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:
- SKC 1, NY 0
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.
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.
July 10, 2011; Portland, OR, USA; Members of the Timbers Army celebrate after the Portland Timbers scored a goal during the second half against the Seattle Sounders FC at Jeld-Wen Field. Seattle won the game 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
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
TAPS MLS Starting XI – Week 7 – 04.17.2013 (created at footballuser.com)
Apr 13, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Toronto FC goalkeeper Joe Bendik (12) makes a save with help of defender midfielder Ryan Richter (33) against the Philadelphia Union forward Jack McInerney (9) during the second half at PPL Park. Toronto FC and the Union played to a 1-1 tie. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
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.
April 14, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson (4) scores on a free kick during the second half of the game against the San Jose Earthquakes at Jeld-Wen Field. The Timbers won the game 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
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:
Apr 14, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo fans cheer after a goal against the Chicago Fire in the second half at BBVA Compass Stadium. The Dynamo won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
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.
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.