Tag Archives: Beckham

5 Things Right with MLS

A few weeks ago I wrote an entry entitled “5 Things Wrong with MLS,” which was my way to fume about what I felt Major League Soccer was doing wrong with the league in its quest to because a respected soccer league worldwide.  A reader made some interesting comments about the entry, some affirming what I had written and some challenging some of my points.  In the end, he challenged me to write the counter-piece, 5 Things Right with MLS, and I was more than willing to do so.

Of course, that’s because I really do believe that MLS is doing some great things, both on and off the field.  While my first impulse is to criticize the league for some glaring mistakes, it has done some great things since 1996 to develop its fan base, drastically improve the level of play, and establish a legitimate identity among the more established leagues of the world.

So, here are five things that MLS has done right in the past 12 years:

 

  1. Soccer-specific stadiums have proven to be a great investment.

Stadiums like the Home Depot Center and Pizza Hut Park are not only beautiful parks that make watching the game more enjoyable, they are also symbols that U.S. cities are willing to support a franchise.

I’m sure the players love it too.   Would you rather play on the hard turf of the football field at the University of Utah, distanced from the fans, or would you rather play on a real soccer pitch, in an intimate venue where the fans feel much closer to the action?

 

  1. Extending franchises to Canada, especially Toronto, has been a great success (and should continue with Vancouver).

The Toronto FC franchise now has the reputation for having the best fans in the league.  Their fans show up to the games (whether or not Beckham is visiting), they cheer loudly, and create a unique atmosphere that helps provide home field advantage for their club while making it tough on visiting clubs.

Steve Nash of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns has publicly expressed interest in bringing a franchise to Vancouver.  While the notion that a franchise would work in Vancouver because it has worked so well in Toronto is not a perfect inference, it certainly acts as a good indicator that a Vancouver franchise would do well.  Of course, the Seattle Sounders will be around next year, and the Pacific Northwest market might get a little crowded with two franchises, but there’s something to be said for a little across-the-border rivalry between Canadians and Americans.  Just look at the rivalry between the Galaxy and Chivas.  Which brings us to reason number three…

 

  1. Chivas USA recognized their market and have pursued a club image consistent with their marketing scheme (while also keeping the quality of play high) 

Chivas USA set out to grab the attention of the emerging Latino fan market, and they have done about as well as could be expected.  While the fanfare and media attention have been greater and more magnified on their Home Depot neighbors, all the news coming the Chivas camp, while never being extraordinary, is all positive.  They currently hold some of the best young players in the game and have now qualified for the playoffs three straight years.  Consistent play, a smart, passionate coach, and an organization that is willing to take success step-by-step should all be credited for the emergence of a club that in its debut season looked destined to inhabit the Western Conference cellar for its first few years.

The same goes for the Houston Dynamo.  After MLS decided to start a franchise in Houston, the process of selecting a name for the club began.  After much deliberation, team officials and MLS agreed on the name “Houston 1836,” which, according to MLS and AEG, would commemorate the year that the city of Houston was officially founded.  Problem was, 1836 also reverberated in Texans’ minds as the year the Battle of the Alamo, when a Texan army defeated the Mexican army at the Alamo.  It also referred more generally to the year in which Texas sought independence from Mexico.  Of course, the inevitable happened when members from Houston’s large Latino population protested the club’s name. 

The importance of this historical aside?  MLS, AEG and the Houston organization responded to the calls of its fans by changing the name to “Dynamo,” which referenced Houston’s energy-based industrial economy.  They made a mistake initially (a pretty big one, actually), but they took the steps to correct it and, in the process, put their fans first.

 

  1. The level of play has improved greatly over the course of 12 years due to marquee signings of proven international stars, an improved stock of young American players, and an ability to nab some lesser-known footballers from around the world, especially South America.

Not all of MLS’s signings have worked out, but a lot of them have carried teams and been the face of their organizations over the years.  Let’s take the Galaxy:

Mauricio Cienfeugos:  The diminutive playmaker from El Salvador may not have been a “star” in every sense of the word, but he was undoubtedly the most important piece of the Galaxy clubs that were so successful in the first few years of the league.  In my opinion, he was not only the Galaxy’s best signing ever, he was also the best player (team-wise) to put on a Galaxy uniform.

Luis Hernandez: The tremendously popular character and once-prolific scorer from Mexico added instant excitement to the field when he was first signed, but his influence soon dwindled and he became a non-factor.  It was clear that his best playing days were behind him, and he could not keep up with the pace of play in the States.

Eduardo Hurtado: “El Tanque” was a goal scoring machine for the Galaxy until the club sent him to the MetroStars in 1998.  He was a huge personality and, together with Cienfuegos, provided instant offense on the field.

David Beckham: We’ve talked about it way too much, but why not some more?  Beckham has obviously brought more attention to MLS than ever before, but the product on the field has not improved since his arrival; in fact, you could say it’s regressed, especially since the Galaxy has no shot at the playoffs this year despite fielding players like Beckham, Landon Donovan, Carlos Ruiz (now gone), and Eddie Lewis (mid-season acquisition).  I won’t blame this all on Beckham.  In fact, I put very little of the onus on him.  His play has not been as good as it could be (after watching him simply demolish the Kazakhstan defense in 14 minutes of play last week, I’m convinced that he plays infinitely better when surrounded by better players, or maybe just when he’s motivated), but even if he were playing at a higher level, the Galaxy probably still wouldn’t grab a playoff spot.  So for right now, given the circumstances surrounding Beckaham’s signing, it has been a failure.

However, for the most part, the signings that the Galaxy, and MLS in general, have made have improved the league, in one way or another, immensely.

Young talent brought from the high school and college ranks has also improved.  Some of the best players in the league came into the league through the SuperDraft, and their games have steadily improved since coming into the league. 

The signing of quality Latin American players has, of late, been very helpful for the league.  Older stars like Cuauhtemoc Blanco have had overwhelmingly positive effects on their teams, while younger stars, perhaps more important to the development of the league, are being given the chance to blossom here in the United States.

 

  1. MLS doesn’t shy away from competition.

The league may not be ready for the real limelight – I’m talking about playing Champions League football – but who is, save for a few elite clubs from elite leagues?  MLS regularly pits its clubs against top clubs from Mexico and South America, and each year their all-star squad takes on a top-drawer club from Europe.

Beckham’s first game with the Galaxy ended with a 1-0 loss to Chelsea at the Home Depot Center.  Yeah, it didn’t mean anything to Chelsea, and they didn’t seem to put any stock into it.  But for an MLS club, especially one like the shambled crew like the Galaxy, to compete with one of the best clubs in the world was extremely encouraging. 

MLS believes in the quality of the product on the field, and they don’t back down from any competition.  To get better, you have set a standard.  MLS has set the bar high, and the players understand where the league wants to go.  It seems like the quality of play improves incrementally every year, and there isn’t much reason to believe why it shouldn’t continue.

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5 Things Wrong with Major League Soccer

Soccer in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds since it started to grow popular as a spectator sport (beyond the youth games at local parks) in the early 1990s.  With a growing fanbase for soccer eager to watch competitive games in the United States and an increasingly talented corps of recent college athletes eager to play at home, Major League Soccer opened its doors in 1996.  Since then, MLS has grown to become a (somewhat) legitimate league that (sometimes) compete with the elite teams from Mexico, Central America and South America.

Perhaps the slow, steady rate of growth the MLS was experiencing up until a few years ago was not enough – last year it made big waves when it signed David Beckham to a deal worth up to $250 million over 5 years to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.  The MLS insists that it wasn’t putting all its eggs into one (overaged) basket, but the evidence is on the field: while attendance for Beckham games has been outstanding, attendance figures show that the league has failed to produce new fans that will show up when Beckham isn’t around.

Signing Beckham was not the wrong thing to do.  But the MLS needed to complete the picture before they did so.  The media circus surrounding Beckham’s arrival was in one sense a public relations boon, but it inevitably painted Beckham as a savior of the sport in this country and placed unreasonable expectations and scrutiny on a league unprepared to handle it.  Now, with the media expecting more from the league, making their inner workings ever more transparent, glaring weaknesses have been exposed that, compared to established leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB, have crippled the league’s legitimacy in the eyes of the media and soccer fans.

I’ll continue to watch MLS games and support the Galaxy because I love soccer, and it’s fun to head to the Home Depot Center and catch a game.  But the league frustrates me to no end.  Here are five things that the MLS has done wrong and that it doesn’t seem to understand:

5.  The MLS doesn’t understand its fan base

I will give the MLS credit for organizing with Chivas of Guadalajara in the creation of Chivas USA.  Given the fanbase that already exists in Los Angeles for the most-celebrated and popular side in Mexican history, they’ve created a team that would immediately strike a proud chord in Southern California.  They started with a side that consisted almost exclusively of Latin players and have slowly integrated into the league with players from all over the globe.  In this sense, and through what it has done with Toronto FC, it does understand its fan base.

But what the league does not understand is that sports fans, above anything else, love a winner.  If they can’t have a winner, then they want an organization dedicated to building a winner.  The MLS is hell-bent on modeling its system after the Barclay’s Premier League in England, which since the mid-90s has proven to be a gigantic success.  But the Premier League does not value parity among its teams.  The league elites always land at the top of the standings, the ones in the middle scramble for a chance to play in one of the European tournaments, and the ones at the bottom are just trying to stay in the league. 

If the MLS wants to be successful, it needs to model its league after domestic leagues in other sports – the NBA, NFL and MLB for example – where each team has a pretty good shot at winning sometime in the near future.  If they’re losers, then at least there’s hope.  How do you do this?  Don’t always assign the best international signees to Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.  Spread the wealth.  Be fair.  Give yourself some legitimacy.

4.  The MLS surrounded David Beckham with a bunch of nobodies

Let’s be realistic.  When David Beckham was deciding whether or not to come to the MLS, he was only going to one of two places – Los Angeles and New York.  And even though Becks loves New York City, I’m sure the only real choice was Los Angeles. 

Problem is, there were no other considerations involved.  If Beckham wanted to go to Los Angeles, there would be nothing the MLS could do about it.  But by throwing Beckham into a mix of young, unexperienced players (and Landon Donovan), it assured that the Galaxy would fall further down the standings than it was the year before.  The results?  The Galaxy failed to qualify for the playoffs last year, and this year they are on pace to miss them again, currently on a 10-game winless streak (5 losses and 5 ties).  It’s almost embarassing to think that Beckham could miss the playoffs (what should be the MLS’s premier attraction instead of the All-Star game) his first two years here, and possibly beyond. 

They tried to remedy the situation this year by hiring Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit to coach the team, but that experiment failed after only 20 games.  Gullit had expressed his frustration at having to coach young players were not well-schooled in the fundamentals of the game, and he admonished Galaxy management when they allowed a stadium usher to fill in for an undermanned Galaxy developmental team.  No wonder he left.

Now Bruce Arena and the MLS are left to pick up the pieces.  First order: get someone who can actually play defense.

3.  The MLS schedules regular season games that conflict with national team games

As Grahame L. Jones of the Los Angeles Times recently noted, the MLS makes the mistake of scheduling regular season games near dates when national team games around the world are being played.  Nearly no other league does this. 

This weekend, Toronto FC will be missing 9 of its 11 starters to national team call-ups for its game against Chivas USA.  In addition to starters and bench players who are injured, this creates a situation where Toronto will essentially be fielding a developmental team. 

This is an affront to season ticket holders who expect to see a professional team on the field every game.  The same thing happens to the Galaxy – Landon Donovan and David Beckham are always gone for call-ups, giving the Galaxy a rather dull product on the field and a ZERO chance of winning.  If I’m a season ticket holder, I’m selling my tickets for those games.

2.  The MLS does not abide by its own rules

The MLS has a designated player rule whereby each team gets the same number of “designated players” (marquee signings of players arriving from abroad) to keep the league competitive.  Most teams, especially ones that aren’t in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, have only one designated player.  With the David Beckham signing, the Galaxy had three designated players – Beckham, Donovan and Carlos Ruiz. 

This was not the first time it happened.  When Donovan came back to the United States from a brief stint with Germany’s Bayern Leverkusen, the San Jose Earthquakes still owned the rights to him.  The league forced San Jose to trade the rights to Donovan to the Galaxy, which the league thought would be the better fit for its best player. 

Funny, the Galaxy has benefitted from breaches of the rules, yet they haven’t been able to make the playoffs in either of the last two years (and probably this year too).

1.  The MLS cannot keep young American talent from going abroad

I may be placing too much blame on the MLS, but while they have garnered a lot of new talent from abroad, especially South America, it has failed to keep the players who would have become the true stars of the league.  At times, there is little the league can or should do about it when an exceptional young player wants to leave.  But a confluence of factors – some of which I have described above – contribute a player’s leaving his own country to play abroad, and it’s not just the competition.

It was a foregone conclusion that Jozy Altidore, an explosive young striker who played for the New York Red Bulls, would leave for Europe.  But other players like Clint Dempsey, Brad Guzan and Kenny Cooper are players who have the ability to play in top-flight leagues in Europe but will probably not become stars. 

When the MLS loses domestic players to second division teams in Norway (this is happening), you know they are at least partly to blame.

If you want to build an attractive soccer product, it starts with the quality of play.  If you want to build the quality of play, it starts with keeping what should already have been yours.