So before we dive into this week’s news and notes from an action-packed weekend of MLS matches, I’d like to discuss an article came out from Sydney-based Jean-Paul Pelosi on the Atlantic Monthly’s website last Friday that stirred up the passions of fans across America. In what was unfortunately a poorly-vetted piece of writing, Pelosi asserted that the upswing in the development of Australia’s A-League is something to be emulated by MLS.
Looking beyond his gratuitously blatant errors — such as mislabeling Sporting Kansas City in the original post (since edited) and other misunderstandings about the talent level and league structure — Pelosi simply showed a lack of nuanced understanding of the current state of both the American league and broader state of the game in the United States and Canada.
It is the kind of analysis I might expect of myself trying to cover the A-League. I imagine Pelosi, much as I am, to be somebody who has caught but a match or two from the other’s domestic league whilst flipping through the sports networks late at night. It isn’t a damning criticism, mind you, but it is relevant to realize what mindset and previous knowledge level this author might be bringing into the discussion.
That said, what I can offer, thanks to Pelosi’s premeditated salvo fired across the Pacific, is a refutation of his own arguments based on what we do know about MLS history. So let’s break down the essential construction of his case into the recommendations he is suggesting MLS adapt from the A-League:
- Television and marketing.The author touches upon several points in his first section of suggestions, but it all boils down to a belief that the marketing of the A-League and its placement on Fox Sports in Australia has it outpacing MLS. He talks about the A-League’s ability to outdraw Rugby League matches in his country.What he neglects to do, though, is show a true comparative analysis. So let’s look at the hard numbers. The A-League does have MLS beat in one realm — dollars per year from television deals. The Aussies’ get $40 million annually from their Fox Sports deal; MLS pulls in $27 million from its contracts with ESPN and NBC Sports Network. This revenue, further, is split between 10 clubs Down Under instead of the 19 American and Canadian franchises of MLS.But is the mere dollar value the highest significance when evaluating a league’s long-term success or failure? Leagues can strike it big initially before the money dissolves; what MLS has done is grow despite those television revenues, building sport-specific stadiums across the continent and drawing local, regional and national fan interest at a steady, sustainable level.
Have there been hiccups along the way? Certainly MLS has experienced its share of failures (Tampa Bay and Miami, we’re looking in your direction), but at this point it is growing at a healthy rate and is looking at reaching a balanced 20-team structure sometime in the not-too-distant future if recent trends continue. The A-League, a decade younger than MLS but born from the remnants of the previous NSL where MLS was a from-scratch venture, has made considerable strides — but it, too, has three former franchises counted among the life of the league.
By the way, how does viewership compare between the leagues? At the midway point of the 2012/13 A-League season, the league was averaging 82,886 viewers per match of its television broadcasts; attendance in person averaged 12,925 per match. Looking at MLS figures from the 2012 season, we find the league averaged 311,000 viewers on ESPN broadcasts and 244,000 for NBCSN showings. The league also outdrew both the NBA and NHL, welcoming an average of 18,807 per match to their stadiums. Put in these terms, the combined TV/on-site viewership is four times higher on average in MLS than in the A-League.
- Marquee signings. Pelosi next talks about the marquee signings in the A-League, the Alessandro Del Pieros and Robbie Fowlers and Dwight Yorkes of former European glory. He alludes later in that paragraph to the recent trend of teams like the Galaxy bringing in David Beckham and Robbie Keane. What he fails to note is that the A-League’s structure for marquee signings IS BASED ON THE MLS DESIGNATED PLAYER RULE.Where MLS falls short is in its player salaries and draw for guys below that marquee status, something we have discussed recently in this space. The A-League certainly pays better across the board (an average of $40,000 better per non-Designated Player on a full-time contract), but that number is buoyed by a television deal that appears built on hope rather than hard data. Once it comes up for renegotiation, will the glut of expendable cash for expenses still exist?
- Domestic talents. The third argument in Pelosi’s article centers around native stars. His assertion is essentially that there is little incentive for American players to play their careers out in MLS due to the lack of salary advancement opportunity. But while we have seen players like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard parlay their MLS success into lucrative contracts in Germany and England, the majority of Americans play their club careers out domestically.Landon Donovan, the longtime star of the Los Angeles Galaxy, is the most obvious example. But San Jose’s recent signing of striker Chris Wondolowski to a Designated Player contract shows that teams are increasingly looking to lock down premier American talent. And while there is certainly still a skew toward foreign stars to round out those marquee signings, that trend should only continue to shift in future seasons as the pool of domestic talent increases with its MLS experience.
- Rivalries. It certainly helps Australia’s cause that its population is centered in a few metropolitan areas, where clusters of teams lend themselves naturally to the creation of cross-town derbies. That ability to draw both supporters and opposition fans to the stadium, though, has the league still languishing at least 5000 fans behind MLS at the gate and 150,000 on the television each time the ball drops.If anything, this criticism of MLS would have worked much more clearly a decade ago, when the league was foundering. At that point, bleeding revenue and folding franchises left and right, Pelosi might have had a case. But what MLS has done shrewdly in its expansion back toward prominence is to target regional markets where the game draws enough interest to support the turnout of 18,000 or more fans per match. It has also clustered its expansion in a way that has latched onto already natural rivalries.
The most obvious there is the Seattle-Portland-Vancouver triangle of enmity in the Pacific Northwest. Dating to the days of the NASL in the 1970s, these three cities have had a nearly continuous soccer rivalry. The Cascadia Cup, an annual battle between the three teams for bragging rights, was created by the supporters’ groups of the three franchises before any of the three joined MLS.
But there was also the move of the original San Jose franchise to Houston, where they instantly had a state rival in Dallas. The recent additions of Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact play off of longstanding rivalries between Canada’s two principal cities that extend out of the hockey tradition of the nation. The league added a club in Salt Lake City, providing the Colorado Rapids with a natural rival for Rocky Mountain bragging rights. Even the reentry of the San Jose market into the league after a two-year hiatus proved beneficial, reigniting a rivalry with the Galaxy.
Ultimately, what I took away from this article after analyzing it further is that MLS is following the blueprint properly. If the A-League sticks to the formula that has helped MLS emerge from the wither of its cocoon to a healthier new growth-oriented existence, perhaps it too could reach the point where the American game has arrived when it celebrates its 18th season.
The author was correct in asserting that there is still plenty of room for growth in the United States and in Canada. In terms of television revenue and salary structure, MLS has a long way to go until it matches up with other North American sports in those terms. That, though, is the truest comparison for soccer in America, not how it matches up against Australia’s top flight. MLS already boasts top-ten status in terms of average attendance among soccer leagues worldwide, so it has shown it has staying power; now it needs to continue improving the depth and quality of its talent base, rather than worrying about how it compares to other growing leagues halfway around the world.
TAP SCRIMMAGE STARTING XI
This week’s TAPS Starting XI starts at the back with the absurd performance of Toronto FC’s Joe Bendik. Putting up a 9-save performance on the road against the Philadelphia Union, Bendik was the key to the Reds stealing away a point. Only a stoppage-time goal from Jack McInerney could beat him on Saturday, thwarting perfection but hardly preventing him from earning this honor for even allowing his teammates to think about the three points in a match where they were grossly outgunned all day.
The two center-backs selected this week were in on the scoring for both their clubs, but they also earned their spot for sound defensive efforts as both their sides pitched shutouts. Jamison Olave netted the second goal for New York in their 2-0 victory over DC United and was instrumental in holding their offense to just three shots on goal; George John headed in the late game winner for FC Dallas as they dished out the first defeat of the year to the Galaxy. Olave is joined by teammate Brandon Barklage, the man who served up his goal ball, who mans the right flank. On the left this week is Toronto’s Ashtone Morgan, who troubled Philadelphia on the flank and served up Robert Earnshaw’s go-ahead goal in the 71st minute.
Andrew Jacobsen’s tireless defense earns him the spot in this midfield diamond, as he played a pivotal lockdown role for the Toros in their shutout of Los Angeles. On the edges, Portland’s Will Johnson earns the spot on the left side after belting in a wonderstrike off a free kick to lead the Timbers to victory; Brad Davis shifts to the right on this Starting XI, the catalyst for both goals (assisting on the first and scoring the second) in Houston’s 2-1 victory to keep alive their home unbeaten streak. And up top, what you might call the attacking midfielder or even recessed striker, is New York’s Thierry Henry, who had the game winner in his first start of the season for the Red Bulls and looks once again like one of the most dangerous attackers in MLS.
Up top in this formation, Dominic Oduro earns the spot for his amazing long-range goal that earned Columbus a 1-1 draw on the road at Montreal. Beside him is another player who saved a point for his team, Jack McInerney. The only man to beat Bendik on the weekend, McInerney’s 93rd-minute strike proved clutch as the young striker blasted in his fourth of the season to preserve the draw for Philadelphia.
TAP SCRIMMAGE TOP FIVE
The team at the top really consolidated its position this weekend, as FC Dallas knocked off the last unbeaten team and extended its lead in the table. Other shuffles abound as we dive into this week’s TAPS Top Five:
- FC DALLAS (5-1-1/+4) – Dallas now sits six points clear atop the Western Conference standings after their shutout victory of the Galaxy on Saturday. The top team in the league according to the standings, I’ve been impressed so far with the ability of the Toros to shuffle around their goalies, get scoring from different players every week and play a strong, tactically consistent game every time out. They’ve got my vote as the best in MLS until somebody can prove otherwise.
- SPORTING KANSAS CITY (4-1-2/+5) – As I type this, Sporting is finishing off another shutout win — their third straight — over what was a surging Red Bulls squad. The only team to knock off Montreal so far this year, Sporting sits atop the Eastern Conference standings after seven weeks thanks to an undefeated record in the past five matches (the first two scoreless draws, running their shutout streak to five straight as well). Kansas City, after their shaky start in the first fortnight of the season, has returned to the same defensive dominance that led them to the top spot in the East last season.
- MONTREAL IMPACT (4-1-1/+2) – A Montreal team that topped everybody’s lists during their four-match winning streak continues to fall down the standings after failing to secure their fifth win of the season in a draw with the Columbus Crew. After Marco Di Vaio gave the Impact the lead on a cold day to open Saputo Stadium for the season, the team coughed up a quick equalizer that kept them from remaining atop the Eastern Conference standings. The return of Alessandro Nesta coincided with the absence of Matteo Ferrari, showing just how important that center-back combination has been for Montreal this season; prolonged absences from one or both could thwart the early promise this team showed in the first month.
HOUSTON DYNAMO (4-2-0/+3) – The Dynamo now hold the MLS for consecutive matches without a defeat at home across all competitions, claiming their 36th straight with a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire this past weekend. Recovering from their defeat the previous weekend at Portland, Houston sits just one point behind the Impact (each have played six matches). They have to navigate a trip to Toronto this weekend, a site that has been the bane of victory for both Los Angeles and Philadelphia in recent weeks. After that, their next chance to extend the home streak to 37 matches when they host the Colorado Rapids on April 28.
- CHIVAS USA (3-1-2/+2) – The Goats cling precariously to this final spot in the TAPS Top 5 this week after losing 1-0 at home to the Colorado Rapids on Saturday evening; I nearly slotted the surging Portland Timbers into this spot instead, but since they’re still holding down second in the West Chivas earned the nod by the slimmest of margins. The bye week seemed to do the team more harm than good, as Chelis found it necessary to rip into his side post-match after a listless effort against Colorado. A victory this weekend against Real Salt Lake would go a long way toward righting the ship for a side that has frankly outplayed all expectations in the first month and could simply be regressing back to its norm. We should know by May which direction the Rojiblancos are headed.
Robbie Rogers has come back up in the news once again, as the former American soccer player made his first television appearances this week since announcing in a February blog that he is gay. He continues to receive support from former teammates and other players and personnel around MLS, and the Galaxy have extended an open invitation to the attacker to come work out with the squad if and when he ever feels like returning to the sport.
I was thinking about Rogers again on Monday as MLB celebrated Jackie Robinson Day and wanted to pass along this thought about the last great frontier in sports. Rogers could yet be the man to lead our society into a new and more tolerant era, for sports has proven to have that transcendent power to change minds and alter the course of mankind for the better.
And on that note, I would like to commend Major League Soccer for recently joining forces with the Green Sports Alliance in a leaguewide effort to support environmentally sustainable stewardship at their stadiums around North America and to disseminate that information to their fans. To learn more about the organization, which has fostered partnerships now with every major American sports league, go to http://greensportsalliance.org/.
(The top three matches on my radar next weekend)
- PORTLAND @ SAN JOSE – Seven days after the two teams squared off at JELD-WEN Field, they meet again in the return match at Buck Shaw Stadium. Will the match get as physical as it did in Portland, when the Quakes’ Alan Gordon was sent off a half-hour from the finish? Has Caleb Porter’s squad figured out his system to the point where the Timbers might be the surging surprise in the Western Conference? And can that Timbers’ back four contain the attacking acumen of Wondolowski and crew a second straight week?
- SPORTING KC @ LOS ANGELES – Few teams have been more on fire in the past month than Sporting… but how will they fare in their second match in four days, the first in New York and the second on the opposite coast in southern California? Los Angeles is looking to rebound from their first loss of the season to FC Dallas and will look to exploit that possible fatigue. How far up to match speed will Landon Donovan be this week for the Galaxy, and will there be any structural changes to the starting lineup or the tactics to better utilize talents like Mike Magee now that Donovan is back?
- CHIVAS USA @ REAL SALT LAKE – The home side finds itself currently out of the playoff picture, locked in a five-way tie at eight points with more than half the Western Conference. Currently above that fray is Chivas, who lost last weekend and will want the full three points to stay close to Dallas in the race for the playoffs. If patterns hold, this is bound to be a Real loss, for they have not earned a point in consecutive matches so far this season. But the Goats will still have to play vigilant, tenacious soccer if they hope to remain in a position of prominence in the conference.
Topics: A-League, Andrew Jacobsen, Ashtone Morgan, Atlantic Monthly, Brad Davis, Brandon Barklage, Chivas Usa, Dominic Oduro, Fc Dallas, George John, Houston Dynamo, Jack McInerney, Jamison Olave, Joe Bendik, Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS, Montreal Impact, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, Robbie Rogers, San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas City, Thierry Henry, Toronto Fc, Will Johnson