MLS’ Future Is Not In The Suburbs

This past weekend a winless and pathetic DC United attracted more than 18,000 fans to a collapsing and cavernous relic of a stadium on a chili evening in Washington. Yet in Denver, the Colorado Rapids, possessing a respectable record and playing in a shiny and recently built stadium attracted less than 10,000 fans. There is something very wrong with this picture.

The hard fact that MLS must come to realize is that even if you build it (a new soccer-specific stadium) they still may not come. Now there are many contributing factors for these differences in popularity – from cultural elements in these cities, to successful management and marketing, to on the field success, but the fact is that the location of new stadiums really matter. Colorado plays in the middle of nowhere, while DC plays in the city center located on two metro lines. The fundamental lesson that MLS must learn is that its future is not in the burbs but in the cities.

If you look around the league where the crowds are strong they are all teams with stadiums in urban locations – Seattle, New York, Toronto, DC, and Los Angeles. The teams with disappointingly low attendance are almost all due to teams with stadiums in the suburbs.

Not only do suburban based teams do more poorly at the gates than urban ones, but by strategically catering to a suburban clientèle they also fail to develop an intense and passionate fan base that is vital to penetrating local sports culture and ancillary revenues – like jersey sales. By building stadiums in the middle of nowhere, these franchises may have doomed themselves to cultural irrelevance within their respective cities for the next quarter century. A stadium should not be pursued for simply the sake of a new stadium, such short term cost calculus, will hurt long term profitability and viability of franchises – and will as a result hurt the growth of the game.

The Example of Dicks Sporting Goods Park

Before Dicks Sporting Goods Park opened, the Rapids averaged throughout their tenure 14,299 playing at Mile High Stadium(s). At the new soccer specific Dicks Sporting Goods Park, the average has been just 13,593. That means the Rapids averaged more at the more centrally located, yet cavernous football stadium than at a stadium designed for soccer. One can also not attribute this drop in attendance to performance. While Colorado was not very good in 07 and 08, they were quite credible last year, yet regardless, they saw their lowest level of attendance yet.

Why is attendance so poor, despite a brand new stadium? I am not from Denver, but Dicks is very far from much of the population centers – including other suburbs south of the city. The stadium is so far on the outskirts that it actually borders a wildlife preserve! Dicks is not all that far from downtown, about 20 minute drive with no traffic. But there seem to be absolutely no public transit options. The website for Dicks Sporting Goods Park for instance only offers driving directions, because frankly there are no transit options. And while this maybe typical for the U.S., Denver actually has a decent light rail system and has vibrant centrally located neighborhoods. Urban 20 somethings looking for nightlife and entertainment, unlike in Seattle, DC and Toronto, are less likely to make the trek out for a game.

The same problems affecting Colorado, also affect other suburban locations such as Dallas, New England and to a lesser extent Chicago.

Why Suburbs Fail

For most of the last decade the major emphasis of the league has been to push franchises to get there own stadiums. The reasons behind this make a lot of sense. Soccer-specific stadiums demonstrate the league’s permanence and owning a stadium gives each franchise a significant monetary boost, since stadium ownership yields significant revenue in advertising, naming rights, and other royalties. As a result it is likely that Dallas made more money in their home opener that attracted 10,000 less fans than DC, which has to pay rent. Despite the attendance woes of certain clubs, owning your own stadium remains crucial to an MLS franchise’s long term viability.
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Why MLS Is Set For A Breakthrough Year

With the threat of a strike over and with the league making steady progress year after year, there are lots of reasons to think that this year could be a breakthrough year for Major League Soccer.

What do I mean by breakthrough? For instance, if you look at 2009, I would argue that it was a breakthrough year for the US national team. The confederations cup performance created a huge amount buzz at home and abroad. It got people talking about soccer. The traditional sports media were forced to take notice – Dan Patrick had Landon Donovan on his radio show twice, ESPN’s SportsNation talked about the game, and American newspapers gave it extensive coverage. Similarly, the US-Mexico game received unprecedented hype for a qualifier – NPR covered it in their news updates, ESPN sent a whole crew, and Bill Simmons declared his love for yanks. On top of this, ESPN got very serious about soccer – they bought the rights to the Premier League and demonstrated that they would go all out on the World Cup. Furthermore, more US players landed abroad in top leagues – Onyewu to Milan, Davies to France, Jozy to England. US Soccer after the last year is now suddenly quite respected abroad and increasingly followed at home. In that sense, 09 was a real breakout year.

In this sense, I think MLS is primed for a similar year, in which the mainstream American sports world begins to take notice in a serious way. I think MLS will have a number of things going for it.

First, and most importantly, the northeast corridor of the United States – America’s cultural and economic heart (sorry Cali) – is going to get a soccer jolt.
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Exclusive: Tottenham Hotspur and San Jose Earthquakes Developing A Special Relationship

This was cross-posted at Huffington Post Sports.

While other MLS clubs are preparing for the new season by playing lower tier US clubs, the San Jose Earthquakes are in London testing themselves against Premier League competition and practicing at the training facility of Premier League risers Tottenham Hotspur. What is an MLS club doing in London?

The preseason trip to the UK is a result of a partnership that was penned between the two clubs in 2008. This agreement was hardly unique. Throughout the last decade MLS clubs have announced with great fanfare a variety of partnerships with various big international clubs. The LA Galaxy signed an agreement with Chelsea and Arsenal with the Colorado Rapids. While the initial signings of these partnerships brought a lot of initial interest, to most close followers of MLS little has seemed to come from these deals. But as this preseason trip demonstrates, meat is starting to be added to the bones of these agreements.

The Earthquakes by all accounts have had a fantastic week, defeating both a Spurs (1-0) and West Ham (2-0) reserve side that included Premier League regulars. They also beat western conference rivals, the Colorado Rapids (2-0), who have a partnership with Arsenal. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp told the Huffington Post that he has

“been impressed with our US partners the San Jose Earthquakes; they’ve been well organised and extremely competitive against some good opposition.”

Clive Allen, former Spurs player and head Development Coach was quoted on the Earthquakes website, “they are hoping to achieve a lot more this time around and with the players they’ve brought in and the strength of that squad, it certainly looks that they are capable of doing just that.”
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Options For Expansion

[See part 1 here]

Expansion depends on a lot of different factors: a wealthy and committed ownership group, an amenable local government, the economic climate and the country. Therefore league expansion is not something that can simply be determined by the league in its corporate headquarters. However, given the last round of expansion into smaller markets, there are markets I believe the league has to move to expand its profitability and the game.

Lets assess MLS’s presence throughout the country.

Pacific Northwest:
When 2009 started MLS had no presence in the Pacific northwest, when 2011 season starts, MLS will have a greater presence in this soccer friendly region than any other professional sport. This region will be saturated.

California: Three teams, one in the south bay in San Jose and two LA teams playing in the same stadium. Chivas has been a disappointment and I think in retrospect a franchise focused on a specific ethnic group was a mistake and has created what has at times been an ugly rivalry with their “Gringos” rivals. Furthermore, LA is a huge city geographically, yet Chivas plays in the same stadium as the Galaxy. This is a waste of a franchise in terms of expanding the geographic breadth of the league. Additionally, San Jose has yet to get a stadium and are located in the south bay, a considerable distance from San Francisco proper and the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkley. Major cities with no team: San Diego, San Francisco/Oakland (North and East bay)
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A Plan For MLS Expansion

MLS has grown rapidly over the last half decade and is on the cusp of becoming a true national league. Following the contraction of Tampa and Miami early this decade, MLS has placed franchises in Houston, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Toronto, a second team in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia and next year Portland and Vancouver. This will give the league 18 teams, 16 in the US and 2 in Canada. Yet with the league approaching that magical number of 20 teams, in which pressure will grow for a pause in expansion, it is still absent in some major markets and regions of the country. How MLS manages the next round of expansion will greatly impact the efforts to make MLS a big mainstream pro sports league in the US.

Current Expansion Climate

With the success of past expansions, the addition of Beckham and the clear growth of MLS and the game in general, there is significant interest in bringing MLS to cities throughout North America. The league therefore has been able to increase the expansion fee, require set stadium plans, and has been able to play cities off each other.
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Thoughts On The MLS Labor Negotiations

I am not all that familiar with the history of MLS labor negotiations, but the heated rhetoric and threats of a lockout or strike have clearly raised the temperature to a point where we should all be concerned to a point.

Having followed international negotiations at times in my day job, much of this is following a similar pattern. And I think it’s pretty clear that these negotiations haven’t really started yet.

We are in the posturing stage. With both sides making uncompromising doomsdayish statements mentioning the s-word “strike” or the L-word “lock-out”. Both sides are trying to convince the other of their sincerity in their willingness to blow up the league. While this form of brinksmanship is common and to be expected in negotiations, brinksmanship can also get out of control and that’s what we have to worry about here.

The owners want the status quo, while the players want far-reaching changes as MatchFit notes (read there great primer on the negotiations). Therefore it is in the interests of owners to stall talks, because the far-reaching structural changes wanted by the players, would take a lot of time to negotiate so as you get closer to the deadline there becomes little chance of these major structural changes to the league happening. I think that’s why you are seeing a lot of heated rhetoric from the players and accusations that the League is not really negotiating in good faith – because they aren’t.

Frankly, I don’t think there is anyway the league is going to agree to change their basic single-entity operating structure. But I bet they are willing to compromise on salary issues and quality of life issues and perhaps guaranteed contracts. Therefore, I think if a deal gets done it will be finalized at the last minute in a flurry of activity with the players giving up for now their larger demands in return for significant improvements in wages and overall treatment.

But the danger here is that all this brinksmanship goes awry. One could easily see a situation, in which the owners overplay their hand and the players, extremely pissed that the owners haven’t even considered their larger demands, decide to walk away. The owners really shouldn’t underestimate the willingness of really badly paid and treated players to go to the mattresses on this.

However, there are two big reasons not to panic yet and to believe that a deal will get done.
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The Decade American Soccer Arrived

As the sun sets on the 00s, it is worth an initial look back on the decade that was and some thoughts on the decade that will be. While politically, economically, and socially this will be seen as one of the worst decades in memory, when it comes to soccer, this is the decade that American soccer finally arrived.

1. USMNT became a respected, even feared, international team.
As the decade began playing the United States was seen internationally, as playing Trinidad or New Zealand. We were seen as a push over, a minnow of the soccer world. This lack of respect was vividly demonstrated in the BBC’s 30 min lead in program to the USA-Portugal 2002 world cup game, where Gary Linnekar and Alan Hansen never even talked about the US team. Now, following the confederations cup and more and more Americans playing abroad, there is a genuine respect for the US side coming from the vast majority of English commentators. We are no longer seen as a push over. Moreover, during this decade the US-Mexico rivalry reached another level, with the US overtaking Mexico as the Kings of CONCACAF, evidenced by winning in the 02 round of 16 in the World Cup, the 2 World Cup qualifications of the decade and the 07 Gold Cup, which sent the US to the Confederations Cup. This rivalry is shaping up as one of the best international soccer rivalries in the world. We are not world beaters yet, but we are among the stronger of the second tier of soccer nations.

What does the next decade hold? The progress over this past decade has been remarkable and that should continue. However, I think few will expect the US to win a World Cup this decade, but as 2020 draws to a close we will begin to creep into the conversation. There will be some setbacks. And I think one of the three tournaments will be seen as really disappointing, but overall the national team like the game overall will continue its rise.
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The Jan Camp and Replacing Charlie Davies

Jan Camp Opened Door For Davies

I disagree with Jamie Trecker almost completely. Trecker dismisses the need for a January USMNT training camp and argues that USSF money could be better spent elsewhere. Now I have no idea how much this camp costs. But unless it is astronomically high, this camp is well worth it, especially now.

Let’s take the case of Charlie Davies. While Davies was an emerging player of interest late 2008, let us not forget the kid basically came out of nowhere. We forget that the first game that Charlie Davies started for the USMNT in a match that mattered was against Egypt in the confederations cup. Davies played an extremely bit part in all the previous qualifiers and even failed to make the bench on a number of occasions. He was such a bit part in 2008 that he didn’t play in the Olympics save for the last 10 minutes of the final game against Nigeria. A year later Davies was starting against Mexico in Azteca!

While Davies was called in that fall to play an irrelevant game against Trinidad, I would argue that it was the January camp that solidified his position as a solid option for the national team. Davies started against Sweden and no doubt impressed Bob Bradley during that camp, laying the groundwork for his future national team inclusion.

So why is the camp useful?
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Assessing US Player Development – Creating A Uniquely American System

Critical to America’s growth as a soccer power is improving player development. While other countries with a long footballing pedigree have massive and sophisticated development systems ingrained into their national cultures, the US is essentially building a system without much of a foundation. As the youth soccer revolution has exploded, it has also exposed some flaws and revealed a void in the later stages of player development. Youth players were dropping off once they got to middle school and high school, choosing other sports instead. Many players from poorer families were gradually losing access to the game, unable to continue playing at a high level, as traveling teams simply cost too much. And the national academy set up at Bradenton, while attracting and developing talented players, simply lacked the breadth to really make a massive structural impact.

However, considerable progress has occurred over the last decade. While there are those that disagree, I tend to think things are largely going in the right direction. But this is not a call for complacency. If the US is going to get to that next level as a soccer power, considerable action will have to be taken to develop and reform US player development.

So what needs to be done? In my view there is no silver bullet to solve the challenges confronting US player development. There is no one-size fits all system or solution that can simply be applied from on high. We are simply too large a country geographically, too diverse, and too socio-economically disparate. Instead it is about creating a layered system that will both prevent players from falling through the cracks and will give young players reasonable options in deciding their future. This means that for the US player development to start humming we will need all levels – professional (MLS, NASL?/USL), educational (NCAA, high school), and federation (USSF youth teams, Bradenton). Continue reading

Good for Donovan, Now What About Holden?

With all the talk of Donovan going to Everton, there has been little in the rumor mill about Stuart Holden? Holden, born in Scotland, has a UK passport and can therefore play anywhere in Europe and is not beholden to the evil UK Home Office and those pesky work permits. So a move to Europe is a certainty. But where?

Holden told the New York Times, “he is considering offers from overseas” but wouldn’t rule out MLS. Where Stuart Holden goes is probably more important to our World Cup team then Donovan. Holden is critical to rounding out our World Cup squad. If he can lock down a place in the starting 11 on the right side, than Bradley can easily more up Donovan or Dempsey to the second striker spot. Holden landing in Europe is critical, but it is also critical that he land well. It is potentially disastourous if Holden were to go to Europe and not play. Allan Ramsey explains the dilemma:

Holden faces the same dilemma that has plagued U.S. players over the last few years. Pick a team that has too much talent, but plays in a good league, and risk riding the pine, or pick a team that you should be an unquestioned starter for and risk moving out of the direct sight lines of Bob Bradley and U.S. Soccer.

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