MLS: Taking the Good With the Bad
My views on MLS on this website in the last week have been dissected and criticized. I think this “summer of soccer” has yielded both good and bad for the American top flight. On the positive side, MLS has higher attendance than football leagues in Spain, Italy, Holland and France, making the league one of the best attended in the industrialized western world. MLS also fills a larger percentage of available seats than those aforementioned leagues. (My analysis includes friendlies but excludes Superliga)
Also positive, is that MLS continues to develop talent that is sought after by sides abroad. Rico Clark is a perfect example: MLS Cup winner, Confederations Cup runner up, and all around capable player who was sought after by several top European clubs before (apparently) agreeing to join Livorno. Yura Movsisyan’s incredible story, which I featured in early 2008 on the CSRN American Soccer Show has led to a European contract at Randers.
Additionally, we had 93,000 people show up to see the Galaxy and David Beckham play last week at the Rose Bowl and will have a similar crowd Sunday to see DC United play a home game at Fed Ex Field. MLS has clearly reached the masses in terms of crowd building this summer, which as I noted above places it among the elite football leagues worldwide in crowd numbers.
But while people flock to MLS stadiums, virtually no one is watching on television. The MLS All Star game finished with a 0.2 rating on ESPN2, just days after Fox Soccer reported their highest ever Nielsen rating for any telecast on the Gold Cup final. The ratings for ESPN’s Confederations Cup matches involving the US were also remarkably high.
Yet, ESPN has not recorded a single telecast with higher than 0.2 rating this year that did not involve the Seattle Sounders (whose games have never gotten lower than a 0.3 on ESPN, interestingly enough.) So while Seattle has helped the league both attendance and TV wise, the previous 13 American based teams struggle to make a meaningful dent in their local sporting cultures.
As I have editorialized in the past, TV money will eventually either make MLS a really top drawer league, or relegate the league to not being able to even compete to keep young American players at home. Right now, while MLS has received a rights fee for their broadcasts, ESPN’s own public expectations for the product are nowhere near being met. This comes at the same time as other soccer properties on the network are faring well, leading to an investment in EPL and La Liga rights.
The Univision family of networks has also seen a sharp decline in TV ratings. But they are pleased with the performance of Superliga, Interliga and the CONCACAF Champions League from what I am told, and thus will not break their commitment to MLS, even though the regular season games are performing terribly for the networks.
Additionally, the continued poor performance of MLS teams in international competition is worrying. For the first time ever, an A-League (USL-1) team has defeated an MLS team in a two leg home and home series. The Red Bulls were eliminated by a team of semi-professionals that mostly have other odd jobs to make ends meet.
MLS’ struggles in CONCACAF are nothing new. Every year we hear the same excuses from MLS supporters explaining why this happens. Roster size, fixture congestion, and especially the competitive nature of MLS and the importance of winning the league make international competitions for many a waste.
But CONCACAF is only one part of the issue. For years, MLS and SUM have done an outstanding job of getting top European and Mexican clubs to play in the United States during the summer. And for years, the friendly results, whether it was DC United beating Newcastle, Chicago beating Everton, United drawing Real Madrid or the MLS All Stars beating Chelsea tended to mask the realities of MLS’ competitiveness.
Even when MLS sides lost, they lost fighting, and tended to be a credit to the league in the process. But this summer, save the performances of Bruce Arena’s (the Maestro of American soccer as we have dubbed him) LA Galaxy, MLS teams have been humiliated. Seattle was comprehensively beaten by Chelsea, which actually was the Blues first ever two goal win over an MLS team.
But then the fun really started. Barcelona and Real Madrid tore apart decent MLS sides on national prime time TV, while the MLS All Stars drew with Everton, the first time ever that the MLS all star team did not defeat its opponent. That same night of course, Toronto FC lost at home to an A-League team, the Puerto Rico Islanders in CONCACAF.
The continued outflow of midlevel talent from MLS to league abroad or even in some cases to the A-League, has caused a drop in performance. This fact is indisputable.
For example, in five previous two leg ties with sides from the Caribbean, MLS had never lost, but in the last two years, virtually semi professional Joe Public and semi pro W Connection have posted 10 goals against MLS teams in 4 matches, winning three of them and knocking out MLS teams both years. If that is not a cause for alarm, I do not know what else could possibly be.
After all, just 11 years ago DC United scored 8 goals in a game against the CFU Champions at the CONCACAF level. Then again, that DC team also beat Vasco De Gama the Copa Lib. Champions, something that would impossible to repeat today.
MLS is well supported by its core audience. These fans border on fanatical in supporting the league and defending it against any and all critics (myself included). These fans have also made MLS a better supported league in its stadiums than two of the top three leagues in the world. But at some point, MLS must be held accountable for its results- both in terms of TV audience share and on the pitch.
Additionally, read my views on the addition of Bobby Zomora and Jlloyd Samuel to the T&T Qualifying squad and how it potentially affects the USMNT here.