MLS First Kick: Thoughts


MLS seems to always get its timing wrong. Last night’s MLS First Kick went head to head with the first night of the great American sporting event known as the NCAA Tournament. March Madness which is in many ways an Americanized version of the FA Cup is in some ways more recognizable to European tastes than MLS Football, particularly when it is played on an artificial pitch.

MLS is in its fourteenth season, yet is now putting a team for the first time in the most natural football market in the US. Seattle is a can’t miss. We’ve all known that from the beginning. In due time this will probably be the biggest and best supported club on US soil since the New York Cosmos. Seattle is a market which long deserved top flight football, and finally has it. USL did well in Seattle as did the old APSL and the NASL. MLS however can put Seattle over the top.

What is disconcerting is the other side of the coin: Red Bull New York. Despite a run to the MLS Cup Final a year ago, the franchise operates in a total vacuum locally.   Searching the New York daily newspapers hardly a mention of the game besides the obligatory buried story. A contact of mine who spoke to me last night because of the NCAA Tournament mentioned to me “they didn’t even mention your soccer game on the local news”  It’s hard to believe Red Bull actually was a good investment for the soft drink manufacturer that is used to the rabid support and frequent media exposure of Europe. Perhaps Red Bull would have been better served investing in an MLS or USL franchise in the Pacific Northwest where Football seems to really matter.

With USL’s decision to put a team in New York City in the near future, we will find out if New Yorkers will back an Americanized version of football or if they prefer the European game and the glory of the Cosmos so much that they will not properly support a local team. I’ve been given a laundry list of excuses for over ten years as to why the New Jersey MLS franchise struggles not only at the gate but to garner any sustained meaningful media coverage. After ten plus years of excuses you tend to tune them out, which I have chosen to do.

ESPN’s coverage of the match was like a glorified infomercial for MLS. When ESPN was being paid to air the league amateurish broadcasts were one thing, but now that MLS is actually receiving a rights fee, the booth and studio do not need to be filled with yes men who will never even critique the level of play or the quality of footballer.

The opposite view is held by Telefutura whose commentators have a Mexican bias and often times simply rip the quality of play for no reason. Nobody who watches both leagues has to my knowledge ever claimed MLS is a superior product to the FMF. The assertion that MLS is somehow superior is only made by MLS apologists that don’t watch Mexican Football. In other words, Telefutura’s commentators need not be defensive. The Bottom line is that on neither ESPN or Telefutura is an MLS game being called or presented properly or objectively.

Not surprisingly, Seattle dominated the match. If the Artificial Turf does not cause a disproportionate number of injuries for the Sounders or limit their ability to play attractive attacking football, Seattle should be one of the favorites to win MLS Cup this season. Additionally, for probably about the hundredth time in the last year I am going to call upon Bob Bradley to call Kasey Keller back to the national team. I have no doubt that Keller is still at 39, a far superior keeper, particularly in key international matches than the mistake prone Brad Guzan.


  • Marcus Tracy, the Wake Forest standout and Hermann Trophy winner who skipped MLS for a career in Europe has made his continental debut. Tracy entered AaB’s match with Manchester City in minute 77 and had a major impact on the proceedings stretching the City defense and helping Aalborg create four scoring chances in the final ten minutes of regulation time. Tracy’s side lost in a penalty kick shootout, but his 43 minutes on the pitch showed exactly why he would have been the likely #1 pick in the MLS Superdraft had he opted for to stay at home to play professional football.
  • Reports out of Spain indicate Jozy Altidore whose club career has hit a major road block will be called into Bob Bradley’s US National Team for the upcoming qualifiers. We’ll find out the rest of the team early Friday.
  • I’m hearing speculation that Crystal Palace USA, currently in USL-2 may move to USL-1 next year and replace an exisiting USL-1 franchise. Any guess who the existing franchise may be? Also, with Crystal Palace itself in some financial difficulty, it is interesting that their US based affiliate is potentially jumping to a higher level of football.

32 thoughts on “MLS First Kick: Thoughts”

  1. Why should either network cover MLS games objectively? It is a product and a business, after all. ESPN wants to get more viewers so they’re going to sell the product and point out its positives. On the other hand, Telefutura caters to an audience that they believe will eat up kneejerk jingoistic potshots at the MLS play so they go for it.

    Who cares what people outside the U.S. think of MLS? Step one is to get the thing profitable. It’s a good product and a good value for the entertainment dollar. I’m not going to claim it’s the better than League X but it’s my league and it’s good soccer and it’s worth my ticket dollars and TV viewing time.

    Soccer media outside the U.S. will always take potshots at the MLS and U.S. Soccer in general. Our national team could win the World Cup and D.C. United could win the Club World Cup and those foreign media would still talk about how bad it all is. They say that because they don’t know the subtle truths, don’t care, and believe that their target audience will eat it up.

    Trying to placate the foreign sporting press is like trying to placate the “popular” jerk in middle school. You try and try and they still try to bully you. Telefutura is in an odd position because they are caught in between selling jingoism and promoting their product.

  2. Seattle is great. Good unis, great fan support.

    But by most objective standards MLS is a dreadful product. Cavan is right about the European press, but MLS is nowhere near the level among world leagues that the US National Team is among world soccer.

    Who cares about what people think outside the US? Easy, it’s a world game and many players look at MLS as a retirement home. While people like Undrafted come on here and say the CONCACAF Cup doesn’t matter, I do talk to friends in the UK who follow soccer in America who are now suddenly very curious about USL and think MLS is an even bigger farce than they claimed before. Some of these people are involved with soccer there and most definitely talk about this issue. The fact that USL which until recently was a semi-professional league for all intents and purposes and still plays in dumpy high school football stadiums can be regarded favorably by any standard to MLS tells me the league is not performing. Moreover, simply turning on a random match from Mexico, Kartik would justify Telefutura’s point of view. MLS is still miles behind the Mexican league as a product. If you believe otherwise you’re not as knowledgeable about this sport as everyone gives you credit for being.

    I should further point out it is difficult to sign players of any quality given MLS reputation. Now the Beckham fiasco and CONCACAF makes it even more difficult. Americans also now more exposed to a good product like English Soccer or Italian Soccer are less likely to follow MLS unless they have a team. The TV ratings Kartik goes on and on about are proof of that. He says “twice as many people watched MLS in 1999.” Yes, very true and that’s because we were not exposed to good soccer every weekend from Europe at the time and just accepted MLS with its faults as “our” league. Now it is totally naive to believe most of the American soccer loving public will do the same again.

    Look at Marcus Tracy who you mention. He was without any question the best College player in the last maybe 3-5 years. He didn’t even think about MLS. National Champion and Hermann Trophy Winner, he went to Europe without hesitation. If MLS cannot even get good young American players to make a pit stop in the league, what good is it?

    1. Ian- I have never once claimed MLS is even close to the level of the FMF. I believe the best MLS team would not make the playoffs of the Apertura or the Clausura. But Telefutura’s announcers do not have to drone on about bad giveaways, bad first touches and poor skill in the same way Harkes says, “oh this guy is so good” and ESPN oversells MLS. Both are equally guilty of not covering the league properly.

  3. First, it is unfair to ever compare the MLS to other world leagues, which I assume usually means the EPL, Serie A, La Liga, Mexico Primavera, and Bundesliga. Those leagues have been around for 100 years. The MLS has been around for 15, it’s only logical that’s it’s not among the world’s best. It is our local league though and it is “the beautiful game’ and for that I think it deserves the support of American soccer fans. The thing that makes English soccer so great, beyond the visually pleasing style of play, is that those teams are a part of a town’s identity. Someone from Fulham is going to hate the “Blues” and cheer for the “Whites” because it is what they were raised to do. American soccer is never going to get to whatever point we want it to if people rip it and ignore it rather than support it like other countries do. Sure it can be ugly at times but so can the so called top world leagues. The MLS has surely improved just in the few years I have been watching.

    Secondly, I read a lot of negative comments about Field Turf pitches. I am wondering of those people have actually stepped on one of those artificial surfaces? When I have I was amazed at how much it felt like Bermuda grass on a golf course. To me it would be a wonderful surface to play on.

    Finally, it seems like in all the talk of the USL vs MLS, people will only point out the records of international competitions and they never remember that the MLS keeps winning the U.S. Open Cup. Face to face would seem to be a better indicator of whether a league is better or not. I don’t think anyone argues that the USL is a bad league. Maykel Galindo showed that there are good players in the minors that very much deserve playing on a bigger stage. Some of the Sounders may show that as well. The MLS is definitely better run, higher profile, and overall has better teams. That seems to me to be all that “major” is.

  4. Harkes does a decent job calling players out for poor play. Last year he was on Pietravallo and last night was on Rojas most of the game. The commentators don’t need to spend time comparing MLS games to other leagues; their job is to either call the run of play or to analyze that for the television audience. The ESPN team does that. Check out Harkes’ analysis of the goals scored before halftime for proof of that.

    I mean, it’d be like a website that would discuss MLS. It doesn’t need to constantly try to compare MLS to other leagues or just spend loads of time going out of their way to reiterate what MLS lacks and what it does wrong to the point where the author becomes silly and starts embarrassing himself. It could analyze the match ups, recap games, and so on. It could be evenhanded and focused on the league.

    Maybe I should start a website like that. I know, I could call it “Major League Soccer Talk”…

    1. Part of the problem Ric, is that MLS people keep comparing leagues. Greg Lalas calls it a top 10 worldwide league and says it is on the same level as Argentina and Brazil. MLS people constantly claim the league is on par or better than Mexico. MLS fans constantly claim the leagues teams would beat Bundesliga or Serie A teams in a competitive setting. Look I attempt balance here- some soccer press in this country don’t want to criticize MLS because it is “our” league and they value their access to a league office which is very much adverse to criticisms. Others bash MLS for no reason without watching it or knowing anything about the league because they feel it should be EPLUSA or SERIEA USA.

      The comparisons have been brought on by others in the media and the league itself. Recall it was Garber himself last April who said the CONCACAF Champions League would prove MLS’ quality more than the Champions Cup did. I am simply holding the commissioner and the league accountable for his irresponsible comments which also around the same time included an attack on DC United whose record in international competitions prior to 2008 was far and away the best of any MLS club.

  5. History is an important of the game here in America also. We have not been playing this game for 15 years but for over a 100. The ASL and NASL were two of the best leagues in the world at the time.

    History is why Chivas-Colorado this weekend makes me say “i’ll stick with the ncaas” while LA Galaxy-DC United makes me say “I’ll skip the ncaas.”

    Football is about history and passion. While you don’t create that overnight, MLS’ greatest sin in my book was to pretend America had NO soccer history before World Cup 1994.

  6. Ian, once again, who cares what some fans in the UK think about our leagues? Are they going to spend any money to watch any MLS games? Buy any MLS merchandise? Then who really cares what they think. They live in the UK. I think it’s great that they support their local clubs in the UK. Their incomplete, jingoistic opinions of our league mean just as little as my opinion that their league is boring because it’s just the same four teams buying the spots in the Champions’ League year after year.

    If there are fans in our country who prefer to watch a foreign league on TV, so be it. In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, most of those fans are from somewhere else anyway. Trying to get many fans from other countrries to embrace MLS is like trying to get a native-born American NBA fan to embrace a European pro basketball league. The key is to raise American fans. The reason why fans in Argentina support their clubs, despite the fact that all their top stars have been bought by the Big 4 in Europe, is that they were raised that way. The game is embedded in their community. That’s why they care, despite the fact that they can get a “superior” league on cable TV.

    Our league has been around for 15 years now. Some teams have some sort of niche community embeddedness. Others are still working on it. That embedded fanbase is what’s going to put butts in seats. Until our league is a cultural phenomenon, something that won’t happen until no one is alive who remembers its founding, ticket revenue will be the major chunk of team revenues. This is the path to profitability for the young league. Even the WWE relied on gate revenue rather than TV revenue all the way up until the late 1990’s and pro wrestling has been a part of a segment of American culture for a century. Same with the NFL. The NFL thrived for decades on ticket sales, not TV revenue.

    We need to get the league to profitability. That’s the only way player salaries will go up. Increasing player salaries will be the way we retain our best and brightest young players. Those players aren’t eschewing the league out of some sort of hatred. They’re following the money.

    I’m not going to claim that the MLS is the best league in the world. It’s a work in progress. But as it is, it’s worth every entertainment dollar I spend on DC United tickets.

  7. Andy, I will say, having played on both FieldTurf and on well-manicured grass, I’ll take the grass any day. I’ll take FieldTurf over a beaten up grass field. However, it’s nowhere near as good as the kind of grass fields you find in professional stadiums like RFK, Pizza Hut Park, the HDC etc.

    While 10,000 times better than old AstroTurf, the ball still takes funny hops, doesn’t slow down when rolling like on grass, and tires you out more than grass. It’s ok, but easily second best by far.

  8. Cavan, Ric, etc.

    You may see MLS as “your” league because you have teams, but some of us only have USL and have been totally disrespected by MLS publicly and could care less about the league. I live closer to an FMF team than an MLS team. It’s cheaper for me to fly to see an FMF game than an MLS game. I support the US so naturally I have interest in how our guys do in MLS, but also have interest in Fulham, IK Start, Hansa Rostock, etc for the same reason.

    MLS has done nothing to expand its scope beyond its markets. The TV ratings which are in the dumper reflect that and how uncompelling a product it is. You are just like this who Kartik says won’t criticize the league because they feel they are hurting the game in this country.

    I too remember Garber and other MLS hacks saying the Champions Cup was the preseason and the Champions League would show how good MLS was. Then when the tourney rolled around, MLS teams and lovers complained of fixture congestion.

    I appreciate this site because it focuses on US Soccer while not glorifying the product or exempting the USSF, MLS or USL from criticism. For me that makes this site a must read.

  9. Some very good comments above. I will make some other comments later but for anyone that took in the Seattle game last night you would have to be impressed by what took place there. Ok, a well played game, no. Kasey Keller still has some gas left in the tank btw. It was a real showcase for MLS and the way they closed off sections of the stadium worked extremely well.

    The time of the game and date was set by ESPN and it was not the best time as we know but last night was not the first time a league set a game time at the behest of a network. Lets say well done to everyone in Seattle.

  10. USA in 2010, you have a very good point that I would see the league differently if I didn’t live where there was a team. I am positive about it partially because I link the MLS with me having fun hopping on the Metro and watching DC United with friends. I’m not an apologist for the league’s shortcomings. I do see things as half full, admitedly. I grew up playing the game and always wishing that there was a pro league to watch. I’m too young to remember the NASL so I don’t really have that as a comparison. I enjoy having the privilege of cheering for a team. I guess the tint on the glasses changes if you don’t have a team to cheer for in MLS.

  11. Cavan:

    If you are not aware on one point the best basketball is not played in the NBA. The NBA has the worlds best players but basketball is a team game and the NBA a long time ago gave up any pretense of being a team game. However many of your comments on the growth of the MLS are well placed and on target. I have spoken here a lot about how people forget when the NFL was a sport played from late September until mid-December with a 12 game schedule and really a regional league only east of the Mississippi.

    Should we be afraid to attack the MLS since it’s our league and we must support it. No, of course not. Yet, we should be willing to support the league in it’s growth to a league that will be a major player on the international football stage and remain one, not go away like the NASL. An example is last nights game. ESPN pays the bills so they get to name the date and time. Even the NFL has to bow down to a network every once in a while. The NBA schedule has the finals in June due to a network “request”. You may have wondered once or twice why the NBA finals are so dragged out? TV money called for it. So, lets give MLS a break we all want a 20 team league that will last.

  12. MLS is a laughable product for the most part.

    I hope it improves. I really want it to work but the quality of play is poor and the bottom line is the American college system probably develops players (like, S. Joseph, DeMerit, Edu, now Tracy) as well as MLS does. These college kids spend half their year in the PDL which is literally a professional development league. MLS on the other hand is a bottom line driven league trying to repay investors with money they scam other ways like through Superliga, Interliga and out of control expansion.

    I hope it works long term but expect the league at some point to contract again and learn the hard way that it needs to find a niche and show less arrogance.

  13. I know that lars, but he was developed in the NCAA at Maryland in 3 years quicker than the MLS develops most guys. He was a ready made product when drafted by TFC.

  14. thomas skull says “college system probably develops players (like, S. Joseph, DeMerit, Edu, now Tracy”

    your refering to top players who already had the talent to play anywhere, why dont you mention players who were developed in mls like clint dempsy, tim howard, freddy adu, taylor twellman, mike parkhurst, eddie johnson and demarcus beasley? we can play this game all day

  15. I agree with ric the author and the rest of us who enjoy the game need to apperciate that we have a league that happens to be experiencing tremendous growth. stop worrying about what people who will never follow the mls no matter if its the best league or not.

  16. As long as a team could finish buttom of the table and not be relegated because they are a ‘”franchise”, MLS will be just a show lacking credibility among the true soccer fans.
    The weakness of the 4 mayor american sports is that there are very few teams compare to the size of US.They are furthermore concentrated on the most populated areas.
    MLS adopting a structure similar to “US sports” ,and concentrating on their same markets more or less makes no sense.The strategy should have been hiting then where it would hurt them, and taking all the ground US sports left uncovered.
    Promotion and relegation not only will put US on the same page with soccer around the planet; It is the perfect tool for soccer to succed on America.
    A salary cap,another “US spotrs” like strategy adopted by MLS, is another key issue. Limiting the top soccer league in America to compete against the 4 mayor US sports (wich have the top talent on their fields), and puting us in clear disadvantage compare to the top international leagues.
    The people on top of MLS come from american sports,they dont come from a soccer background; thats why they do things the way they do.Thats why this league lacks credibility.
    With prom/releg and NOT salary cap, soccer will be the most popular US sport very rapidly.

  17. Still on the promotion/relegation fantasy?

    Do you really think MLS will have an ESPN contract if there’s a risk of not having a team in metro NY?

    Do you think people will still come out for a team that gets relegated to a “minor” league? (yeah, they’re packing the stands in Toronto now, but look at the attendance figures when the Lynx were in USL-1)

    How long have the G-20 been plotting a closed European Super League?

  18. As for Seattle Sounders, here are their most attendance figures in USL-1

    2005: 2,885 per game (8th out of 12)
    2006: 3,826 per game (8th out of 12)
    2007: 3,325 per game (8th out of 12)
    2008: 4,657 per game (5th out of 11)

  19. Fair enough (though it proves my point about the difference in support between a “major” league and a “minor” league in the North American definition), but the Lynx’s average attendance rarely came close to capacity.

    2002: 1,730 (13th out of 18)
    2003: 2,651 (9th out of 19)
    2004: 2,444 (10th out of 16)
    2005: 2,468 (10th out of 12)
    2006: 1,732 (12th out of 12)

    Even if you discount 2006 as MLS had announced expansion into Toronto for 2007, the preceding attendance figure didn’t suggest a great deal of support for lower league soccer.

    Would Toronto FC still have a waiting list for season tickets if they were to be relegated? Maybe, given what the RPB and the other supporter groups are developing, but it’s unlikely.

  20. Yes, but the USL has always been seen as a substitute for CSL. Really, the attendance is about the same. The White Eagles and Toronto Croatia compete with the Lynx for fans. These teams however are seen as minor league compared to MLS. USL-1 has been seen as a minor league, and I agree with you on that point. However, if USL-1 were to move into non-MLS markets and try to grow the game there while MLS grows in the traditional markets, you would see that USL-1 would become a very healthy division 2. They need to use MLS success to boost their own growth.

  21. Dont you think that if teams were playing a suposed 2nd division, with a chance of been promoted to a higher division. there wouldn’t be an atendance increase?
    One factor to consider, about USL atendace and pro/rel is that the USL teams have been playing for a championship,and nothing more. Unlike the rest of the soccer world,in wich leagues are conected by pro/rel,and been on top of the table means something substancial. USL have been completly isolated from the soccer world. USL is like the AAA in baseball.Dont you see this fact?!
    All the world campions countries use it. Could someone tell me what procentage of leagues in the world use pro/rel ? It acomplish a very important thing; trying not to let anybody out. It gives fans a chance to have a team; follow it!; see it grow!; the challenge of trying to make it to the next level!!
    The fact that pro/rel is practice on ALL the bigger and better soccer leagues.Even in our Confederation countris like Costa Rica,Honduras,Guatemala,El Salvador,Panama , have pro/rel.
    I think is kind of arrogant,that pro/rel have been almost completly ignored in the US. I think it is a very important issue, that we should discuss more frequently,and deeper!

  22. Yes, Roger all the countries in the world have it other than the US. Blah blah blah.

    The fact is all the countries in the world do not have such massive dilution of their population as the United States does. Charleston or Rochester are nowhere near the size of New York, Chicago, LA or Toronto (four of the top five biggest media markets in North America).

    There is absolutely no way promotion/relegation would work in a country that has four major professional sports leagues. As soon as any of the big four gets demoted, the entire league would take a massive hit in their TV contract and would be forced to find alternative financing.

  23. Lars
    Realistically, if we had pro/rel it would be unlikelly that a team from a mayor media market would be relegated.
    The pro/rel issue is linked with the salary cap issue in my opinion.
    The salary cap protects investors. If no team can expend more than the determined amount, then owners, wont have to spend “too much” in order to keep up with the “big sharks”. The league sells teams like investments.
    Pro/relg on the other hand,gives any “market” a chance to win their status on the pitch .
    Salary cap and pro/rel are from oposit interests.Wich one, of the two sides should carry most weight,if we really want to capture the essense of the game?
    With no salary cap, and pro/rel in place.The big markets will have the more money; they will build better teams.New York should not be compared with Charleston or Rochester;it should be compared with Manchester or Barcelona.NY was shaped by competition.That is the essense of the game.Soccer is a reflexion of live.
    Not getting fully integrated to the soccer world,is not the right way to show identity.It only benefits a few. As long as we dont have pro/rel,we will be missing the final touch.
    In soccer the right way to show identity is on the pitch.

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