Category Archives: MLS

In Reserve

Rumors are flying about the sort-of-announced partnership between MLS and USL that will integrate the MLS Reserves into the third division. This dovetails neatly with MLS commissioner Don Garber’s statements recently about MLS not getting enough value out of the Academy structure and the Reserve League, and their failure to properly develop the talent the league can access. Benefits abound on both side of the potential agreement: MLS gains an established outlet for developing their youth talent beyond a pathetic 10 game reserve schedule; USL-Pro gets free talented youth players and the ability to establish a regional format due to an increased west coast footprint, both features which increase financial stability for a notoriously unstable league.

It has become clear that a few main points have been agreed upon informally between the leagues, with some integration to begin in 2013 and full integration in 2014.

First, that MLS teams will have a USL-Pro affiliate (with the likely exception of Antigua Barracudas FC, who develop players for their own national team). MLS teams will provide up to five players to their third tier affiliate, at their discretion, with salaries paid by their home team.

Second, that MLS teams will be scheduling reserve games against USL-Pro teams in the coming season, with a formal schedule integration coming in following year. MLS teams without a local counterpart may field full division-three teams in 2014, in order to establish regional divisions in USL-Pro.

Given that there are more MLS teams than USL teams, it is unclear exactly how the west coast teams will be affiliated in 2013. It’s likely that initially west coast teams will be sending players to the southeast where there are four USL teams but zero MLS teams. USL covers the entire east coast but has only one team west of the Mississippi, with Phoenix and Sacramento set to debut in ’13 and ’14 respectively.

An interactive map of Div 2 and 3 attendances from 1996 to 2012

This isn’t ideal, of course, but it is likely that this partnership will induce many of the 70+ USL-PDL (fourth division – semi-pro) to make the jump up to the third tier. If making the jump includes 5 free youth stars, it is very doubtful may fourth division teams would resist. There are many clubs in the fourth tier on the west coast that could make the leap to the third with some marginal support. Cascadia teams not directly associated with MLS U-23 teams in the PDL include Victoria Highlanders, Kitsap Pumas, Washington Crossfire, North Sound SeaWolves FC, and Fraser Valley Mariners FC. Any three of these D-4 teams could step up and become D-3 MLS affiliates to Cascadian MLS partners.

One interesting note about this deal is the leapfrogging of the NASL (second division) in the arrangement with USL. It’s been made clear by NASL owners that they see themselves in a complementary position rather than a support structure relationship with MLS. This is quite an interesting but ambitious position to take given their recent instability, having been refused sanctioning as D-2 by the USSF as recently as 2011. It seems likely the NASL will remain an outlet for more permanent loan-type situations, but won’t be included in a the more fluid reserve league setup with USL.

There are clearly many variables that need to be worked out still, but it’s a promising future for the development of youth talent in MLS. Timbers fans will very likely see many more developmental players sent out to third division sides, like Bright Dike and Andrew Jean-Baptiste were sent to LA Blues in 2012. More games => more experience => increased development. Any arrangement that gets more real game time for developmental MLS players, while promoting and stabilizing a lower division, cannot be a negative for the league. We are sure to hear more concrete details about this arrangement in the future; I’ll be sure to keep you up to date.

Soccervision

It’s long been accepted wisdom, in the UK at least, that Americans don’t get football, and most likely won’t ever get it. They’d much rather watch hillbillies drive round in circles for hours on end, or padded freaks of nature crash into each other than enjoy the sport that the rest of the world recognises as the beautiful game.

It wasn’t for for the likes of them.

Except that in my brief stay over here it’s already clear that there is a growing proportion of American sports fans that are turning on to football. Literally.

This past weekend saw every single match on the closing day of the Premier League season screened live across Fox’s network of sports channels and ESPN, in an event called “Survival Sunday”.

This unprecedented event follows strong ratings for matches, with ESPN recording over a million viewers for the recent Manchester derby, while competitions like the Champions League also consistently draw high ratings.

It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that most of these matches – the Champions League group stages in particular – will take place during weekday afternoons. Many Premier League matches kick off in early morning for West Coast based footy fans.

They’re not prime time events, yet the fans know what they want, and are willing to seek it out, and the television networks have taken note. Make no mistake, if football wasn’t a big draw, Fox wouldn’t give it a second glance, yet it even has a dedicated soccer channel.

The breadth of choice for the football fan in the States is staggering. Coming from a country where live coverage of much of the sport is in the iron grip of vastly overpriced subscription channels, it really is a breath of fresh air.

And it’s really not that surprising. The sport is growing in popularity all the time. It’s the most popular team sport for under 13s, and 60% of soccer players are under the age of 18. It’s this new generation of football fans that will continue the sport’s rapid growth, as their love affair with soccer blossoms.

The missing link is in the domestic game. Attendance at MLS matches continues to grow thanks in large part to some very smart expansions in recent years – the end of the 2011 season saw MLS rise to 3rd in average attendance at professional sports, behind NFL and MLB. Yet, the television ratings still disappoint. Only 70,000 tuned in to a recent New York vs New England match, and it’s a rare event that sees the ratings nudge towards 500,000.

It could be a snobbishness towards MLS, considering it an inferior product, that lies behind some of the ratings disparity. Perhaps it’s the (relative) lack of history or drama that the final day of the Premier League season threw up, or the major European competitions regularly do.

While MLS is clearly not on the level of a Premier League or La Liga in terms of overall quality, the football is improving all the time. It is, however, difficult to increase quality greatly when a career in soccer can’t yet offer the same financial rewards to those kids playing the game that other major American sports can.

The average salary of even the NHL is over $1.3 million, a figure only a select few can hope to earn playing Major League Soccer. The average salary of NBA players dwarves even that of an MLS teams entire salary cap. This bleeding of talent from the game lowers the pool available to MLS clubs, though they may hope to plug this leak with the development of youth academies that will funnel the best players to the top.

Growing the sport at the grassroots, and bringing through fresh, exciting local talent will help to turn eyes towards the league. Tapping urban areas for the kinds of players that are largely lost to soccer will also be key to increasing the sports broad appeal.

But it shouldn’t be an either-or situation for football fans in the States. MLS and European or South American football can happily co-exist and even compliment each other as anyone who has followed Clint Dempsey’s career from MLS to Premier League could testify.

There is still a resistance to soccer among many American sports fans, but there’s been a shift in recent years away from trying to court these casual fans to the game. This older generation are not the market that soccer is aiming for any more, and it’s allowed MLS in particular to be more focussed on delivering a strong product to those that already love the game, but haven’t yet fallen in love with the American flavour of soccer.

The outlets are certainly there as the big sports broadcasters in the States have all awoken over the past few years to the huge potential of football. Advertisers clearly see value in placing their ads during shows, and footballers such as Lionel Messi, Frank Lampard and Sergio Aguero are seen as viable ambassadors for brands like Pepsi across even non-soccer specific channels.

This summer will see every match of the European Championship broadcast by ESPN, with over 200 hours of coverage dedicated to the event, as well as the continued coverage of MLS who may hope for a ratings bump as a result.

More people are playing it. More people are going to matches. More people are tuning in.

It’s safe to say soccer is here, and it’s here to stay.

Viva la Fútbol

Major League Soccer – The Past, Present and Future.

2012 is a landmark year for American soccer. It marks Major League Soccer’s 17th season since its inception in 1996 – equalling that of the glamorous North American Soccer League of Pele, Bobby Moore and George Best fame which ran from 1968 till it’s ignominious collapse in 1984. Continue reading Major League Soccer – The Past, Present and Future.