Seattle Success … Good for MLS?


I was thinking about the Seattle phenomenon and a thought crossed my mind.

Would it be good or bad for MLS if Seattle went deep into the playoffs in its inaugural year?

What would it say about a league if a brand new team could have such great success in its first ever season? I can hear it now, “that league sucks, even a new team can win”. That goes against the grain of every sports fan. Sure, the Fire did it in ’98, but the league was only in it’s third year of existence.

In 2005, the first year for Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA, they finished 5th and 6th respectively in the Western Conference a full 25 and 27 points behind 4th place eventual Cup winner Los Angeles.

In the west in 2006 Chivas USA finished 3rd on 43 points while RSL finished 6th with 39 points.

2007 brought Toronto into the league and they finished with the lowest point total with 25. The finished bottom in goals and goals allowed. RSL continued to stuggle finishing with only 27 points while Chivas USA emerged as Western Conference champions.

San Jose reincarnated joined MLS in 2008 and finished last in the west, albeit on goal differential vs the Galaxy. Toronto stayed ‘on expansion pattern’ by finishing last in the east for the 2nd year running. RSL followed in Chivas’ footsteps with a 3rd place western finish, just 3 points behind 2nd place Chivas and finished the season one win away from playing for the MLS Cup.

And here we are in 2009, 5th year Chivas USA tops the league in points. Fellow 5th year RSL sits 3rd in the west. 3rd year Toronto leads the east and 2nd year San Jose are 5th in the eight team west.

So recent history shows that expansion clubs need about 3 years to compete regularly in MLS. Not an unusual sports phenomenon as anyone who lived through the expansion of the ‘big four’ American sports leagues can attest . Expansion clubs struggle. Remember the ’62 Mets? Or the new Cleveland Browns?

Then there’s Seattle, 2nd in the league in points and averaging over 29,000 fans in their first four home matches. This is a great story and great TV! But is it good for the league to have an upstart have such great success on the pitch?

The positive regard of MLS, especially after its showing in the CONCACAF Champions League, barely extends outside of the suburbs of MLS cities, excluding perhaps Dallas, where the radius seems noticeably smaller.

So we need a story. Something to light a fire. And what could be better than a brand new team, with a cover boy Swedish import, a young exciting goal scorer and an American legend keeper ‘coming home’ and allowing 0 goals in his first 4 matches. And doing it in front of nearly 30,000 fans. Like I said, this makes for great TV. Lots of highlights. Hell, if you can’t make an impression with quality, put on a show.

18 thoughts on “Seattle Success … Good for MLS?”

  1. Yes it is good for Seattle to be a success on the pitch.

    You seem to forget, like so many others, that Seattle is not a new team. They are a promoted USL-1 Side, with about five players who played USL-1 last year. As has been pointed out by many on this board, USL-1 and MLS aren’t much different in quality, as many USL players simply can’t be kept by MLS due to salary constraints.

    The Sounders are not a real expansion club/franchise, and shouldn’t be viewed as one.

  2. Lars has it right although I’m still not convinced they will maintain this level of success throughout the season.

  3. I can only think it’s a good thing. This quick start by Seattle is a rude awakening to the rest of the MLS. Seattle has quickly become the franchise(fan support, attractive football, enthusiastic and component administration) that all MLS clubs should aspire to be. But it’s important for Seattle to continue this success on and off the pitch, to see a club like this flounder after this initial rush would be a huge blow.

  4. Go Sounders!!

    I’ve clearly got a bias, but I definitely agree that it’s the story of a sport that sells the tickets and brings back fond memories, and the Sounders are certainly that in MLS right now. It’s a triple-whammy; they’ve got the momentum (second behind Chivas right now), the underdog/fresh face expansion angle (whether real or perceived, ala USL comments above), the celebrity cheerleader (Drew Carrey), the local boys (as mentioned, the USL clout stayed on, and Pacific NW native Keller came home for the team), and, perhaps most importantly, the momentum of the fans, not just for their sold-out games, but also their crazy devotion. If this were a sports movie, Sounders would be the heroes and razor-sharp (but poorly selling, aka unliked) Chivas would probably be the bad guy. Chivas or the Galaxy, cuz everyone hates David Beckham.

    29000 might feel like just a number, and only get applauded by the league as a whole for its revenue impact, encouragement for more expansion teams and falloff tickets for increased league visibility. But it’s also 29000 people who, 20 years from now, will tear up thinking about that cinderella season, and how nobody sat for the full 90 at ALL of those games, right to the finish.

    The Yankees seem like a bloodless corporate husk these days, but theoretically, they’ve got a legendary status in baseball because of runs like this in their history, that grandpas tell their kids about. Also consider that 80 years of slowly improving, experience-gaining pro golfers never really captured imaginations like Tiger Woods, the kid who had the fairy tale run nobody saw coming.

    But once again, I’m biased…

  5. Seattle’s success can only be viewed as a positive for the time being. They have set the standard for fan support. Honestly, it seems like a challenge to other cities to actually back their team. If the Seattle fans continue to fill Qwest this season and next, you can be sure that Vancouver and Portland will answer the call with their own sell-out crowds (at least at first).

    However, success on the field is the key element. We have yet to see how Seattle fans handle defeat. There are no dynasties in the MLS. The player allocation rules make sure of that. I agree with John’s post above that a dip in attendance after a losing streak would be a huge blow to the league. Be sure that the MLS brand has a stake in Seattle’s success this season.

  6. 2nd post:

    More on point, I don’t think Seattle’s success on the pitch would turn off any fans of MLS. People who watch this league are not fools. They understand this is a 3rd rate league. They understand why players move in and out of MLS. What newer teams like Toronto and Seattle bring to the table that didn’t seem to exist in MLS in the early days was a sense of community. When football is about community, the team is embraced regardless of whether the team signs world-class talent. I had always feared that MLS did not understand this. Bringing Beckham to the U.S. turns heads, but it doesn’t create a sense of belonging. Beckham coming to L.A. might have made me turn on the TV, but it didn’t make me feel like I had anything to do with the Galaxy. And why should it? But by going into markets that have a high likelihood of bringing in an already existing football community that is ready to support anything you put in front of them (Portland, Vancouver), MLS gave me hope. Seattle’s fan support exemplifies that hope. I am from Indianapolis, and I am jealous of Seattle for having the Sounders. I suspect many people around the country feel the same way. That can only be a good thing for MLS’s future.

  7. As a european looking in I don’t think it is a bad thing for MLS that the sounders are doing well, I think it shows the importance of having the right manager and supporting him by bringing in the right players for his style of play.

    I’ve been to Seattle twice on holiday, I can’t wait to go back a third time so I can (hopefully!) go to a sounders game!

  8. Lars:
    You seem to forget, like so many others, that Seattle is not a new team. They are a promoted USL-1 Side, with about five players who played USL-1 last year. As has been pointed out by many on this board, USL-1 and MLS aren’t much different in quality, as many USL players simply can’t be kept by MLS due to salary constraints. The Sounders are not a real expansion club/franchise, and shouldn’t be viewed as one.

    Wrong, wrong and wrong. The current Seattle Sounders ARE an expansion side, they share only the name and a few players with the USL-1 side. The organization of the club has been around for awhile, but they are most definately an expansion team.

    And please, USL-1 is crap compared to MLS, period, and name more than a handful of USL 1 players who “werent kept by MLS for salary constraints”. In a vast, vast majority of cases, if they were good enough, they’d be in MLS.

  9. Its a product of the system or league structure. By capping existing teams and not offering any incentive for development of youth talent that you can bring through the system. Each year can be a crap shoot for who is the best team. In reality a team could offer everyone a one yr contract and start over each year. With the same cap money as everyone else, they in theory should have an equal opportunity to succeed. It is a product of the parity of the league.

    Now is it good for the league. Yes, having a successful team on the pitch that draws in a great crowd each and every week can only add to the league. If Seattle can run the table and be league champions good for them. Remember Chicago did it.


  10. Joe,

    Regarding how we handle defeat, you should have seen us when we lost to Chivas. It was the first sporting event I’ve been to where the team got two minutes of standing ovation…after losing.

    There’s a lotta love in Jet City :)

  11. We shouldn’t be fixated on the old expansion model as we are. That is we expect them to be terrible. Look at the recent expansions in the NBA, NFL, and MLB. The Marlins and D-Backs have won and the Cubs and many older teams are still waiting or can not possibly win again like Pittsburgh. The Heat in their short life have a ring and both the Jags and Panthers had early success.

    The way the US sports leagues are set up including MLS with salary caps, drafts, and free agency makes all things very equal quickly. In fact starting fresh may very well be perferred by many organizations.

    To see Seattle playing well is no surprise and we can only hope that the next few teams in perform as well. That applies to both the field activity and attendance wise. Maybe the Pacific Northwest is such a soccer hotbed that on the field performance won’t matter too much. That will not be true in Philly where even Santa can be bored!

  12. Oscar, that may well be true. But you’re talking about a few thousand fans who made the trip while everyone is still high on the Sounders and the Sounders are second place in the league. I’m talking more about when if they were to only win a handful of games and don’t make the playoffs. Will there still be 20,000 proud season ticket holders the following year? Or will Qwest start to look more like Gillette.

  13. Well Joe, I think the plan is to make sure we don’t suck :) Seriously though, our owners, Hanauer and Roth particularly, wanted to do everything possible to make sure that we didn’t have a first bad season and they wanted to avoid “expansion team” levels of performance as much as possible. A lot of effort went into analyzing the problems that previous expansion teams faced and how those could be avoided. Hanauer literally traveled the world looking for players, making long trips to South America and Africa. Roth has made a commitment that everything about the team, from training facilities to ticketing to marketing will be top notch and he’s gotten a lot of help in that from the Seahawks organization. Sigi Schmid has noted publicly that his experience with the Sounders so far has been unique. If he says he needs something, the FO goes and gets it, no questions, no haggling. Those are the kind of thing that has made the difference so far.

  14. Don’t get me wrong, I hope they never have a bad year. I’m also hoping this is the first team to make a serious push to win the CONCACAF Champion’s League (in 2011).

  15. Joe in Indianapolis’s comments are very insightful about the Seattle Sounders and sense of community. That’s why we fought to keep the NASL/USL name “Sounders,” and why bringing Keller home was such a great move.

    Portland is going to be an outstanding addition because they have that same sense of community. Look out for 2011–the Portland fans will be nuts. They’ve traditionally been more energetic than Seattle fans, and will feel a keen need to make a big splash because of the rivalry with Seattle, and the standard Seattle fans are setting.

  16. Good conversation.

    I have not forgotten that the Sounders were an existing USL team. As Art pointed out, there are a few holdovers, 6 at last count, but only 3 are getting minutes. In the first 6 games(540 minutes), Nyassi has played 113, Scott 446 and Le Toux 366. Levesque and Graham have a total of 5 minutes and Eylander will be Keller’s backup all season. I think that adds up to Seattle being an expansion team.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the league mandated that all clubs were to have an academy and that academy graduates could be signed and not count towards the salary cap.

    The Marlins won in their 5th year. The Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup final in its 3rd year and have failed to make the playoffs in 10 of the 12 years since.
    It took the Heat 4 years to make the playoffs and and 17 years to win it all.
    The D-Backs are the exception, having won 100 games it its 2nd season and the Jags who made it to the conference final also in its 2nd year. Of course, the D-Backs early success came at an unsustainable financial cost that eventually led to the sale of the team.

    Is it true that the Sounders pay no rent? If so, how much does that contribute to the owners’ ability to create the structure you have described? I believe RBNY pays $100,000 per game for Giants Stadium or $1,500,000 for the regular season. You can buy a lot of perks for that money.

  17. Peter,

    Management of a team is just as important as the players. What you are forgetting is that Seattle has been able to navigate their team through the best and worst of times, and find themselves in the MLS now. The Sounders FC is one of the strongest managed teams in North America. I would chalk this up to success just as much as anything else.

  18. Peter C: Yes, that’s true. Since Paul Allen owns both Vulcan Sports Entertainment, which is a minority owner in the Sounders, and First and Goal, which operates Qwest, they’d be paying rent to themselves. It’s still something they could choose to do, but it would be needlessly draining money off of the Sounders’ books. But the deal is actually better than that because the Sounders get to control the revenue they raise from their games at Qwest. Basically, they’re getting all the benefits the smaller soccer-specific stadiums confer with the advantage of being able to increase capacity at will. If the Sounders continue to have a great season, I could definitely see thirty thousand season tickets sold next year.

    Not having to pay rent is part of what allows the Sounders to create that sort of atmosphere that Sigi has been so impressed with. It’s also what quelled any doubts MLS had about Qwest as a venue. But Joe Roth is the one who’s putting up the majority of the money to run the whole shebang and it’s his attitude and philosophy that sets the tone.

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