MLS, the state of (abridged)

Let’s try to wrap up a tempestuous day in North American soccer …

The D.C. Council cast aside its mourning for Marion Barry long enough for a heated discussion and vote on (and, mercifully, in favor of) a D.C. United stadium deal. The NASL announced it will run the owner-deprived Atlanta Silverbacks next year. The W-League (North American version) lost another traditional power in Ottawa.

(Insert gratuitous photo of proposed United stadium here)

#DCU Managing General Partner, Jason Levien makes a statement on the stadium over at dcunited.com

A post shared by D.C. United (@dcunited) on

And MLS commissioner Don Garber held his annual State of the League press conference in yet another new format, this time relaxing in comfortable chairs in a TV studio with a roomful of journalists who just happened to be affiliated with MLS rights-holding organizations.

Fans at least had a roundabout way into the room. They could ask questions on social media while Amanda Vandervort, the meta-guru for social media in the U.S. soccer community, sorted through everything. That was a thankless job.

Even when things are going pretty well for a sports league, you’re always going to see a bit of snark floating around. Just imagine what Vandervort’s NFL analogue would have to see if Roger Goodell tried this format.

Garber also made the occasional gaffe or oddball statement. One was simply amusing: In explaining for the umpteenth year why MLS isn’t likely to go to a fall-through-spring European-style calendar, he described the temperature in a prospective MLS city as “minus zero.” I’m not sure what to call that. It’s not a double negative. Maybe a one-and-a-half negative?

The other was more worrying. He said, in an unexpected bit of candor that didn’t sit well with other glowing assessments, that the league isn’t performing financially as well as owners would hope.

That’s apparently not a gaffe per se, because he doubled down on it in talking later with the Associated Press.

From that story:

Garber said the teams and the league are losing more than $100 million combined as they invest in player acquisitions, stadiums and league infrastructure. And he said owners are making financial investments that they were not expecting to still be making at this point.

The possible reactions to that story — some reasonable, some not:

1. This is just posturing for the collective-bargaining talks with the union.

2. This is a conspiracy — there’s no way the league is actually losing that much.

3. This means little — they’re investing a lot of money now in facilities, academies and Designated Players, and while they’re in investment mode, they’re going to deposit a couple of $100 million expansion fees. If MLS wasn’t investing for the future, it would probably turn a profit. SOP for a growing business.

4. Oh crap — everything is collapsing.

5. Avast, ye scurvy dogs! MLS will soon collapse, and we can usher in a new era of American soccer!

I’m inclined to go with 1 and 3, maybe a bit of 2. It’s not unusual for a league commissioner to talk in glowing terms about the league’s prospects moving ahead for the benefit of fans and sponsors, then plead poverty when the players are asking for more money. That said, MLS surely doesn’t have the financial security of better-established leagues.

The root of a lot of MLS debate is that some people are sick of being patient. They didn’t imagine in 1996 that we would be nearly 20 years into this venture and our national team wouldn’t be significantly better. Or that the league would still trot out obscure, unusual policies to get players like Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones to the teams they want.

On one hand, we still have to be patient. While D.C. United, NYCFC and a couple of other teams are sorting out their stadium issues, this league is still in start-up mode on some fronts. (So, no, MLS isn’t ready to start promotion and relegation while its teams are still investing on the assumption of being first-division teams — but at least Garber said “not anytime soon” rather than “never,” right?)

On the other hand, it’s disappointing to hear the commissioner going into CBA talks pleading poverty and failing to reassure everyone that the league won’t have a work stoppage. Investing in academies and facilities (and USL teams) is great, but are we really going to go to the brink with current players and risk a work stoppage that would shatter the league’s credibility?

It’s always helpful to remember things can change. So it was a nice coincidence that Vice Sports recently had a piece on a bit of U.S. soccer history — people chasing down collectibles from the glory days of the Major Indoor Soccer League. And that piece linked back to a Frank Deford piece from Sports Illustrated that offered a snapshot of the indoor and outdoor game circa 1983:

This season the NASL, which has atrophied to 12 franchises (from 24 in 1980) but still managed to lose that $25 million in 1982, permitted three of its franchises—Chicago, San Diego and Golden Bay—to field teams in the MISL as well. The toothpaste is out, and it’s never going back in the tube. Whenever the two leagues achieve some form of consolidation, it will be the NASL that must end up as the subsidiary partner. Already Samuels acknowledges that next year two or three more of his outdoor franchises will want to play indoors, too. Lee Stern, the owner of the Sting, which now plays in both leagues, says, “There’s no way pro soccer can survive anymore in this country without indoor soccer.” And Bob Bell, Stern’s counterpart with the San Diego Sockers, says, “I’m convinced now that indoor will be what makes soccer in the U.S.

There is, however, no way of knowing yet whether indoor soccer can do what hockey failed to do—win national acceptance and network contracts and become America’s fourth major professional team sport. But for better or worse, it’s becoming clearer all the time that if soccer does succeed as a spectator sport in the U.S., it will be the indoor brand that will thrive.(*)

Sure, soccer fans these days may think of Deford as the curmudgeonly vestige of old-school anti-soccer cynicism. But this piece was written more than 30 years ago. And at the time, it certainly seemed like he had a point.(**)

About 15 years ago, reasonable people thought women’s soccer would outpace men’s soccer as a big-time sport in the USA. Then 13 years ago, MLS nearly died, struggling to turn the corner from its debt-ridden start as the recession kicked in.

So things can change rather quickly in soccer. In the time it took Landon Donovan to go from youth prodigy to retiree, we’ve seen European soccer go from the occasional ESPN/Fox Sports World curiosity to big-time U.S. programming. We’ve seen MLS expand to 20 teams while only losing three along the way, a record not many leagues can match in their first two decades. We now see kids walking around wearing Beckham, Messi, Rooney and Dempsey jerseys.

When I checked in about the Garber quote with someone at MLS, asking specifically whether fans should be worried, what I got back was, “Don’t worry — MLS isn’t going anywhere.” And yes, it’s unlikely that the whole thing would go belly-up. But it faces a challenge in terms of thriving in an ultracompetitive environment. The USA is one of the few countries in which soccer isn’t the dominant sport (Australia, Ireland, India, Pakistan, maybe China, Japan and Indonesia), and it’s one of the few leagues in the world in which its domestic fans are repeatedly badgered for supporting the league at all.

Fans cannot take MLS’s future success for granted. Nor can MLS take it for granted. With all the long-term investment in place, MLS isn’t exactly complacent, but it’s time to get creative — or in some cases to just take off the training wheels.

What about actual free agency? What about a nice pay raise for first-team players? How about replacing the muddy allocation system with a simpler revenue-sharing plan that makes teams pay into a general pool when they splash out on a big contract?

And why aren’t we closer to a CBA at this point, just 82 days before D.C. United is expected to field a team in the CONCACAF quarterfinals?

(Also in the State of the League roundtable, Rob Stone won fans and admirers by holding Garber’s feet to the fire on NYCFC and LAFC’s lack of concrete stadium plans, Garber wants to press onward to 24 teams but isn’t thinking of anything beyond that, the commissioner tossed out a neat idea for aligning the final meaningful games of the MLS regular season at the same time and getting the best ones on TV with NFL-style “flex” scheduling, and the 12-team playoff might not be happening after all. See RSL Soapbox for the rundown.)

Footnotes:

* – Indoor soccer has its own issues at the moment.

** – The whole story is a recommended read. It has some amusing anachronisms (hey, remember when SI and The New York Times set the sports agenda for the nation?), but some of the arguments over special treatment for American and Canadian players are still ongoing.

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One Response to MLS, the state of (abridged)

  1. Joshua (my cat) says:

    There are millions of soccer fans in the United States in the year 2014. Many if not most are fans of a national team or some professional league of a foreign country MLS’ challenge is to convert them into fans of MLS A bit of American nationalism wouldn’t hurt. Not that I expect or want Don Garber to go parading around wrapped in the American flag….

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