Giddy up true believers. Since my beloved World Cup ended a few weeks ago, I've read enough jibber jabber from onliners yakking about how Americans that picked up a footie jones can get a fix. A few even said MLS. Yep.
As my old pal Marcelo Balboa would say, "The thing about that is, here's the thing."
Since its inception in 1996 I've tried to get into MLS.
I really have.
I keenly remember the first game between the San Jose Clash and DC United. I had more than one chuckle at the horror show that was Metrostars defender Rhett Hardy. Shit, I even went to the 2002 MLS Cup final in Foxboro. And sadly, I've wasted more than enough man hours watching the product and even still defending it to its inevitable bashers.
But as looking at the league, especially in the context of the entire footballing world, it's very very difficult to really "get into it." Shit, I can't even find a team worth putting my support behind. (Hello, I am a Colorado Rapids fan. I will now go punch myself in the testicles.)
My basic gripe to league commis Don Garber and the powers that be, is that the league is 100 percent totally inorganic. In essence it was a bunch of tents popped up in the desert 11 years ago, with a big boost from FIFA. In many ways the teams have more in common with a Subway franchise down the street than any other club around the rest of the world.
And maybe that's the biggest thing.
In America our pro sports teams are "franchises," ie a way to make money. Now there's no sense being naiive about how things happen in Europe or South America but those teams, for the most part, were founded sum 100 years ago as sporting clubs.
Who's your club?
It certainly has a nice ring to it. Better than, at least, "Embrace the colors of MLS."
Granted, the league is still in its infancy, so it's hard to really kill it. To be fair, the games themselves aren't all that bad, even if many times you have to strain to see the action over the gridiron lines.
I'll even credit the small, but vocal, "supporters" each club has on a game-in, game-out basis.
But for the most part there's a lot of apathy and soccer moms filling out the crowds, not exactly the way it is around the rest of the world.
However as much as us "soccerphiles/soccernistas/soccer nerds" want America to come in line with the rest of the world. How we desperately want songs to fill the terraces and create an atmosphere, it not going to happen any time soon.
That is, until someone finds a way to make America smaller.
Perhaps one of the essential things in Europe is that a fan can conceivably travel across the country to watch his club play at home or away. Everton is playing Charlton? A good scouser can make the trip from Liverpool to London via the train and make a day of it.
Conversly, how many New England Revolution fans are making the trek out to see the Revs play in Chicago, or anywhere but maybe New York or DC, for that matter?
And after 11 years, how many tried and true rivlaries are there in MLS? There's a bit of juice when New York plays DC and I guess the
That rant out of the way, here are a few specific points that need to be made about the league.
- DC United -- When you see a game being played at RFK, you see the Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles, front and center, and it looks like a place where it would be fun to see a game. RFK, according to Mr. Jon Satlin, is about as charming as your standard NYC Subway urinal. Doesn't matter if its not specific to soccer or not, it's got a charm of its own that the sterile new grounds being built will never have. (More on the stadiums below.) And it doesn't hurt that United has been a solid team that actually appears to be run by people that have a clue how soccer should be played. That's not even accounting for Freddy Adu. United has now had two great runs of success, more than most teams can. The league needs to look at these guys, if you field a good team, casual sports fans have to take notice.
- It's survived this long. -- Yeah, MLS has lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 million dollars. And yeah, billionaire Phil Anschultz has basically propped up the league by his reculsive lonesome. Still, not many thought it would make it this far, or for that matter, wanted it to. And with expansion heading North of the Border to Toronto, it looks like its here to stay.
- The "Beckham Rule" (if it ever happens) --MLS is almost noble in its near Communist committment to pay most players arounf $30,000 per year. (Athletes are overpaid in all sports, after all.) Still, adding a couple "high-priced" foreign talents can only help the game. If the Red Bulls want to add just about every aged star with a little trend left on the track, so be it. I know the league lives in fear of the way the New York Cosmos essentially bankrupted the NASL, but still. Adding some legitimate world class talents to the league's ranks can only help increase its profile both at home and overseas. Note: Beckman would basically be a curiosity and it's hard for real fans not to roll their eyes when they hear anyone unfamiliar with the game start yammering about Becks.
- National team depth -- It's a true testament to the league than when Bruce Arena selected his roster for the 2006 World Cup there was actually some debate. (Yes, Taylor Twellman got screwed.) We can thank MLS for developing more American warm bodies, so we're not forced to another decade of trotting out Wynalda, Harkes, Balboa, et al. This might be the league's most profound accomplishment, even with the disaster in Germany.
- Stadiums -- Ok, this might seem odd considering the growth of Soccer Specific Stadiums. And the league will give lip service that in order to turn a profit a team needs its own stadium. I'll give them that. However when the main focus of the league is building stadiums, as opposed to the on field product, well, that's a problem. Also, it bears noting, I caught a recent ESPN2 MLS game on a Saturday afternoon at the Chicago Fire's new Bridgeview Stadium. It was less than a month old and the crowd was sparse, at best. Put it this way, people do in fact go to a baseball game for a nice stadium. Has anyone attended an NFL contest because of a 'retro' design? There's a deeper, alterior motive behind the stadium boom. AEG owns the new digs in Los Angeles, Chicago and eventually New York and Denver. Aside from hosting MLS matches (never major internationals since they're too small for FIFA standards) they can now give the entertainment company a venue to stage concerts and other events and reap the entire profits. Bears watching. Lastly, aside from the Home Depot Center, the other SPS -- Pizza Hut Park, Crew Stadium and Bridgeview don't seem all that nice. I can only speak to Columbus since I have been there and it is a gloried high school football field. Sad. New venues cannot gloss over the league's other issues.
- The regular season -- It's pretty cut-and-dry, the MLS regular season carries little, if any weight. With eight of the 12 teams making the playoffs, is each and every game all that important, especially since what happens during the six-month regular season is thrown out the window in a playoff format. The league could easily improve the situation by going to a single-table format. Does winning the geographically distinguished Eastern and Western conferences mean much of anything? Nope. Obviously Americans are trained to decide their champions via a playoff, but soccer is different. Why should the value of five playoff games be weighted more than what happens over 30+ regular season games. That's a fairer and more indicative champion. Currently DC United is 13-2-6 with 45 points, 19 ahead of the Revs, of course that means nothing in the playoffs.
All StarSierra Mist All Star Game -- Ugh. To what benefit is it for the league's "best" to play Chelsea this weekend in Bridgeview, Ill.? Basically its a way for Chelsea to market itself in the States for a low cost, while the MLS gets to basically be sneered at and belittled, which it shouldn't be. If the league is constantly going to bring in a foreign side for the all-star game, why not have them play the team with the best record at the time OR the previous year's winner. Yeah, I like Shalrie Joseph as much as the next guy, but is he really lighting up television sets or getting fannies in the seats for a meaningless exhibition? (Making it more painful, it's likely Davey Boy O'Brien and 'Celo will call the game on ABC. "Joe Cole, he's an exciting left footed kicker.")
- Player development/acquiring -- In fairness, the level of play in MLS isn't all that terrible. It's just not terribly exciting. But what do you expect when the bulk of the league rosters are filled from players out of American colleges. The college system simply doesn't prodouce all that many players that can excite a crowd with their wizardry and vision, Furman's Clint Dempsey not witstanding. Here's an example. My final year at UConn, Husky leftback Chris Gbandi won the Hermann Trophy, the supposed best from the NCAA ranks. Currently he's barely a starter for FC Dallas, an adequate pro at best. When the league started they brought in some talented playmakers -- Roberto Donadoni, Carlos Valderama, Marco Etcheverry, etc. You need guys like this to spice up the otherwise pointless regular season. No one says you have to break the bank. But perhaps a guy like Jay-Jay Okocha would rather play in America than Qatar?
- Pandering to Soccer-Moms, et al -- Ok, I admit the league needs 'casual' fans. And bringing a team of Podunk United U12 Select All Stars puts fannies in the seats. But and its a major but, these types don't really care. It's an outing, an activity. I went to the Red Bulls debut on a shitty night in April and the 'real' fans many times implored the rest of the crowd to stand up, make some noise, do anything. It's nice that most teams have their 20-30 hardcorse drum bangers, but in NFL stadiums that just won't create very much atmosphere. MLS would be well served catering to disaffected 20 and 30 year old that want to go to games, drink a lot of beer and yell, swear and generally make an ass of yourself. With so many American sports becoming a) totally outpriced b) filled with suits and families, this ability to act like a drunken idiot is becoming smaller and smaller. MLS pick up the ball. Plus, believe it or not, singing in the stands is very addictive... even if it has to fight the PA system blaring out "Start Me Up." Soccer Moms may have cash and cater to the right demographic, yet they just don't have the passion the league needs.
- The name itself -- Major League Soccer simply sounds lame. It's one typo away from Major League Lacrosse.
- The Kansas City situation --Simply put there is no way the league should allow the embarassment that is the Wizards to be shown on any form of national television. You can inflate attendence numbers with fireworks and International doubleheaders, but nothing disguises roughly 4,000 fans turning out to a cavernous Arrowhead Stadium. What makes this sadder is that the Wiz have been an all together decent side for most of the league's 11 seasons. ... Also, why did the league relocate the Earthquakes to Houston and not the Wizards? At least there were about 10,000 diehards from the Bay Area that wanted to make it work. Oh right, the stadium b.s. Contract, move, disband. Do something. It serves the league no justice when FSC airs its first MLS game of 2006 and its in front of 70,000 orange seats disguised as fans. KC has no excuse, Lamar Hunt or not.
- Media attention -- I suppose I actually am part of the media. And I work for a medium sized paper and we devote about zero space to MLS. That's pretty much the case across the board. If I had my say there is nooooooo way I allow sports like the WNBA or IRL (even with Danica) to get more airtime on Sportscenter (even if it is the devil.) Most American sports fans aren't that intelligent. To them, unless it's on Sportscenter it doesn't exsist. So it you ever want to cater to the masses, you have to go to them. Sad but true. Also, force the AP game stringers to write more than six paragraphs on a game. So what if most newspapers won't read them, they'll still get posted on most websites and everyone know soccer fans in America, the growing hardcore ones, want information. If you allow your league to come off minor league and second rate, that's how most will think of you. Wag the friggin' dog. Right? Promote guys like FC Dallas's Kenny Cooper, a former ManU reserve. The guy is solid, but most people have no clue who he is. Pester as many sports editors as you can. Soccer really might be on the brink. For goodness sake I saw a little white spawn of soccer-mom wearing a Robinho jersey standing in line at Dairy Queen.
Still, Don Garber, et al, quit the lip service, the stadiums, etc. get it right.
On deck -- The unveiling of the first or our four part English Premier League preview. Oi!