The first month of the MLS season is officially in the books. As the league’s nineteen franchises enter the meat of the regular season, we have been witnesses to a lot of exciting developments leaguewide.
Average attendance (18,254 per match through five weeks) is nearly 600 fans per contest higher than the NHL; MLS draws nearly a thousand more fans per game than the NBA. Attendance figures only continue to rise in the Pacific Northwest and throughout Canada, and 11 of the 19 franchises have seen gate boosts from last season’s draw.
With the Montreal Impact playing most of their home games at Olympic Stadium instead of Saputo Stadium, they have joined the Seattle Sounders as the second MLS team to average more than 30,000 fans per home match. Eight teams average 19,000 or more customers per contest, the same as the NHL and one more than the NBA.
But attendance has been up over the past few years, partly due to the places the league has chosen to direct its expansion efforts and partly due to the sustainable growth of the fan base. The league now has television contracts with multiple networks, both ESPN and NBC Sports Network featuring coverage along with Spanish-language network Univision. The league’s teams have acquitted themselves well in the CONCACAF Champions League, with the Los Angeles Galaxy joining Seattle in the semifinals as fans can catch on FOX Soccer.
Where, though, is this money going?
Certainly not to the players… for, while the marquee signings of Designated Players since the creation of the “Beckham Rule” in 2007 has made some men wealthy from MLS action, far more subsist at levels below the average salaries of football and baseball players — in the 1960s and 1970s.
I was recently rewatching ESPN’s 30 for 30 film, “Broke”, about how so many athletes find themselves bankrupt after leaving their sport despite pulling in millions during their careers. MLS players often have to find jobs before their careers are over.
According to the film, the average MLB salary in 1967 was $19,000 per year. The minimum salary in the NFL in 1977 was $14,500. For MLS players in 2013, on full MLS contracts, the minimum salary is $40,000; but with the constant influx of younger players on developmental contracts, around a quarter of active players at any given time make far less than that league minimum. (The range for developmental contracts is $12,900-$17,700 per year — less than the minimum received by NFL players nearly four decades ago.)
MLS commissioner Don Garber continually states that his league’s goal is to achieve a status of prominence among the world’s domestic leagues. Last season saw MLS teams average among the top ten leagues internationally in attendance per match. Yet its players, by and large, are payed more like a Serie C2 or English Conference scrapper than a member of a top-flight league.
As you watch MLS action into April and beyond, realize that you are part of the continued growth of the league. But if the league is to become anything bigger than a feeder league for the European giants (and middleweights), it will eventually need to pay legitimate wages to more than its Designated Players. The structure of the league as a single-entity negotiating power means that salaries will never be among those of NBA or NFL players. But until a living wage is payed to all MLS players, where they can spend their offseason training rather than scrounging for part-time work, the league will remain at a level below those superligas it deigns to emulate. Only then will the league reach a status of prominence that rises it to true major-league status…
TAP SCRIMMAGE STARTING XI
I stuck with a simple, clean 4-4-2 in determining this week’s TAPS Starting XI. At the back, Raul Fernandez anchors this week’s starting side after a five-save clean sheet at New England that kept FC Dallas atop the Western Conference standings. The Revolution put more shots on goal than the Toros managed, yet because Fernandez proved impermeable in Dallas’ net they were able to prevail on the strength of Blas Perez’s late winner. He is the second straight Dallas keeper to win the Starting XI spot, after backup Chris Seitz filled in admirably last weekend.
The back four is anchored in the center by Toronto FC’s Darren O’Dea and Dallas’ George John. The latter was instrumental in holding New England’s Jerry Bengston to just two shots all match, while O’Dea forced four fouls by the Los Angeles Galaxy as they earned a surprise draw. The pair serve as the lockdown presence in front of Fernandez on this week’s team. Flanking them to the left is Colorado’s Chris Klute, who assisted on Dillon Powers’ goal for the Rapids and prevented Portland’s Diego Chara from finding much space. On the right, Kansas City’s Chance Myers played a superb match as part of Sporting’s defensive dominance of the previously-perfect Montreal Impact.
Speaking of impact (without a capital “I”), the left side of the midfield features two of the men who had the biggest impact on their team’s results this week. Portland’s Will Johnson scored a second-half brace that pulled the Timbers back to a 2-2 draw in Colorado, while Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber was the set-up man on both of Sporting’s two goals that beat the Impact. Their counterparts on the right, Luis Gil and Eric Avila, were in their own way instrumental to their teams’ victories as well. Gil scored the insurance goal that proved the eventual game-winner for Real Salt Lake as he found tons of space to work all match. Avila likewise scored the match winner for Chivas USA, adding to a previous Vancouver own goal as his side prevailed 2-1 over the Whitecaps to remain an early surprise in the West.
Up top, Jose Villarreal scored the goal of the week, a ridiculous bicycle kick in the 92nd minute that stole a point for the Galaxy in Toronto. He is partnered with New York’s Thierry Henry, whose goal earned the Red Bulls their first victory of 2013. The pair were both substitutes in their teams’ matches, taking four shots and net two goals in just 51 combined minutes for the most efficient and timely striking displays of the weekend.
TAP SCRIMMAGE TOP FIVE
Some things have dramatically shifted this week after Sporting Kansas City became the first team to knock off the Montreal Impact this weekend. Only one team remains unbeaten in MLS play in 2013, yet that team finds itself behind the two league leaders. Let’s dive in further and look at this week’s TAPS Top Five:
- FC DALLAS (4-1-0/+3) – The Toros beat the New England Revolution this weekend to claim a share of the best record in the league. On goal differential, FC Dallas would be the top-seeded team throughout the playoffs were they to begin today. With a stout defense that has provided plenty of support for goalkeeper Raul Fernandez and is finding timely goal scoring from throughout its roster, Dallas currently looks like the most complete team in the West and perhaps in all MLS.
- MONTREAL IMPACT (4-1-0/+2) – A flat effort in Kansas City spelled the end of Montreal’s four-game winning streak to start the 2013 regular season. Despite the setback, the Impact remain atop the Eastern Conference standings and should continue to be one of the teams to beat heading into April and further into the summer. One thing to watch is the health of center back Alessandro Nesta, who has been out for the past two weeks with an adductor strain. The longer he stays out (and coach Marco Schallibaum is forced to depend on Karl Ouimette and/or Dennis Iapichino), the thinner the margin for error for Montreal.
- LOS ANGELES GALAXY (2-0-2/+5) – Had Jose Villarreal not leveled the match against Toronto in second-half stoppage time, the Galaxy would currently be sitting outside the playoff picture in the West. Yet Los Angeles, who did manage the draw, is now the only team yet to sustain a defeat in MLS this season after Montreal’s loss. The Galaxy have the brightest future, with a shot at the CONCACAF Champions League final in their grasp and the return of captain Landon Donovan from his early-season hiatus.
HOUSTON DYNAMO (3-1-0/+4) – The Dynamo, with a win over San Jose, now sit in second place in the Eastern Conference behind Montreal — and they hold a match in hand against the Impact, leaving them effectively level in the standings. More impressively, Houston’s win tied the Dynamo with Real Salt Lake for the longest home winning streak across all competitions in MLS history. They can take sole possession of the record in two weeks when they face the Chicago Fire at BBVA Compass Stadium on April 14.
- CHIVAS USA (3-1-1/+3) – Chivas USA has proven to be anything but a flash in the pan throughout the first month of MLS play. While they are the only club to average less than 10,000 fans per home match, with their city rival averaging 12,000 more fans per game at the shared Home Depot Center, Chivas continues to sit in playoff position in the West after knocking off Vancouver this past weekend. Playing inspired soccer under first-year head coach Chelis, the Goats have proven tenacious throughout March.
What impact can a new player make? What impact is had when a player returns to his club? We saw Landon Donovan return to MLS action this weekend for the Galaxy, immediately changing the tenor of the match as Los Angeles clawed their way back against Toronto for the draw. He was but one of a handful of players returning to their clubs after international action or injuries or even a transfer to the United States from other leagues.
It is one of those questions that is asked throughout team sports, whether a new addition to the lineup can enhance a surging team even further or whether it serves more as a disruption to momentum. Sometimes that player burnishes an already-polished product; sometimes he dulls the shine, the difference something less than the previous sum.
As one of the few leagues worldwide that keeps playing during international breaks, MLS is always going to be subject to the vagaries of this reality more than most. It is a conundrum that exposes the depth of a side, as well as its dependence on its biggest stars (for it is those players who are the ones called up to their national teams). We have seen clubs like the Galaxy remain competitive despite the absence of Donovan (and the departure of David Beckham to Paris Saint-Germain); on the contrary, a club like New York has foundered without the services of star striker Thierry Henry as he has played for his native France.
Either way, while it makes sometimes for a less consistent product, it is this unique aspect of MLS that makes it so hard to predict and so fun to watch from week to week.
(The top three matches on my radar next weekend)
- DALLAS @ TORONTO – The leaders in the Western Conference will see if they can head north of the border and do what the Los Angeles Galaxy could not last weekend. Toronto has proven tenacious throughout the early weeks of the season, while Dallas has made a case as the deepest team in the league. With two solid goalkeepers in Raul Fernandez and Chris Seitz and an attack that strings throughout its diamond midfield and forward, the Toros will prove a tough test for the home side.
- PHILADELPHIA @ COLUMBUS – The two teams sitting just above the playoff qualification line in the Eastern Conference can consolidate their position among the conference elite with a victory. Columbus rested last weekend, while Philadelphia is recovering from a loss to the Red Bulls. With Kansas City facing DC and New York getting to play Chicago, both sides know they must take the full three points if they are to remain playoff contenders rather than devolving into pretenders.
- REAL SALT LAKE @ COLORADO – This year’s second installment of the Rocky Mountain Cup takes place just three weeks after the two clubs played to a 1-1 draw in Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah. Real Salt Lake is tenuously clinging to playoff position at this point, while Colorado is still seeking out their first victory of the season. Neither looks impressive at this point in the Western Conference standings, but there’s always increased intensity when these rivals meet.
Topics: Chivas Usa, Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, Don Garber, Fc Dallas, George John, Houston Dynamo, Jose Villarreal, Los Angeles Galaxy, Luis Gil, MLS, Montreal Impact, Philadelphia Union, Raul Fernandez, Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, Thierry Henry, Toronto Fc