Saturday, September 26, 2009

So Much Futbol!

We keep hearing and reading these arguments, as HalaMadrid so dutifully pointed out, that this league is better than that one, no this other one is better, and that other league is pulling the Plax Burress and shooting itself into irrelevancy, etc. etc. etc. Of course we here never stoke those infernos. (Hala's post on La Liga is a must read to get you caught up on the current status of La Liga.)

What of course is fabulous about all this is the mere fact that here in the USA we can actually keep track of all these leagues, not just on the internets, but on real live TV, with matches seemingly all day every day. Just this morning I already watched Tim Howard and the crossbar steal three points for Everton against a lively but unfortunate Portsmouth team that is breaking records for futility. I'm now flipping back and forth between the USA-Germany U-20 match (can't tell if the US is playing badly or if the team is just rather underwhelming), Hull City-Liverpool (shockingly Torres is ripping Hull apart), and Wolfsburg-Hanover (another goalfest typical of Wolfsburg), not to mention watching an internet stream of Man U leading at Stoke, which as the pundits keep repeating ad nauseam is a tricky away tie (Ryan Giggs is simply amazing and his introduction turned the match). More games are to come, with Barca-Malaga particularly set for must viewing.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Trecker got into the discussion, weighing in on the boom of available matches. Mr. Trecker focuses on how top level European football is spearheading the boom, while MLS and local matches are falling behind dangerously. Of course, unsurprising again, Jamie is a little behind the curve on reaching his conclusion, as even ESPN's Sports Guy has been claiming this in written columns and podcasts for some time now. In fact, it's not like this argument hasn't been made since MLS was founded and the contrarians claimed it was doomed to failure because as Americans we are used to and expect the best product and MLS would never be the best on-field product for soccer in the world.

So, is this going to be the case? With the glut of high quality games on TV now (and isn't watching the games that are available on HD just beautiful?), the US team being competitive with the better teams in the world and usually getting great coverage from ESPN, the MLS is often an afterthought for both the hardcore fans who follow their favorite teams or leagues overseas, and the casual fan who only wants to watch the big or important games. Just this Thursday I was one of a handful of people who bothered showing up for a CONCACAF Champions League match between DC United and CD Marathon. It's unfortunate because it was actually a good performance by DC United, among its best all season, and it would have been a good showing for the casual fan to see that an MLS side can play good soccer. I have numerous friends who aren't regular soccer fans, but I do hear from them when it comes to big time international or European matches. When USA was beating Spain and playing Mexico, or when the big teams meet in the UEFA Champions League, I often get messages from friends who usually only devote their time to fantasy football (the NFL kind) or Yankees-Red Sox or Kobe v. Lebron. But I am encouraged by the simple fact that they are watching or following those events, whereas they probably would not have before. I even had a conversation with a friend over the Champions League draw, something I usually reserved for my brother or friends like HalaMadrid or my fellow DC United season ticket holders and the guys on my men's league team.

Nonetheless, the concern is still there that the quality of MLS soccer is too inconsistent. You can see some pretty good soccer played, but for every match of high quality, there's another two that simply aren't worth watching. The big problem is the crowds and atmospheres. Games at Toronto and Seattle are almost always entertaining because the crowds are great. DC United games used to be like that, but RFK stadium's ongoing erosion and collapse combined with a disappointing DC team has taken the luster off things. LA and Chicago also get good crowds and can play exciting soccer. Wait, let me correct that. LA can play exciting soccer, Chicago, well, they are successful generally. Other teams can get good crowds for certain matches against rivals.

On the other hand, a number of teams just bring down the rest of the league with them when it comes to their stadia and fan support. Kansas City simply shouldn't have a team, and FC Dallas has little support. NY Red Bulls, well, I'm not even sure what's the right adjective for them. Pathetic? Inept? Wretched? Abhorrent? Odious? I could go on. NY has been so bad for so long and stuck at Giants Stadium that it's hard to imagine them ever improving. As much as I dislike them, I do want them draw more than 5,000 people to a game, and I hope the new stadium will greatly improve their situation. And Red Bull Arena looks like it's going to be an unbelievable stadium, so I can't wait to make a trip there to see DC United win in such stylish new digs. With a new stadium, let's see if the Red Bull management team can bring in a marquee player who won't be a bust to play with Jaun Pablo Angel, who continues to chug along as one of the best players in the league despite playing with 10 other players wearing those ugly Red Bull uniforms.

Much like in Italy and the Serie A, stadiums will play a key part in building the league. The stadiums will give teams much needed revenue streams, which eventually can help grow the league and bring in better players with better salaries. And it goes without saying that smaller, soccer-specific stadiums will help improve atmospheres. Yet I'm given pause by soccer specific stadiums that haven't done that. FC Dallas hasn't worked out, and even Columbus hasn't had great attendance despite having a good team defending their MLS Cup championship. They have the original soccer specific stadium, although upon seeing it, it's amazing how from the outside it is one ugly building, just a big concrete warehouse looking thing. But the inside is still nice and can produce good atmospheres if the fans just show up.

Part of me is very wary of MLS expanding too much, too quickly because it will just dilute the currently super thin talent pool, and if some of the bad MLS teams get any worse, well things could get quite bleak. However, expansion is still good when it's done in key places and MLS is right to make sure new teams bring with them guarantees of soccer specific stadiums. Toronto is the best model for this, and despite the artificial turf, the stadium experience is great. Seattle is upping the stakes for fan enthusiasm, which makes up for the fact that they play in a football stadium. At least they're filling out the lower bowl. When Philly enters the league in 2010, with their new stadium coming, I hope they can match Toronto and Seattle. Portland is also set to join in 2011 along with Vancouver, and I have no doubt they will equal Seattle's enthusiasm and create a great Northwest rivalry.

Still, many people are throwing out drastic ideas about how to get MLS to get more fans who are otherwise turning to European football. Going to a single table would be nice, but I doubt that's going to do much for bringing in new fans. I guess the hope is that bringing in a single table would increase the importance of the Supporters Shield winner as the regular season champion. Unfortunately it's too ingrained in US sporting culture to focus on winners of a postseason tournament, and as long as there is an MLS Cup and playoffs, the Supporters Shield will get the short shrift. Relegation is simply a non-starter in MLS for the foreseeable future, so why waste time even discussing it. Relocation might be a good idea for those teams that are struggling, for instance moving Kansas City to St. Louis seems like a no brainer. Yet moving teams would just reinforce the idea among the non-MLS observer that the league is struggling and second rate. Switching the schedule to mirror the European season? I'm not sure it's a great idea, more competition with other US sports will not be beneficial, and one of the benefits of MLS's current format is that late Spring, Summer, and early Fall weather is conducive to bringing in casual fans who just want to be out in the nice weather.

I do think that European and international soccer will hit a little bit of a boon, particularly with all the World Cup coverage on the way this summer. Can it be sustained? I think it's possible. And I disagree with those who argue that the long held belief that the young generation of kids who populated so many youth leagues and would grow up to fill the on-field talent pool and fill the stands is falling short. I'm really part of the first US-born generation that grew up playing so much youth soccer and watched the growth of the sport on TV and the internet, and I'm only 27. This is only MLS's 14th season. I was 14 when MLS started. The generation growing up with MLS is just reaching adulthood. As it gets older, and start having kids who grow up with the sport in it's more advanced state than when I was a kid, that's when soccer in the US should gain a better foothold. (As an example here's an interesting article on how Chivas USA has slowly won over many Hispanic fans and created it's own culture and identity among fans separate from Chivas de Guadalajara.) Additionally, all those kids are producing new and better talent. First Landon Donovan, and now Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore anyone?

Boosting viewership of European soccer helps deepen the ties between Americans and the sport generally, and the more roots and stronger foundations in place for the sport will eventually help MLS grow as well.

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