Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reading Between the Lines – the Future of Major League Soccer

MLS Commissioner Don Garber discussed a variety of topics today on an All-Star weekend USAToday.com chat. Most notably, it was revealed that two Western Conference teams will move to the East next season with the arrival of expansion teams in Portland and Vancouver. This would leave the West with eight teams and increase the East to ten, and likely eleven with the addition of Montreal for the 2012 season. This left me wondering, why the disproportionate number of teams (11 and 8?). Why not just leave the East at eight next season, which will then become nine with the addition of Montreal in 2012?

Could the answer lie in MLS’ plans for future expansion? It’s no secret that the league wants to develop regional rivalries between teams like in the Northeast and Northwest (NY, New England, Philadelphia, DC and Seattle, Portland, Vancouver). Commissioner Garber mentioned “beyond 20 (teams)…” specific interest in Atlanta, San Antonio, San Diego, Detroit, and Miami. But Montreal only puts MLS at nineteen, did MLS just hint at who WON’T be getting the 20th team in Major League Soccer?
New York has been a popular rumor as a destination for MLS’ twentieth team, with a possible soccer-specific stadium near Citi Field and the owner of the NY Mets at the helm of the franchise.

It’s interesting to note that the league does not appear to be replicating England’s division structure with only twenty “premiere” teams and a relegation system – at least, not yet. Instead, MLS may add another handful of teams to its East/West conferences and look more like its North America counterparts for other professional sports. The inclusion of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal can hopefully help to grow the sport in Canada as well, where a more competitive national team would create an intriguing additional rival for the United States and Mexico.

Ultimately, a relegation system further down the road would add an exciting dimension to North American soccer. And if new teams are able to create revenue, or at least break even, the more the merrier as long the quality of play continues to improve. With a larger league, the National team’s talent pool stands to gain as well as MLS clubs maintain youth training academies to identify and develop local prospects around the United States.

One question is how big is too big for MLS? Does concentrating teams in certain regions strengthen the league through local rivalries or limit the reach of the league to key markets in cities with other passionate sports followings (Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and New Orleans come to mind)? St. Louis, Phoenix, Ottawa, and Birmingham have also been previously rumored as possible expansion targets for the growing league.


MC ENTIRE said...

The success of the league has been its patient growth, selecting cities and solid investors that can let the team develop and not have to turn profits right away.

As a New Yorker, there is definitely a market for another team here- with no disrespect to the Red Bulls, but playing in Jersey isn't playing in NYC and that would create a natural rivalry.

Relegation seems far away for now, but I love the idea. Soccer has steadily climbed in the US over the last 20 years and there is no reason why that's going to change. WIll it ever be able to compete with the NFL or NBA? No, but it doesn't have to and it shouldn't. For one NFL ticket you can take a family of 4 to a soccer game and get popcorn (or tacos!).

I wish the MLS would take the lead with Instant Replay and maybe adding 2 more officials on the field. If you think of any other major sport there are several refs working a game-a crew. They work all the same games together and become a team of sorts. If there are 3 refs on a 60' basketball court then there should be more than 1 ref covering the entire pitch. And yes, i know there is an official on each end of the field to help, but keep them, and add 2 more. Soccer players are some of the fittest and fastest athletes in the world and you're telling me some 40 year old ref is supposed to keep up with them for 90+ minutes? Give the officials the help they need.

Instant replay technology is something that is so easy to implement on goals only and would make a huge difference-players, coaches, and fans just want to have it be the right call. Officials are going to miss calls, but getting more eyes on the field and replay on goals and maybe offsides calls could really improve the game.

Ferris said...

In one hundred years, I could absolutely see soccer at the same level as the NBA as far as attendance and TV audience goes. It will be interesting if leagues in other countries can start to siphon talent away from the U.S., but not likely.

I'm reading Beau Dure's Long Range Goals which covers MLS' history with whether the game should be the same as it's played in more established leagues or different. Fortunately, MLS has done away with things such as regular season overtime and shootout rules, and a "4th" substitution rule for a goalkeeper which Bob Bradley brilliantly exploited while coaching in NY.

I do think two additional goal line refs for playoff games and the MLS cup would be a good experiment. Goal line technology is a no brainer year round.

Being a newer league presents a lot of challenges - generating revenue, winning over soccer fans who focus on international tournaments and the premiere European club teams, competing in a global market for players when the salary cap needs to be kept low to allow small market teams to survive. However, the newness of MLS also allows it to pioneer changes to the way the game is officiated and actually improve it. The NFL and NBA have set the standard for fans who won't stand for their favorite teams being cheated out of victories by bad calls when the technology exists to correct errors without significantly slowing the pace of the game (except during the NBA playoffs when it seems like every call down the stretch is reviewed).

Regardless, the NYRB have sold out their August 14th game vs. the LA Galaxy and that's without David Beckham being expected to play. The level of play of MLS might not be that of the professional leagues in England, Italy, Germany, Spain, or France, but the gap is closing and most games are exciting and worth a two hour investment of time. I don't find lots of reasons to go to New Jersey, but a Red Bulls game is definitely one of them (for now, until FC Queens joins MLS haha).