Assessing US Soccer After the World Cup – Our Floor is Higher Now on the Field, We Turned a Corner Off

Every four years a presidential election allows us to take stock of the state of the nation – where the country stands on issues, its demographic shifts, and its cultural views. The World Cup does the same for same; it allows us to take stock of the state of the American soccer nation.
So what did we learn about U.S. soccer after Brazil? On the field, the team looked a lot like the ones before, but the we now have a better foundation for which to build due to MLS. Off the field, we turned a real corner off the field, and shocked the world with the level of our support.

The 2010 Team was better, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t progressing. When looking to judge the progress of American soccer, we usually ask is this team better than the last? But in many ways this last cycle was going to be one of transition. We changed coaches a year in and our two best attacking players Donovan and Dempsey were now over 30.

Not only were Donovan and Dempsey both in their prime in 2010, but often forgotten about the 2010 cycle was that three massive injuries devastated the squad prior to the tournament. In September 2010, Charlie Davies almost died, Oguchi Onyewu the next day tore his ACL, and Stuart Holden got DeJunged with a broken leg right after moving to Bolton in a March friendly. It is safe to say that if those injuries didn’t happen those three players would have been among our best 10 outfield players. Holden and Onyewu still made the 23 man roster but clearly weren’t ready. With those three players a starting 11 of Altidore and Davies, Dempsey and Donovan wide, Holden and Bradley in midfield, and a Bocanegra-Onyewu-Demerit-Cherundolo (the back line that anchored the 09 Confederations Cup) would have been formidable. Instead, our depth was challenged and Bradley had to tinker to find replacements. This cycle we were actually quite fortunate with injuries until the Great Hamstring Outbreak struck during the tournament (…not to mention Klinsmann’s own-goal of leaving Donovan behind). But based on the collection of players it is fairly apparent that the quality in the 2014 cycle just was not quite as good as the 2010 cycle.

…But that doesn’t mean we aren’t progressing. While the 2010 squad was probably better, it was also heavily Euro-based. This is why we can feel pretty good about the progression of American soccer. This team was an MLS based team. Against Germany seven of our starters played in MLS and showed throughout the tournament that they were in the same class as their opposition. That players like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Kyle Beckerman showed so well on the world stage after playing their whole careers in MLS is something that should make us optimistic about the future, as MLS has shown it can produce quality players. This doesn’t mean players shouldn’t still look to challenge themselves in better leagues. But for many, like Kyle Beckerman, that opportunity may just never materialize. Yet Beckerman’s career shows that you don’t have to leave MLS to develop and to be a key cog in the UMNT. That’s very very good news for US soccer.

With the progress in MLS, we can now expect going forward to have a much deeper USMNT player pool, which should help ensure that we are always competitive. In other words, the ceiling for the 2010 team may have been higher than 2014, but the floor was also probably lower. Due to MLS, the floor for the USMNT is now much higher than it was.

But there’s some reason to be a little nervous… Continue reading


MLS Playoffs Are Great! But Lose The Wild Card

Playoffs matter in American sports and the MLS playoffs are showing why. In a country with a packed sports marketplace it is difficult for regular season play to really captivate the country. All the other major professional sports, except for the NFL, similarly rely on the playoffs to serve as their premier national platform. This year’s MLS playoffs thus far have produced exciting, enthralling games and are showing that playoffs can do for MLS what they do for other American sports. It is safe to say, that the playoffs are here to stay.

Yet just because these playoffs have produced some great match ups and some great games that doesn’t mean the format is perfect. The fact that a team from the east can potentially play for the western conference title is bizarre. The limited time between the games and the travel involved definitely takes a toll on the players. Not all of these problems have simple solutions. The league obviously wants the best teams in regardless of conference. It also wants to have as long a regular season as possible and is in a race against the weather to get the playoffs in before winter sets in.

But the main thing MLS should change is the 10 team playoff format. The two mid-week wild card games were unnecessary. Not only was attendance fairly abysmal for these games, but the fact that they are midweek create a lot of travel uncertainties for the non-wild card teams. And since the lower seeded teams host the first game in the home and away series, this creates less time to promote the match up and sell tickets. Yes without them we would have not had the New York-LA match up. But it is hardly an advantage for LA – the #1 seed – to find out on late Wednesday that they have the schlep across the country.
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Prospects for a DC United Stadium Might Not Be Hopeless

The Washington City Paper has a good overall rundown on the state of DC United’s stadium search. As we all know it’s not pretty. In the campaign for Mayor both Mayor Fenty and challenger Vince Gray have adopted essentially the same line on the stadium – we want United in DC, but economic times are bad so it’s doubtful we can build them a stadium.

This should not come as shocking to DC residents or to the residents of almost every municipality in the country. The era of tax-payer funded stadiums is likely over, especially in a city like DC that essentially just got hosed by MLB to spend more than $600 billion for the Nationals stadium.

While Fenty didn’t find away to make it work for DC United, I think the real bad guy in this situation was DC United’s initial owner Victor MacFarlane who really just cared about getting a land give away and building lots of condos. But even after all that, it was still quite plausible that DC United would have been part of the Poplar Point redevelopment plan. But that plan crashed and burned with the economic crash.

While it might be conceivable that the city of Baltimore decides to swoop in and build United a new stadium, don’t bet on it. Remember United thought they had a deal with stadium friendly PG County, but that fell through when it became politically unpalatable in the downturn. State and local governments in Maryland are facing tough budget choices just as DC is and political support for soccer, let alone any sport, is likely going to be minimal if not non-existent.
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Donovan’s MLS Price Tag Is Not Ridiculous

There has been a lot of outraged reaction to Martin Rogers reporting that Landon Donovan’s price tag by MLS was $16 million. In my mind that seems pretty much right on the money.

The point made by many is that $16 million for a 28 year old, who therefore has little resale value, makes little financial sense. Others note that Donovan is not good enough to merit that price tag. There are a few things worth point out here.

First, we are talking dollars not pounds. 16 million dollars is just 10 million pounds. Now 10 million pounds is a lot of money, but when you look at the outlays of the previous years – Robbie Keane at 28 to Liverpool for 20 million, Gareth Barry to Man City for 20 plus at 28 – this sum appears quite reasonable.

Second, buying Donovan gets a team access into the US market. Any purchase of Donovan isn’t just about how he performs on the field, it is about gaining a foothold into the growing US market. After the World Cup, he is by far the most recognized American soccer player and has become somewhat of a celebrity. The World Cup increased his value, especially to the league. This is why a team like Man City showed interest in Donovan. And why a league like MLS values Donovan highly.
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Doh! Rapids Marketing Director “Would Kill For” What Seattle Has – An Urban Stadium

The great blog Footiebusiness has an interview with the Director of Marketing for the Colorado Rapids. I have noted before that soccer specific stadiums were no panacea for MLS teams, especially when placed in far out suburbs. The argument goes that playing so far outside of town prevents that young 20 something urbanite – the demographic group that is the core of the hardcore fan – from getting engaged. Well it turns out that the Rapids agree with this assessment:

FB: Although still in its infancy, Seattle is being trumpeted as a “model” franchise for purposes of marketing and fan outreach. Are their any lessons that an established franchise like Colorado can take from Seattle’s efforts?

KC: Sure. All the teams in the league have heard that success story. There are certain elements to their success. They set their club up right from the get go. They are very involved in their supporters group. They also have some of the benefits that we may not be directly benefiting from like a stadium directly downtown. They have bars that you can walk to which is something we would kill for.

So the Rapids would now “kill” to have bars in walking distance. Hmm, maybe they should have thought about that when they built there stadium out in the middle of nowhere! Seattle’s situation isn’t unique – other cities can also be like Seattle, provided they locate their stadiums in central urban areas, work hard to develop an authentic and engaged fanbase, and put out a good product on the field.

What MLS teams didn’t count on in going after the family friendly Disney like suburban environment is that to build a sustainable franchise you have to make people care and want to follow. Not just attend, but to follow. Making the experience an authentic and emotionally powerful experience as possible is critical to developing a following. The Rapids have figured this out by setting up a supporters section and limiting the day-of game promotions.

But ultimately one the key’s that Seattle has discovered is that they have made going to games part of the nightlife entertainment scene and therefore it has become part of the cities social fabric. And its not just about the game, it is also what happens before the game. The Sounders have been a boon to the bars near by and the walk to the stadium before the game is a fantastic community/crowd building event. In short, the Sounders, much as Barra Brava did with DC United have built a community around the team.

It seems hard for me to see how this can really be created by the Rapids in Commerce City or FC Dallas in Frisco. Perhaps the Rapids could provide a shuttle bus for supporters back to downtown or to other parts of the city.

The Case For MLS Clubs Going Regional

While I think MLS teams are doing a relatively good job in their own local markets, especially with attendance, I think they are missing big opportunities to grow their brands and potentially the leagues TV revenues. TV numbers for MLS on ESPN are not great and the notion of the World Cup tv bounce appears to have been a myth. To grow TV viewership, which is key to financial growth of the sport, teams need to think regionally and should play some games in other surrounding cities.

While this won’t work for all teams, there are certain teams that can definitely expand their reach. The nature of professional sports in the US is that most fans of a team are unable to regularly – if ever – attend their team’s games. Hence, the importance of tv ratings and viewership. Teams like the Redskins aren’t just DC’s team, they are Virginia’s team. The Patriots and Red Sox aren’t just Boston’s teams, they are New England’s as well. The Braves aren’t just Atlanta, they are the south’s team. In other sports, cities and regions surrounding professional teams have coverage of this team on local tv and in the local newspaper. MLS teams tend to get coverage almost exclusively from their direct locale, not from surrounding cities in their region. They need to try to broaden their reach.

MLS teams play a substantial amount of games in the league, US Open Cup, Superliga, Champions League, a few games a year can be played elsewhere. DC United for instance already does this with the US Open Cup playing some games in the Maryland Soccer Plex in Montgomery County. The Boston Breaker of the WPS recently played in Hartford to good effect.

One way to do this is for MLS clubs to play a few games a year in neighboring cities. MLS clubs play a good amount of games in a lot of different competitions from the league itself, US Open Cup, Superliga, and CONCACAF Champions League, if the NFL can spare a home game to play in London, MLS clubs can do the same.

Now in some places this won’t work – attendance will be low, logistics will be too complicated, facilities won’t be suitable or won’t be available. But for some of the lower profile games such as in the US Open Cup, I don’t really see how teams could do much worse in terms of attendance. Furthermore, the novelty aspect of an MLS team playing in a city that likely never gets professional soccer, should prove to be a decent draw and will draw some local media attention as well. For instance, if DC United were to play a game in Richmond or Virginia Beach local press would give that game considerable coverage. Additionally, some potential rivalry games could be played at neutral sights – ala the “World’s largest cocktail party” between Georgia and Florida is played in Jacksonville. One could imagine Columbus and Philadelphia playing in Pittsburgh for instance or Philadelphia and DC playing in Baltimore.

Now doing this would have some drawbacks. In some cases attendance would be pathetic, it would cost clubs money by sacrificing a home game, it could step on the toes of smaller clubs in those markets, and it could annoy overtaxed players. But really the downside in trying to do this is very low.

Here are some teams that would benefit from going regional:
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DC United Fires Onalfo – About Time

Curt Onalfo seems like a nice guy and it isn’t largely his fault for United’s disastrous season. But still he deserves a good chunk of blame. Yes United have been hit with injuries. Yes in many ways this was always a rebuilding year for them. Yes they got unlucky with some late goals and blunders. But this team should not be this bad. If being the worst team in the league isn’t enough to get you canned I am not sure what is.

Steve Goff described a source that said this is a “panicky” decision. Perhaps. But United should be panicking. Something had to be done and firing a manager that had really done nothing to inspire confidence that he could get this team playing well made this pretty clearly warranted.
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MLS Can’t Stop At 20 Teams – It Must Become A National League

WV Hooligan is adamant that MLS take a break from expansion at 20 teams. This makes sense since at 20 teams the league will have reached the size of other big time leagues, it will give it time to consolidate and will give time to allow for the quality of the league to improve. All these points are true. But frankly MLS has to get bigger than 20 teams, because even at 20 teams it will still not be a national league.

MLS lacks national reach and it is not just because three of its teams are/will be in Canada, but also because the league specifically targeted smaller niche markets like Columbus and Salt Lake City in order to have less competition from other sports. Both these franchises have largely paid off and the coming conquest of the Pacific Northwest with Portland and Vancouver – similarly small or midsize markets – were probably wise expansion moves, especially considering the down economy.

But lets get real for a second. The key to growing a leagues revenue is the growth of television viewership and therefore TV rights. Hence, leagues need to go where the people are, since they need to expand its viewership base. Many millions of America will never live close enough to an MLS team to regularly go to the games. To connect with these folks the league needs to not just put out an engaging product, but it needs to give these people a team to route for. All other major pro sports have 30+ teams (NBA, NHL, MLB all have 30, the NFL has 32). MLS doesn’t need to get close to that number soon, but it does need to have a presence throughout the country.
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MLS Expansion… Now’s The Time To Push

Many have questioned whether the World Cup would provide a boost to MLS. They have rightly pointed out that past big national team tournaments didn’t really have an impact on MLS attendance. But these writers are looking at the place. The World Cup for MLS was not about gaining fans, it was about gaining investors. And gaining investors is about increasing their confidence in the stability of the game in the US. That is why the World Cup was so huge. No one now can question the stability of the game.

While the economy is still depressed, the country has been jolted by soccer. The 25 million people watching the final, the excitement and enthusiasm for the US team and the outpouring of rage after getting robbed against Slovenia and the explosion of joy against Algeria, should drive home that soccer is not going anywhere. Furthermore, the average of the viewer during the World Cup was just 37 – a considerably younger demographic than other sports, demonstrating both that soccer has a bright future and that it is a marketing goldmine. Add the fact that ESPN – the “worldwide leader in sports” is fully on board – and you have a situation where an investor should be extremely confident about dumping money into the sport.

As a result, MLS stands to see a potential windfall. MLS is cheap and the most obvious place to invest. You can buy a team for a paltry $40 million and get in on the ground floor of a sport primed to expand. The interest and enthusiasm in the league is already apparent. Atlanta business owners have banded together to promote soccer and push for MLS. Investments in high profile designated players is expanding. And chatter has increased of Premier League sides buying teams and existing teams move to new stadiums.
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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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