Tuesday, June 27, 2006

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Part 3: MLS Changes that benefit US Soccer and MLS

The US World Cup squad that Bruce Arena took to Germany in 2006 was made up of 23 players. 12 players from European club teams, 11 from MLS club teams. The starting line-ups were European experience heavy, with only four MLS players getting regular starts (Donovan, Mastroeni, Pope, and Dempsey). As MLS moves into its second decade of play, the relationship between MLS and the US Soccer Federation will have to expand and deepen its roots into each other for support. In the next decade, MLS will require a healthy US Soccer program as the US Soccer program will require a healthy MLS. MLS will need to evolve into a more international soccer league, one with its own stadiums, and with more of an internationally aligned schedule

In the 11 years that MLS has been in operation, its success has been in its organization and its ability to produce quality American players and send them overseas to European leagues as well as for the US National team. The league has been able to truly keep costs down, bring in investors and build its own soccer specific stadiums, where they retain the revenue. This has been a great achievement, especially in the country that has 3 other globally oriented sports leagues that dominate fan interests, media coverage and merchandising sales. However, MLS should do more to entice the soccer fans to attend the soccer matches, or watch them on TV.

First is to get the rest of the clubs into soccer specific stadiums. The clubs that already have their own stadiums are free from having to give away parking revenue, concession revenue and pick and choose when they play at home. Once clubs like DC United have their own stadium, they will be able to schedule matches at home whenever they desire, rather than hope that the Washington Nationals MLB club isn’t at home that week. Once the clubs have their own stadiums, then MLS can move into phase two of evolving its game, moving its schedule to a better time of year.

The rest of the world operates on a loosely similar schedule of when they operate their leagues. In most of Europe, the leagues in Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, France, and England just to say a few, all operate from August to May, and they space out the league matches to allow for Cup matches on weekends and for cases of breaks, like in Germany. Other leagues, like in Argentina, they play a two part season, an Opening and a Closing season. They play their opening season in the spring (their fall), break for the summer (their winter) then start up their closing season in the fall (their spring). This type of season structure, either an August to May season or a split season, allows for the summer for either a break for the players, or for internationally scheduled events, such as the World Cup, European Championship, Copa America. Even the northern European nations that are forced to play in the summer for lack options during the winter, they break during the World Cup or the European Championship tournament.

Once MLS gets its clubs into its own stadiums, they should move the MLS schedule to something like an August to May schedule. They could schedule their matches for evening Saturday starts, so they do not compete with the bulk of the College football games on TV or live. They can stay away from Sundays, as the NFL has laid claim to that day for really any sports events in the US. They can also have Cup dates built into the schedule to allow for the US Open Cup tournament to be played on weekends, which would allow for better fan turnouts at the matches. Matches held in Toronto will likely be the exception, as mid-day starts during the winter will be required. Toronto could also see its schedule heavily favor road matches during the January/February period.

Once MLS moves its schedule to a Fall/Winter/Spring line-up, it will allow the US players to fall in line with the rest of the FIFA schedules. If a player ends up moving to England, like Tim Howard did, at the beginning of the EPL season, he won’t have been playing since April, only to have realistically been in season action from April 2003 to May of 2004, really without any type of break. If MLS is on the same schedule, they can adopt the same transfer schedules and allow for international match days to be more accessible for the National team, as players will not be either in or out of season.

Another reason for MLS moving its schedule from April to November is to give its clubs that take part in the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the Copa Sudamericana a better chance in the tournaments. The CONCACAF tournament will no longer be held before the MLS season, so the players will not be in pre-season form. The Copa Sudamericana matches will not take place later in the season, when the clubs are beginning to worry about play off position and might take these matches a little lighter than MLS and their fans might want them to. If MLS wants to gain credibility in the international stage, it needs to have teams in the CONCACAF Champions Cup final every year as well as advancing deep into the Copa Sudamericana. If MLS gets clubs deep into both tournaments, wins the Champions Cup, then we might see two MLS clubs invited to the Copa Libertadores. If FIFA continues to host the World Club Championships in Japan every December, MLS clubs, assuming we start winning the CONCACAF Champions Cup, will be in mid season form for that tournament, in stead of three weeks out of the playoffs. The schedule change would benefit the play on the field in these tournaments, which would attract new fans and new players.

One reason that Garber & Co. have voiced why they are against changing the schedule is that they would be in direct competition with the NFL or College Football for broadcasting and attendance during that time. I disagree with that idea. MLS already plays part of its schedule during the beginning of the US football seasons. The only problem right now is that some clubs have to schedule around those who own the stadiums that they play in, like Real Salt Lake does, or Red Bull New York will. DC United right now must schedule around the Nationals. If they continue to play the matches at 7:30pm on Saturday nights, during most of the start of the season, say from August to November, they will not be in competition, when they are playing in their own stadiums. They will also not be competing for fans, as soccer fans in the US are not going to be choosing whether to go to a UCLA game or going to a LA Galaxy game. DC United fans are not that inclined to really have to choose United or Maryland. The MLS fans who attend the matches will still attend the matches if the schedule was moved.

A second reason that Garber & Co. have claimed that the MLS schedule shouldn’t be moved is due to the weather in New York, Toronto, New England, Colorado, and Salt lake during the winter. They claim that the conditions will be too bad for both the players and the fans. Again, I disagree. I disagree because Salt Lake already plays their end of season matches in those conditions, as do RBNY and the Revolution. Further more, the clubs in Europe play in those conditions and at higher latitude than most of the MLS clubs. NFL plays their season through those conditions, in New England, New York, Buffalo, and Green Bay. NFL players, in all honesty, where very little more clothes than soccer players due and do not keep their heart rates up by running all the time. As for the fans, American sports fans have proven that if the match is played, they will attend. Green Bay sell’s out their home games in December. New England and Buffalo do as well. MLS Cup 97, played in Washington, DC in a downpour, had 57,421 fans sit in the rain to watch DC United win their second straight title. Hell, I would rather sit in the stands wearing a parka watching a soccer game than sit in the stands and sweat in the 95% humidity that DC has every summer.

A third reason that Garber & Co. have claimed that changing the season from the April to November schedule to an August to may schedule is that when the schedule change happens, there will a 9 month lull in which the US fan base will be without MLS matches to attend or watch on TV. They feel that gap could kill the league. My response is why not fill the gap with a one time knock out tournament amongst the MLS clubs?

Have something called the MLS Challenge Cup. If MLS has 16 clubs by this change over, seed the teams according to the previous seasons MLS Cup playoffs and then have them play in 4 groups of 4, with home and away matches held in each group. Then have top 2 from each group move on to a knockout format. The winner plays a pre season opening match against the defending MLS Cup Champion, much like the Community Shield in England. This tournament could be run from mid April to Mid may, and give MLS fans something to look forward too.

If MLS moved towards having its own stadiums, ones that they would be in control of scheduling and revenue, it would allow for more independence of the league. The league would then be able to move itself more in line with the rest of the global soccer schedule and in doing so, be in a better position to attract more international players to play here and allow MLS to provide better support for the USSF and international tournaments. This would be a very good way for MLS to rid itself of foreign and domestic critics that ridicule MLS for playing through the World Cup as well as allow the USSF to consider using MLS players in summer tournaments like the Copa America.


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