Mar 9, 2013; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Whitecaps fans during the first half against the Columbus Crew at BC Place Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
As the 2013 season is now officially underway, with all 19 teams having played at least one match to date, the viability of MLS — both in comparison to other soccer leagues around the globe and in relation to other North American pro sports leagues — has never been as solid as it is now. Now into the first month of its 18th season, MLS has emerged over the past decade from its darkest hour to a place of respectability.
A decade ago, the league had contracted down to just ten franchises. Kansas City had the Wizards, FC Dallas was then the Burn and the Big Apple was treated to MetroStars action. Both Florida franchises had folded the previous season. Without Los Angeles pulling in more than 21,000 fans per game, league attendance would have been even lower; as it was, MLS was pulling in less than 15,000 at its stadiums.
Even five years ago, the 2008 season was marked by the introduction — or reintroduction — of the San Jose Earthquakes, who had departed Northern California for Houston two years earlier. With the return of the 2001 and 2003 MLS champions, the league had expanded to 14 teams. Attendance had grown to over 16,000 per match. The return of the former champs concluded a half-decade stretch where the growing pains of the league’s first decade forced MLS to foster more intelligent growth.
The Seattle Sounders started play in the 2009 season, immediately reaching the playoffs in their inaugural season and posting the 4th-best record in the entire league. In 2010, the Philadelphia Union joined the fold. 2011 saw the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps introduced as new franchises, turning the Cascadia territories of the Pacific Northwest into one of the continent’s hotbeds of soccer passion. And in 2012, MLS put a third team in Canada with the addition of the Montreal Impact as the league’s 19th team.
For the first time since 2004, the MLS standings will look the same as they did the previous season. For the first time in nearly a decade, the league is neither expanding nor relocating one of its franchises. Now, rather than wondering about the league’s continued existence, fans are given over to wondering how Don Garber and his crew can gain more market share in both domestic and international markets. Already the league has attendance figures among the top ten soccer league’s worldwide, and talk is no longer centered around contraction but expansion to a 20th market.
In our podcast here at The American Pitch last week, we briefly discussed this expansion gossip. Today, before we break down this week’s Starting XI and the rest of our regular features in the Tuesday Scrimmage, let’s look for a moment at where and why MLS has been successful in its recent expansions into new markets.
What MLS has done is identified markets where there is a professed soccer culture. In the Pacific Northwest, the three teams admitted between 2009 and 2011 already had ingrained rivalries built between them, dating back to the 1970s and spanning across multiple leagues over the decades. Seattle, playing at CenturyLink Field, has singlehandedly inflated the attendance figures as they play in front of more than 40,000 raucous fans each match. Portland and Vancouver each draw 20,000.
They have also capitalized on the Canadian market, tripling the number of teams north of the border with Vancouver in 2011 and Montreal last season. What began with Toronto FC’s addition to the league in 2007 has now added three markets that average at least 18,000 fans for each home game.
What the league needs to do when it finally does decide to add a 20th team is focus on these two varibles: an existing, passionate fan base and an unexploited market. As we have seen with the Chivas USA experiment, just because a city is large and has a diverse population is not an indicator that two franchises can thrive. Despite enjoying use of the soccer-specific Home Depot Center — where the Los Angeles Galaxy draw over 23,000 per game — Chivas USA saw its attendance figures decline to just above 13,000 on average in 2012.
New York is not the answer. The next zone of expansion should tap into a market where a pronounced soccer culture already exists and has yet to . As I said in the podcast, the viability of markets where preseason tournaments are held should be further examined. In Charleston, Orlando and Tucson MLS has three potential locations that could draw 18,000 or more to matches.
Too often we try to focus on landing the biggest markets possible for television contracts — a sort of musical-chairs syndrome like the one that has radically altered the college sports landscape in the past decade. What MLS needs to do is embrace those markets where they can be reasonably assured of drawing fans to the seats rather than chasing the goose that too often turns out to be made of fool’s gold.
TAP TUESDAY SCRIMMAGE STARTING XI
TAP Tuesday Scrimmage – Week 1 MLS Starting XI (generated at footballuser.com)
This week’s TAP Starting XI takes a 4-1-4-1 formation, allowing for the stars of this week to earn their rightful place among their elite peers. Week 2 saw the best performance in goal coming in Chicago as New England’s Matt Reis held the Fire scoreless in their home opener. The goalkeeper made several huge saves that preserved his clean sheet and earned the Revolution their first win in Chicago since 2006.
Mar 9, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC defender Darren O
On the back end, Toronto FC’s upset victory over Sporting Kansas City was made possible because of Darren O’Dea’s diligence anchoring the defense for the Canadians. He is joined in central defense in this week’s Starting XI by Amobi Okugo, who scored the first goal in Philadelphia’s 2-1 win at Colorado as well as frustrating the Rapids attack throughout the match to put the Union in place to steal a victory. This week’s left fullback slot is filled by Chivas USA’s Walter Vilchez, who assisted on Juan Agudelo’s goal and stymied FC Dallas’ attack in the surprise 3-1 win. On the right, Hassoun Camara’s bicycle kick in Portland was the goal of the week, earning the Frenchman the other fullback slot.
Camara’s teammate on the Montreal Impact, Patrice Bernier, was the catalyst for Montreal’s second straight victory in the Pacific Northwest — controlling possession in midfield, frustrating the Timbers’ Diego Valeri all night long, and assisting on Felipe Martins’ 60th-minute goal that ultimately won the Impact the match. His dominance was a primary reason for this week’s Starting XI formation, Bernier simply too good on Saturday to exclude this Tuesday.
Mar 10, 2013; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Adam Jahn (14) scores a goal in the second half against New York Red Bulls goalie Luis Robles (31) at Buck Shaw Stadium]. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports
Shea Salinas was the sparkplug that propelled San Jose’s attack on a night where they needed late heroics to prevent a second straight loss at home, patrolling the left flank and getting his teammates active offensively. His counterpart on the right, Daigo Kobayashi, scored Vancouver’s first goal as the Whitecaps pulled off the mild upset over the Columbus Crew at BC Place. The two men in the middle of the midfield, Oswaldo Minda and Adam Jahn, were directly responsible for their teams’ victories. Minda scored the game winner for Chivas USA after FC Dallas had tied the match at 1-1, while Jahn was a super-sub who scored the Earthquakes’ tying goal before drawing a foul and earning the team a stoppage-time penalty kick. His energy, despite playing just 25 minutes on Sunday, warrants a start on the TAP team.
Up top, nobody earned this honor more than Robert Earnshaw. The Toronto FC striker beat Jimmy Nielsen twice to earn a brace against Sporting Kansas City. The only player to have scored a hat trick in all three divisions of the English Football League, the English Premier League and for his country, the Zambian-born Welsh international has already started to terrorize MLS goalies after joining Toronto this offseason.
TAP TUESDAY SCRIMMAGE TOP FIVE
Three teams in last week’s inaugural Top Five of 2013 promptly came out and lost on the second weekend. Nothing has changed at the top, but there has been a total restructuring below the leader in this week’s look at the five best teams in MLS to date:
March 9, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara (21) chases after Montreal Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier (8) in the second half at Jeld-Wen Field. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
MONTREAL IMPACT (2-0-0/+2) — They didn’t make the top five last weekend, falling just on the cusp of my decision process. After winning a second straight in Cascadia, the Impact cannot be ignored any longer. The offseason upgrades have paid immediate dividends for Saputo’s squad, and they get the chance to showcase that roster next with Saturday’s showdown in Toronto.
More midweek action takes place this week as the Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders play the second leg of their quarterfinal matchups in the CONCACAF Champions League. Seattle is the only team of the three to start their second leg in a deficit; Tigres brings a 1-0 aggregate lead into CenturyLink Field to take on the Sounders. Los Angeles, who survived their trip to Costa Rica with a 0-0 draw against Herediano, return to the Home Depot Center with a good shot at the semifinals. Houston, as previously noted, knocked off Santos Laguna 1-0 but now must try to maintain their aggregate advantage with a road match in Mexico.
Once the work week is over, it will be time for blood feuds to boil to the surface as rivals square off on Derby Weekend. Some rivalries fit naturally, while others are more contrived. But in every instance, there is sure to be intense soccer action throughout as sides that have less than no reason to like one another spend ninety minutes trying to outwit, outscore and outmuscle their opponent. The outpouring of fan emotions always runs highest during these contests, and this weekend is sure to be no exception…
(The top three matches on my radar next weekend)
- PORTLAND @ SEATTLE — The third weekend of the 2013 season sees the Sounders host the Timbers to begin the three-team battle for the Cascadia Cup. Both teams will be looking to erase the sting of losing to the Montreal Impact in their most recent MLS regular-season matchup, and like last season they will likely battle in front of the biggest crowd of the year. (Last year’s Sounders-Timbers derby in Seattle drew over 66,000 to CenturyLink.)
- TORONTO @ MONTREAL — After both teams notched big wins last weekend, the Canadian derby of the week will carry even greater significance. Toronto FC travels to Saputo Stadium hoping to deal the Impact the first blemish on their 2013 record, and would pull level in the Eastern Conference standings with a one-goal victory. Montreal, playing their first full season in expanded Saputo Stadium, will hope their home opener goes as well as their Pacific Northwest road swing.
- CHIVAS USA @ LOS ANGELES — Technically this is a home game for the Galaxy in the accounting of the season, but both Home Depot Center tenants will be fired up; this could be the largest crowd Chivas plays in front of this season at the stadium. The Galaxy return to regular-season play after they wrap up their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, while their city rivals hope last week’s 3-1 win over FC Dallas was a sign of things to come rather than an aberration.