stuck being assigned there?

It was a noble, dare I say smart, idea to create a team that would tap into the Hispanic market in the states -- the proverbial holy grail for MLS. Yet it just hasn't worked.

Yes, I understand it's nice to have a cross-city rivalry, but in a league that's rapidly approaching it's cap, why waste a franchise that will always be second fiddle to the Galaxy? As it stand MLS has not a single team in the traditional American South, notably soccer-friendly Charlotte. St. Louis, the cradle of American soccer, doesn't have a team.

Since the team plays at the Home Depot Center, it's hard to see it making that much profit. Not sure how big a check MLS would have to cut to Vergara to have him pack up shop or move the team?

Conclusion:

If there's one thing I'll say about MLS, it's fun to go to a match and cheer in the end zones with the raucous supporters groups. It's flatly intoxicating.

That's MLS's big trump card. While most other America pro sports live experiences are sterile, chock full of canned music, silly distractions and contests, MLS games should be only about the game. About singing your lungs out. About spending a week making a bedsheet likeness of Ben Olsen. Lighting off flares. Cursing out the opposing goalie. Bouncing up-and-down for 90 minutes with your neighbor.

These are the league's best and brightest selling points. I couldn't believe it when 100+ Chicago fans made the trek to Red Bull Arena in March for the Fire's match.

Slowly but surely this passion spreads from a couple dozen, to a couple hundred to a couple thousand.

If it were feasible, I'd own New York Red Bulls season tickets and attend every match. The live experience of soccer, just the pageantry and passion of the fans, is so much better since you can see the whole field to watch plays develop is without par.

Sitting down and, frankly, forcing myself to watch MLS on television? That's another story.

The other issues MLS faces, the league structure, it's roster rules, it's playoffs. Those will work themselves out over time.

What needs to happen between now and then is more people to live, breath and die with their favorite teams. If nobody cares about the league itself, what exactly are we doing here in the first place?

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