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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Beckham’s Injury May Effect Landon Donovan’s Summer Plans

By rupturing his Achilles yesterday playing with AC Milan, David Beckham’s World Cup dreams are over. This, in footballing terms is not that great of a blow to England, as the Guardian’s Rob Smyth dryly notes. But this is a big blow for MLS and to the LA Galaxy who have now likely lost Becks until the very end of the season and possibly for good, due to Beckham’s age.

This is not only a blow to the team’s ability to win, as Beckham despite his age, clearly offered quality to the side and played an important role in the Galaxy’s run to the finals. But this is also a significant blow to the Galaxy’s bottom line. Beckham could still put butts in the seats and create a lot of buzz in Tinsel town, as well as all over the country. When the Galaxy went on the road, every team saw significant boosts in attendance when Beckham played – although that impact declined last year. The league is still losing its most marketable player and noteworthy player.

But this also raises the question Does Beckham injury make selling Landon Donovan after the World Cup less likely? The Galaxy, a fairly big spending club for MLS, would surely not want to lose their two best players and most marketable players even for a decent profit. Additionally, the league, which owns Donovan’s contract under the single ownership structure, will likely be more hesitant to sell, as it will mean losing their two most notable players.
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MLS Labor Brinksmanship – How its like the Cuban Missile Crisis

In my day job I follow international negotiations on nuclear issues (ie US treaty talks with Russia, international talks with Iran and North Korea). So when the MLS players came out of talks collective bargaining and publicly complained about the owners, only to be followed by the MLS to make their public case, I immediately thought US-Iranian nuclear tango or even the Cuban missile crisis. The basic problem we face as the American soccer public is that this is brinksmanship and brinksmanship can easily go awry.

There has been a ton of quality stuff written about the labor talks. Currently, there is no new deal and the existing deal has not been extended. So currently we are in labor limbo. However, those relieved that the players didn’t immediately strike, should think again, Ives notes that the players wouldn’t strike until they have leverage – ie right before the season. In short, there is a brief window for both sides to pull back from the brink of nuclear war if you will.

Both sides are trying to show the other that they have the stones to push the button. There is a strategy behind brinksmanship, as it can convince the other side of ones willingness to walk away, thereby demonstrating negotiating redlines which can facilitate compromise. But this type of brinksmanship is very dangerous. Things can easily get out of control and lead to nuclear war – err, a strike. As distrust mounts, tensions rise, and previously idle threats becoming increasingly real there is a dangerous tendency for hotter heads prevail. The problem is that while both sides may understand the implications of a strike/lock out they get trapped in their own posturing and rhetoric.

The negotiation no longer becomes about striking the best deal in this particular negotiation, but about sending a broader message. In another words, the negotiation becomes more a battle of wills than about any particular issue. In that sense this negotiation is not really about free agency, it is about future negotiations – ie if we give in now, we look weak and the other side will only demand more or give less the next time around. Thus, the players and owners both believe that if they concede to the others demands, they will feel they will be weaker the next go around. The owners fret that their whole model – ie their whole way of life, if this were politics – were at stake in these negotiations. The players will feel that if they can’t get more now, they will forever be downtrodden. In this view, it is not as if there isn’t ground for a compromise, but each side is taking a bit harder line than they would if this was not going to be an on-going relationship.
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DC United’s Stadium Saga Not As Lifeless As It May Seem

There is reason to be optimistic about DC United’s stadium situation. While almost every interview that United gives about the stadium seems to say very little, there are some tidbits and some things that can be gleaned from reading between the lines.

Steve Goff at Soccer Insider has an interview revealing that while Will Chang, current owner of DC United, is fully committed, he is looking for additional local investors to bolster the finances of the team. Chang also expressed his strong desire to stay in DC, and while saying they couldn’t play in RFK forever, he wouldn’t put a deadline for how long. In other words, what that tells me is that Chang is in this for the long term and is willing to stick it out and take losses for the long term potential of the DC market. Kevin Payne the team’s President told Goff:

We have conversations on-going. Baltimore is studying the issue now with their consultants. We have a conversation on-going with a developer and others in Virginia and there is a conversation going in D.C. But I am not going to talk about any details at all. We think that, when the time is right and there is more to talk about and we can speak intelligently about any of these options, we will do so.” … “I am optimistic that we will have a long-term solution for a stadium, but I am not going to try to predict where it will be.”… “I think we will have clarity this year… 2010. … These are complex and sensitive conversations and it’s best not to talk a whole lot about them until there’s something definitive to talk about.”

What this suggests is that all options for a stadium are on the table, but all of these option will require additional private investors. Therefore the news that Chang is reaching out to local investors, combined with Payne’s comments that there will be clarity this year would seem to indicate:

1. Chang and United are really committed to staying in the DC area. You wouldn’t go out and get local investors if you wanted to leave, would you?

2. A stadium plan has to be in the works. Why if you were a local investor would you invest money in a money-losing club if there is no prospect for a stadium – that financially makes no sense. Investors would only invest if there was something to invest in, and that means there are likely some prospective deals, but each of these would require United to bring more money to the table. In other words, Fenty says you can build a stadium at Poplar, but the city will at most put up X, meaning you will have to get Y. So the team is out trying to get Y.
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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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Second thoughts on Perkins and DC United’s “dumb” trade

I may have been a little harsh in my assessment of the DC United – Philly Union trade. I called it “dumb.” Thinking about it a bit more that was kinda of a “dumb” reactionary assessment. There is clearly a logic to this deal for United.

One of the most frustrating things about the deal, is that Philly clearly made out like gangbusters and forced United to pay a hefty price for the right to sign Perkins. It does have to be taken into account when assessing this deal that United it significantly helped its arch-rival. This is why Arsenal and Spurs, Liverpool and Man United, don’t do deals. Still, while I think United paid too high a price, they did get their man.

From United’s perspective they just signed one of the top five American goalkeepers for the next decade. Perkins is 28, someone United knows, a player that left Europe not because he couldn’t cut it but for family reasons, and most importantly he will probably be with United for the next decade.
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DC United’s Dumb Trade

News broke yesterday that DC United has traded with Philadelphia for the rights to sign Troy Perkins who is leaving Norway to resign with the league. Perkins is an excellent keeper and United have been struggling to replace him since he left a couple of years ago. With Josh Wicks injured, getting a goal keeper was a top priority for United, so in that sense United got their man. But at what price?

In my view, United simply gave away way way too much. In exchange for the right to sign Perkins, United gave away Fred and the #7 pick in the draft. Fred’s form had slipped over the past couple of years, but there were hopes that he would regain his productive form, as he is just turned 30. United resigned him with this in mind, thinking that Fred could help fill the void at attacking midfield that will likely be left by the departure of Christian Gomes. Trading Fred for Perkins would be worth it.

But trading Fred and fist round pick is a huge price. United’s two first round picks last year, Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace were instant starters and look like potential national team players – Pontius is in the USMNT Jan camp and Wallace may play the always scarce left back position (he also may have to chose between Costa Rica and the US). This was also a fairly deep draft, so much so that there is good reason to think United could have drafted someone to contribute right away.
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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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