Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Next big step for MLS: win CONCACAF Champions League

(by Brian Straus si.com 8-7-13)

Those who might have become disenchanted by Major League Soccer's focus on slow and measured growth have had a pretty satisfying week.

There's a new owner in Columbus, a new superstar in Seattle and during last Wednesday's All-Star game, commissioner Don Garber unveiled plans to add four new clubs by 2020. Those aren't baby steps. They're the sort of headlines that make MLS' quest to become one of the world's top leagues by 2022 seem relatively more realistic.

Now comes the reality check. Progress in the boardroom and at the turnstiles is surpassing progress on the field. MLS teams may have built and filled stadiums, signed big-name players, launched academies and put down roots in their communities. But they still haven't won when it matters most. They haven't won the CONCACAF Champions League or appeared at the Club World Cup.

"We want MLS to grow at a fast rate. The only way you can really do that is by playing in international tournaments and winning them," Houston Dynamo coach Dom Kinnear said. "The pathway to global acceptance for this league on a competitive level is the CONCACAF club championship."

That pursuit resumes Wednesday in Montreal and Nicaragua as the 2013-14 CCL kicks off. The Impact, as Canadian champion, will play host to the San Jose Earthquakes, while Sporting Kansas City gets its first taste of continental competition in eight years when it visits Real EstelĂ­'s Estadio Independencia in Nicaragua.

Trips such as that have been part of the problem. Playing in Latin America is perilous, and since 2002, when MLS clubs had to start hitting the road, the league's CCL results have ranged from frustrating to embarrassing. Only one MLS team during that span has advanced to the finals (Real Salt Lake in 2011) and only once has an MLS club ousted a Mexican rival from the tournament (the Seattle Sounders, last spring).

"Baby steps," is how RSL GM Garth Lagerwey described the league's assault on that elusive CONCACAF crown. "I think we're in the Himalayas. We're in base camp and now we've got to climb Everest. But scaling Everest isn't just winning the tournament, but consistently competing for it and putting multiple teams in the end stages. To be one of the best leagues, we have to be better than Mexico. ... We are clearly making progress, but we clearly have work to do."

That "progress" is evident on paper, but it's probably not going to satisfy those who insist that legitimacy must be earned on the field. Despite all the new stadiums, new players and new franchises, MLS clubs are improving only gradually and haven't been able to solve their Mexican rivals.

Here's what they have done: In 2008-09, the first season featuring the CCL group stage format, four MLS clubs won a pathetic two games combined. Five entrants won seven matches the following season. In 2010-11, two MLS teams advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time and RSL came within a goal of winning the title. In the fall of 2011, FC Dallas and the Seattle Sounders became the first MLS clubs to win matches in Mexico. In each of the past two tournaments, three MLS clubs have qualified for the final eight. But none made the final two.

Baby steps.

"I think we've gotten to the point now, MLS has, where advancing out of the round robin -- I wouldn't say it's a given -- but it's gotten to the point where it's expected," said Kinnear, whose Dynamo will join Montreal, San Jose, Sporting and the L.A. Galaxy in this season's Champions League. "The last hurdle is beating a Mexican team over two legs in the finals. ... I think we can do it. But things have to really fall into place for a team to do that."

While MLS clubs now routinely get past opposition from Central America and the Caribbean, Mexico remains the lofty standard. Liga MX representatives are 45-19-14 against MLS in CONCACAF play all-time and have won eight consecutive titles.

Money is a significant part of the reason.

Although there are obviously differences between teams in both countries, Lagerwey said that it was fair to expect a given Mexican club to spend two-to-three times more on player salaries than an MLS counterpart.

"That's not including transfer fees they'd pay for players," he said. "All in all it's probably five times in terms of money spent on players."

"Right now economically we're a little bit behind," Kinnear said. "It's not an excuse. It's a reality."

Not only does that money buy MLS killers like Monterrey forwards Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris (who's now with Chivas de Guadalajara), it furnishes the depth that's so crucial in midweek competitions requiring arduous or exotic travel.

MLS offers up a bit of extra funding for its CCL representatives and pays out more to those teams advancing to the quarterfinals. The extra cash might help a club sweeten an offer and retain a decent player it might otherwise have to let go, but it's not nearly enough to close the gap with the Mexican powers.

"It's sort of like the army," Sporting coach Peter Vermes said. "You've got to have a 'Plan B' and a 'Plan C' always ready. Something's always going to happen to 'Plan A'. It's very difficult to go and scout these teams, but we've got some film on them. And as much as we've worked on getting some depth in our team, right now we're suffering quite a few injuries and it's a little challenging at the moment."

He said his club's first foray into the CCL will be "one of those things where it's going to be learning on the job."

MLS tries to help its CCL participants in other ways. It lifts restrictions on charter flights (they're limited in order to prevent wealthier teams from exploiting that advantage) and even moves regular season games around to make the schedule less arduous. But none of that has produced the quantum leap the league is looking for.

At the moment, Mexican clubs are still too deep, too talented and too inhospitable at home. One of them -- Club Tijuana, Toluca, Club América or Cruz Azul -- will be heavily favored to lift the trophy next spring.

"It has to go perfectly for you," Kinnear said when asked what it would take for an MLS outfit to get over that last hurdle. "You need (the referee's) decisions to go for you. Your team needs to be firing and playing well. You need a little bit of luck over two games. As far as the economics, we're not there and I think everybody understands that. But I think the MLS fan wants success right now."

He continued, "We're a young league -- 18 years in. We understand that. I think we're close. There are some factors that are still kind of against us, but these factors aren't big enough that we shouldn't be overcoming them soon."

Vermes said he hoped the tournament would help instill in his squad the same mentality, composure and game management so evident in previous Mexican champions.

"It'll make us a stronger team," he said.

And that will help forge a stronger MLS.

"Your stature grows as your team becomes more and more competitive within (CCL). It's important to have good performances in these competitions, for sure," he said. "Is it the final piece to the puzzle? I don't know. I think our league is growing leaps and bounds right now without Champions League, but this is a competition that runs alongside of it. It's become an important part of it. Everything has to evolve together. You can't lag behind."

Monday, August 12, 2013

Clash of colors

 
 
Dempsey back in MLS.
 
I like the colors in this photo though, Toronto red clashing with Seattle green.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Pretty trees

 
 
With the incredible view Rio Tinto Stadium has to the West we sometimes forget there is a nice view to the East too, especially with these nice trees on the SouthEast side.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sunday, August 4, 2013

MLS uniforms, 2013.

MLS has come a long way in the uniforms department, that's for sure.
 
 
 
Seattle dark grey uni's

New England red, white and blue

Nice color combos.

DC @ Seattle

Friday, August 2, 2013

MLS announces plan to add four expansion teams by 2020

(si.com 7-31-13)

Major League Soccer isn't content to rest once its latest franchise joins the fold in 2015.

Instead, the league plans to expand to 24 teams by the 2020 season.

Commissioner Don Garber announced MLS's plan to add four more clubs during halftime of its annual All-Star game Wednesday night. The location of the teams has yet to be decided, but Garber said the league has already had discussions with potential owners.

The news came one day after Hunt Sports Group announced it was selling the Columbus Crew to investor Anthony Precourt, and with New York City FC beginning play in two years.

"The strength, passion and vision of the MLS ownership group is the foundation behind the success of our league," Garber said in a statement. "We look forward to adding new partners with the same commitment to the sport and love of the game."

Garber told The Associated Press during an interview this week that the issue of expansion would be discussed "in great detail" during a meeting of league owners on Wednesday.

"As MLS enters a period of accelerated growth," Garber said, "the addition of new teams will allow us to expand our geographic coverage, grow our fan base and help us achieve our vision of being among the best leagues in the world by 2022."

MLS will have added 10 new teams since the 2005 season when New York City FC begins play, and Garber said that has helped to spearhead a significant growth in the game in the United States.

"These expansion clubs have contributed to the vitality of our league," he said, "bringing passionate fans, new traditions and committed owners with new ideas."

One of the most intriguing ownership possibilities is former Los Angeles Galaxy star David Beckham, whose MLS contract included an option to purchase a franchise when his career ended.

Beckham has been linked to businessman Marcelo Claure, who owns Bolivian team Club Bolivar. The two appear interested in putting a team in Miami, where Claure's wireless company Brightstar Corp. is based. Beckham has said he plans to reveal his MLS intentions in the next few months.

"The foundations are now there for this sport to continue to grow," Beckham said last fall. "I've seen it grow in the last six years, and we all want it to continue to grow. My commitment as an owner, people will be well aware of that in the new year, and hopefully where that will be. And like I said, my commitment as an ambassador for this sport and this country won't change."

It makes sense that potential owners are lining up for an MLS franchise.

They can be had for a fraction of what a Major League Baseball or NBA team would cost - it cost English club Manchester City and its partner, the New York Yankees, an expansion fee of $100 million to launch New York City FC. Yet surging attendance and modest but consistent television growth appear to indicate that the league is becoming a valuable investment.

That's certainly changed from the early days of MLS, when an ownership group could acquire a franchise for less than $10 million and the league was fighting for survival.

"We've got a lot of cities that are kind of on our list right now that are exuberant - they have the right sort of circumstances," said Robb Heineman, the CEO of Sporting KC. "Our league is hot right now. If you don't believe in Major League Soccer, I don't know why."

Miami isn't the only city to be linked to an MLS team. Officials in Atlanta, Sacramento, Orlando, Detroit and the Twin Cities have also mentioned the possibility of landing a franchise.

In a statement issued by the league, Garber laid out the criteria the league will use in determining future expansion markets. Among them is location, committed and engaged ownership, a comprehensive stadium plan, demonstrated fan support for professional soccer, support of sponsors and TV partners, and a strategic business plan for launching a club.

Garber said the league will provide additional details, including a more detailed timeline, for its expansion plans in the coming months.

"The overall growth of the sport has been so dramatic over the last number of years by almost any measure," Garber said. "Whether it's the league or the national team or the women's game, all the developments are sort of proving the fact that we're a soccer nation."