The MLS labor crisis was mercifully averted. Overall quality remains on the rise. Officials are cracking down on persistent infringement, an initiative so long overdue that it hurts.
A lot is moving in the right direction in Major League Soccer. Week 1 has come and gone, and what especially memorable scenes they were in Orlando City (sold out and awash in picturesque purple) and Seattle (teeming as usual with brilliant rave green).
So, improvements are happening with admirable regularity in a 20-year-old league that can no longer lean on “growing pains” when things aren’t where they need to be.
Which brings us to the next pressure points in MLS, the next problems to address and primary elements that still need fixing.
It starts with continuing to improve the league’s national footprint; There remain too many mid-to-large markets where MLS is a mere rumor, where awareness remains just slightly north of “zero.” Presumably, MLS will continue to gain ground here in announcing the next round of expansion, which commissioner Don Garber says is 45-60 days away.
The other area MLS absolutely must continue to relentlessly hammer away at is stadium development.
Something will happen this weekend that will underscore the point: An important club in the country’s largest media market will make its highly anticipated debut. And it will happen in a place completely unsuited for soccer, inside a venue that will do absolutely nothing to help this potential bonanza of a soccer club build its legacy, and nothing to help the organization begin establishing its cultural footprint.
MLS inside Yankee Stadium, where New York City FC will debut this weekend, may be a necessary stop-gap, but it is a terrible idea.
League growth has always been about stadiums, of course. Since the first kick back in 1996, facility development has been Job 1 in creating economic feasibility and adding to cultural relevancy. Obviously, this never ending facility initiative looks a lot different today than it did back in 1996 or 2006.
Today, it’s about three things:
1) Developing dedicated stadiums in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Miami.
Washington seems done, but we have been fooled before in the nation’s capital. Miami will slip into the abyss of “what could have been” if David Beckham and Co. cannot turn up a downtown site pretty soon.
2) Getting off artificial turf. Four matches played out on the fake stuff last week, which is four too many.
I get the mitigating circumstances in some venues, but MLS needs to demonstrate decreased tolerance for “mitigating circumstance.” That’s not happening, however, not when Atlanta will join the league in 2017 with plans to play for the foreseeable future on artificial turf.
What we saw in Orlando was ample demonstration of why this is an issue. When balls get caught under players’ feet, or when balls hop up in places where they don’t on grass, the game suffers. Players simply cannot be at their best, so neither will the soccer ever be top-shelf stuff. Any good cook will tell you, to make a great soup you have to start with great ingredients. Artificial turf is not an ingredient that leads to quality.
3) Pushing habitually for “round 2” of facility development, which is all about enhancement of what’s already there.
In this one, MLS seems to be moving at a decent pace. Continuing to make Crew Stadium (historic as the country’s first, major soccer stadium) a better place is a priority for owner Anthony Precourt. The StubHub Center outside Los Angeles just underwent a $15 million makeover. Elsewhere around MLS grounds, seats are added or scoreboards are improved, etc.
Again, there is a lot of tremendous progress in MLS, and we should be clear on that. But everything that is wrong with Major League Soccer’s facility situation will be on display this weekend in the Bronx.
The weekend will be full of anticipation, and rightly so. And if you are going to play in a venue so painfully ill-suited for soccer, it may as well be something as iconic as Yankee Stadium. I do recognize the excitement some New Yorkers may feel in blending soccer with so much sports history. But that newness and excitement over soccer inside a historic place will wear off, and then we’re all just left with “ill suited” part.
It is sad and sadly unfortunate that an important MLS franchise must launch inside … a baseball park! Inside a place built for another club. In a place that only says “soccer” as a fleeting, temporary afterthought.
Attendance will be healthy; somewhere in the 40’s in thousands, and that’s swell. But what happens after that?
The field dimensions will be way too small and the grass will presumably be cut for baseball, not for soccer, which means a laborious passing speed. It will be great to see David Villa, a World Cup and European Championship winner, with lots of operating space – but you’ll have to watch NYCFC on the road for that, because he darn sure won’t find it inside Yankee Stadium.
In terms of building history and legacy, nothing is so inextricably linked to a club’s history as its building. That physical structure represents permanence and frames the significant memories. It’s the essential backdrop for the days of yore, good and bad.
We talk of the magical “European nights at Anfield,” marvel over the majesty of the San Siro or wow at the way Zinédine Zidane, Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo have ruled fortress Santiago Bernabéu. Places like Wembley or the Maracanã or the Azteca spill over with memories of club and country.
Yankee Stadium? Poor sight lines, painfully crowded midfields and not a hint of “legacy under construction” await. In too many ways, this feels like regression, back to the bad old days where soccer rented buildings while the preponderance of legacy media tried to wish the whole thing away.
It will be a good day Sunday when New England visits NYCFC, full of pomp and nationally televised circumstance – but it is just one day. After that, it will be so painfully and persistently evident to everyone that a stadium initiative that has come so far in MLS still has some distance to travel.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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