Monday, April 3, 2006

MLS 2006 – Sowing Another Seed of Hope

MLS
The U.S. domestic league kicked off its second decade yesterday with survival still the key and a sense of established security still elusive.

Everyone is Europe asks if and when football is going to grow in America and the answer is still the same: Give it time.

If crowds are the measure of success then MLS is either stagnant or stable, depending on how you look at it. Attendances have stayed at around 15,000 over the past decade although some clubs do better than others. The LA Galaxy drew a respectable 21,677 average last season and new arrivals Real Salt Lake were second on 18,037 and Chivas USA fourth with 17,080.

The league is certainly in better financial health than before having jettisoned its lowly-supported teams, moved into new stadia and signed a recent $150 million sponsorship deal with Adidas, and will still leap at any opportunity to cash in if European clubs want to sign its players.

Last year the league took the unprecedented step of revealing some salary figures, which made interesting reading. Top of the pile was LA’s Landon Donovan on $900,000 but at the other end Chicago's Gonzalo Segares took home a measly $11,700.

Teammate Chris Rolfe, who recently played striker for the US National Team, collected a paltry $16,500 while fellow US international Clint Dempsey, who scored against England last summer and got the winner in the US' recent win over Poland, earned a modest $57,875, some way behind their European colleagues and light years behind the stars of America’s major sports leagues.

The new season sees the first franchise move in the league's history with the San Jose Earthquakes, one of the league's top teams, moving from Northern California to Texas to become the Houston Dynamo.

The Earthquakes had been losing money hand over fist renting a stadium from San Jose State University, and MLS, which still controls the clubs centrally, was not prepared to sustain the losses for another season.

Houston, the nation's fourth largest city with a substantial Hispanic and football-loving population, was an obvious candidate for expansion. But the initial team name of Houston 1836, with its commemoration of Anglo-American victory, offended that very Latin community the league had angled to appeal to, so the name was swiftly and embarrassingly changed to the less offensive Dynamo.

This was par for the course for MLS, which had seen two teams vanish (Miami and Tampa Bay) as well as four name changes in its first ten years.

There have been several such 'seminal' moments since MLS was born in 1996, the question remaining how many of these scattered seeds will truly take root in the long term. At least the days of playing on Astroturf with American Football markings, 35 yard shoot out to settle drawn matches and jazzy stadium announcements during the game are over.

Chicago will also open the nation's fourth professional soccer-specific stadium when they kick off in June at their 20,000 capacity Bridgeview home. Because of construction delays the Fire will oddly play their first nine games away and then have nine in a row at home from late June to mid August.

Five of the league's twelve sides will be playing in their own football-only stadia, which is the key to maximizing revenue and keeping the league going. A further four have stadium plans in place so the days of 15,000 crowds drowning in 80,000 seat NFL bowls should soon be over.

The Kansas City Wizards, owned by Lamar Hunt, founder of NFL's Superbowl, remain in limbo with a number of takeover possibilities after the billionaire passed on building a modest stadium for his team.

The fans are always eager for more teams but given one expansion team (Miami Fusion) folded after four years, the league is extremely wary and has insisted that only clubs with proper external financial backing and concrete plans for an exclusive stadium will be considered. On this basis, MLS has confirmed that Toronto will join the league in 2007 while several American cities continue to inspire rumours.

The quality of MLS play did not blind us again in 2005 although the MLS All-Star team beat Premiership Fulham convincingly 4-1 at the start of the season, a game US fans will recall for some time.

Reigning champions LA Galaxy are still the team to beat with Landon Donovan their talisman and 1990 World Cup veteran Cobi Jones still on their books.

From the opposing coast the New England Revolution, coached by former Liverpool midfielder Steve Nicol and England striker Paul Mariner, are also expected to mount a stiff challenge although could lose upcoming star Clint Dempsey and striker Taylor Twellman following their World Cup duties for the United States in June.

The big news though has been the name change of the Metrostars to New York Red Bulls. The team that began life as the long-winded New York/New Jersey Metrostars ten years ago has never approached the popularity of the New York Cosmos and their 70,000+ crowds of the late 1970s but at least will have their own stadium to play in before long in Harrison, New Jersey.

European fans will predictably pour scorn on a corporate naming of a team but although it is a first for US major league sport it is not for football – Philips SV Eindhoven and Bayer Leverkusen are just two who got there first in Europe.

The team colours and future stadium name will reflect the famous energy drink and although the price for this 'sell-out', divided between major investor-operator AEG and MLS, has not been confirmed, it has certainly exceeded the $26million the same company bought the LA Galaxy for in 1998.

"This is a seminal moment in the history of this team and this league," general manager and former US soccer icon Alexi Lalas told the media. On that we are all agreed, but will the seed flower or wither is the unanswerable question on everyone's lips.

Lastly there is the matter of the month of June. While MLS is in full flow, the World Cup will be going on in Germany. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has accepted that sooner or later they will have to fit in with FIFA's international calendar but for the moment the show goes on during football’s biggest tournament.

In 2002 the US reached the quarter-finals but the knock on effect on domestic crowds was not noticeable even though the majority of its players had been in MLS, a statistic that will be true again this summer.

While MLS grows slowly but surely, unless the US wins the right to host the World Cup again, which probably will not be until 2018, the national team's exploits on the world stage provide the only source of optimism for football getting a kick across the pond.

There will be millions stateside watching the 2006 tournament, many of them so-called 'soccer snobs' who disdain the domestic version, but one can only hope that out there in America, a land that rates domestic competition above all others, there are those whose interest will be sparked by the World Cup and who will then come and give Major League Soccer the fans it needs, and increasingly deserves. Sean O'Conor


Eastern Conference

Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
DC United
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls

Western Conference

Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
FC Dallas
Houston Dynamo
LA Galaxy
Real Salt Lake

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