A few years ago I read a great book, Personal Velocity. It’s a story that probably sounds familiar, about a young person who stumbles around a bit through early adulthood but eventually finds her feet and strides forward successfully. When she finally gets her act together, her proud father announces in blissful summary, “Well, we all move at our own personal velocity.”
I generally feel that way about Major League Soccer. The league is far from perfect. (Who or what among us is?) But the league gets a lot right – even if it takes a confounding amount of time to get there.
The perfect example will be illuminated gloriously Sunday, when the league has arranged simultaneous kickoff times for the concluding Round 34 of matches. While I’m not a big fan of over-branding – they are calling it Decision Day – the idea is as sweet and spot-on as the latest Sebastian Giovinco delight.
Major League Soccer’s big finish is finally getting proper treatment. And it is long, long overdue.
Personally, I started banging this drum back in 2009. So while I wish this were already a thing, at least it’s here now, a shining example of where slow, prudent growth finally catches up with instances of long-simmer fan frustration.
More and more, MLS has this habit of getting to where it needs to be, or at least heading in the right direction, albeit at a frustrating (but perhaps necessary) pace.
Some of this is admittedly unfair, a product of imperfect place and time. Despite the league’s relative youth, we habitually hold it up against the veteran, established behemoth operations around the world. We say, “They do it like this in La Liga!” Never mind that Spain’s elegant La Liga was founded back when alcohol was illegal in this country (1929). That was “late” compared to other associations worldwide; plenty of clubs around the globe have a 100-year head start on MLS organizations, even on the group of 10 original “96ers.”
So, comparisons are as fair as an under-12 team going up against a beefy bunch of under-19s, but that’s not going to stop us. Which is why MLS commissioner Don Garber practically has this printed on his business card: “MLS is growing! It’s an operation constantly moving forward. Just give us time!”
And yet, as eager fans and antsy members of the chattering class (media, pundits, bloggers, etc.) our desire for “better, faster, stronger … now!” gets the better of us.
A few “for instances:”
– We wanted a bigger league. Stat!
We just passed the 10th anniversary of MLS Cup 2005. Ten years is hardly a long time in American sports. Those lovable Chicago Cubs haven’t appeared in a World Series since the year World War II ended, 1945, after all.
But consider that in 2005, MLS was a league of 12 teams, no Designated Players and just three dedicated soccer stadiums. The progress since then has been extraordinary. And yet it has also been calculated, with valuable lessons learned along the way. Or maybe you don’t remember the all-around fiasco that was Chivas USA? Or the shaky ownership before that of the Miami Fusion?
Until the last couple of seasons, Garber and his board of directors advised prudence and patience, which all looks pretty smart now.
- We wanted stars. Big stars! Today, not tomorrow.
Fans and media clamored for Raul or Ronaldo or the oft-rumored Samuel Eto’o back in the day. But the league’s rickety finances back then precluded it. If you think all-important TV revenue in MLS remains on the skinny side in 2015 compared to other American sports, consider that it was “nil” back in the day.
Eventually David Beckham landed and changed the game. DPs are a thing now, their numbers and collective quality swelling at appreciable pace. It took a while, probably longer than most fans wanted, but deliberate growth was always the wisest path. MLS fans’ patience is being rewarded now.
I mean … Giovinco! Enough said.
- The stadium scene has improved tremendously, and not just in raw numbers. That part is certainly impressive, with 15 of 20 clubs now doing their soccer business in facilities built or repurposed expressly for MLS clubs.
But other elements keep improving, too, in stadium design, location and amenities. The process of arrival is easy to overlook. For example: Yes, a couple of stadiums were built beyond the urban core that best fits the modern MLS model. But we tend to forget: someone had to build in the ‘burbs to launch the lessons. Then we stepped back, examined the contrasting models and said, “Yep, this one works better.” Point is, you don’t just discover penicillin; you experiment, tinker and observe, then you get that “A-ha!” moment – sometimes finding things you weren’t even looking for.
- Back in 2007 and 2008, two elements of MLS used to drive me batty: refereeing and the quality of local TV broadcasts. Not to be impolite, but both stunk like last week’s fish. As someone who watched every MLS match (with just 12-14 teams, it was easier then), I needed regular breaks to keep the frustration from boiling over. Seriously.
I wanted it to be better. Right then! Well, MLS refereeing remains imperfect. But performance from the men in the middle is night-and-day better than even five years ago. And the improvement in TV broadcasts, while difficult to quantify, is generally obvious to anyone paying attention.
- The shootout, the backward clock and other bad ideas of early, early MLS? Let’s just be glad those died a quick, merciful death.
Back to MLS Decision Day, which makes its belated arrival on Sunday.
Simultaneous kickoffs are going to rock, even if we don’t get the full effect this year. The schedule was arranged so that Eastern Conference games would kickoff at 5 p.m. Eastern; Western Conference matches would all begin at 7 p.m. ET.
MLS wisely “doubled down” on the 2015 scene by moving the Chicago Fire-Red Bulls kickoff to 7 p.m.; as it is, that match at Toyota Park outside Chicago won’t affect the Eastern Conference standings, but it will help determine Supporters Shield. So it will commence the same time as FC Dallas kicks off against San Jose down in Texas; Oscar Pareja’s team is the only club challenging RBNY for Supporters Shield.
If the drama factor tops out only at “pretty good” this year, it will be potentially brilliant in years ahead, when even more playoff positions, hardware and CONCACAF Champions League spots are in play.
Those who have observed the intense theater of simultaneous kickoffs before, they know. Remember the drama that unfolded just two years ago in the best night of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in memory? Relive it here. You’re welcome.
That was child’s play compared to the epic theater that was 2011-12 Premier League decider day. Truly and all-timer, that one, and simultaneous starts across the league made it possible.
Going further back, so many of us remember the United States’ improbable quarterfinal run in World Cup 2002. But how many remember the drama of getting there? The United States was losing to Poland in the group play finale, so channels were flipping (or multiple screens were called into use) to monitor the South Korea-Portugal game happening simultaneously. (Spoiler: South Korea scored in the 70th and then hung on, allowing the United States to advance. Whew!) Again, it was arranged by concurrent start times.
You get the point. This has long looked like a no-brainer for MLS. Drama gets cranked up to 11 when start times match up. The chances of creating magical, memorable moments rise.
Besides all that, it’s just fairer! Too many times in past MLS years, one team had a big advantage of knowing what it needed based on earlier results.
Why did it take this long? Generally speaking, it was about the needs or desires of individual clubs. Preferred start times at local addresses and local TV contracts were given priority over national interests. Yes, it was sometimes short-sighted. But if you own a club that loses money every year, you have a right to fight for every penny.
The time finally arrived when national interests and overall league matters could take priority.
Too bad it didn’t happen earlier, that this wasn’t already habit, that opportunities have been long squandered. But let’s not dwell on that. Sunday will be great. Future years will be positively brilliant.
MLS often gets there – sometimes you just have to pack a sack lunch and your patience.
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