RSL Cup blog taking a long much needed break

I've been a fan of Real Salt Lake since it joined MLS and took to the field in 2005, and I've been a fan of MLS since it began in 1996.

However, over the past couple of years, and especially the last several months, I've began to see the ugly underbelly of this sport. Most likely it has always been there and I was just too naïve to see it, but I cannot not see it anymore.

I'm taking a much needed break from the sport of soccer. I may or may not be back. I may or may not update this blog, I don't know. It would be a shame since I've had it up and running for almost 10 years, but the fun I once had just isn't there any more.

Hopefully you fare better.

Monday, August 18, 2014

MLS vs the major leagues: can soccer compete when it comes to big business?

Even compared against the American sports behemoths and the English Premier League, MLS is in relatively good health
(by Elliott Turner 3-12-14)
As the 2014 Major League Soccer season starts up, the league will soon enter into collective bargaining negotiations with the players’ union. It’s no secret that the last round was particularly nasty, and almost ended in a strike. Negotiations with the referees have already led to a lockout. What is a big secret, though, is the actual state of MLS.

The answer, of course, depends not on what you ask but on what comparisons you make.

Recently, MLS commissioner Don Garber has issued some cryptic remarks about deficits. While a few teams are profitable, the league still burns cash. It also had to take over Chivas USA, buying out Jorge Vergara’s stake.

Still, a decade of expansion and eager new owners elsewhere seems to indicate positive momentum. Club owners have also been willing to spend money on star players, as evidenced by the payment of transfer fees for players like Jermain Defoe and Clint Dempsey and the steady expansion of the designated player (DP) rule. The league has also signed a sizeable TV deal.

The first temptation is to compare the league to other North American professional sports, like the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Of course, any comparison has to keep in mind that MLS is only 19 years old, a baby compared to the NFL (94), NHL (97) and MLB (145), and still many decades younger than the NBA, which was formed 68 years ago. Also, MLS has only 19 teams, compared to 32 NFL teams, 30 MLB, 30 NBA and 30 NHL.

So, MLS has two thirds as many teams as other North American leagues and either one third or one seventh of the history. One would thus expect its business fundamentals – profits, revenue, wages, TV deals – to lag behind.

Let’s first look at professional sports’ cashcow: television. The NFL’s most recent TV deal was for $27bn. The MLB gets $800m annually; the NBA about $930m. The NHL looks much weaker, at about $200m annually. However, the NHL also has a lucrative Canadian TV deal, worth about $400m a year. So how does MLS stack up?

The league’s new TV deal is for $70m a year. That’s about a ninth of the NHL’s combined TV revenue, an 11th of the MLB deal, a 13th of the NBA deal … and way behind the NFL. So if the MLS has two thirds of the teams and about a fifth of the history, why such a big disparity?

The answer lies in the other major difference between the MLS and NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL.

Those leagues largely have monopolies on talent. Yes, some good baseball players play in Japan and Cuba, but most make their way to MLB. European basketball has grown by leaps and bounds, but the NBA is the destination point. Russia has a good hockey league but the best Russian player, Alex Ovechkin, laces up his skates for Washington, not St Petersburg.

In comparison, MLS has to compete with the leagues of Europe and the riches of Mexico.
MLS has a pretty good average attendance – higher than the NHL and NBA but less than MLB and way less than the NFL. MLS also has a good share of Hispanics compared to other sports, even if the average income for MLS fans is pretty low.

In terms of player wages, MLS salaries are readily available – the union publishes them every year for every player. The average salary is $160,000 and the median salary is $100,000. By comparison, the median income for an American household in 2012 was $51,000.

Still, there are two sad facts. Rookies only earn about $35,000 a year. And, because of MLS’s unique wage structure – a salary cap but three exceptions for “designated players” – there is staggering inequality. The league’s top 28 players earn more than 33% of the wages.

By comparison to other North American sports, MLS’s average and median salaries are a pittance. On average, NFL players earn $1.9m a year, NHL players $2.4m, MLB players $3.2m and NBA players $5.15m. So MLS players earn about an 11th of their counterparts in NFL and one 32nd of those in NBA. The NFL’s minimum base salary for a rookie is $375,000. That’s 10 times an MLS rookie’s average.

So, MLS is at the bottom of the totem pole in North America in terms of TV revenue and wages, though it has good gates. That isn’t surprising, given the time it’s been operating, its lower number of teams, and its international competitive pressure.

Now we turn to the interesting part: the Eurosnobs who prefer to compare the league to, say, the English Premier League rather than other North American sports leagues.
The EPL has an $80m-a year-TV deal with NBC for North America. MLS is only $10m a year behind that.

However, when you compare the top earners in the EPL with the DPs of MLS, things don’t stack up. When you look at average wages, it’s even worse. The average EPL player earns £22,000 ($36,700) a week. In five weeks, an average EPL player earns more than an average MLS player in an entire year.

But here’s the interesting part about comparisons to European leagues: by North American standards, they’re not particularly good businesses. Yes, EPL clubs attract foreign owners, but Uefa has adopted Financial Fair Play regulations because deficit-spending is rampant.
The EPL and other leagues sell shirts the world over and sign big TV deals, but largely operate close to the break-even point or in the red. Thus many top leagues, which operate without a salary cap, can sign top players because they spend more than they earn. That’s not a recipe for sustainability.
Thus, Garber’s remarks about deficits, the general view is that MLS is improving as compared to itself. It’s in good shape (especially when you compare it to, say, the old North American Soccer League). It’s expanding, TV revenue is going up and so have players’ wages. Compared to NFL or MLB in year 20, MLS would probably stack up nicely.

The problem comes when you look across the Atlantic, at the league’s free-spending competitors. If Financial Fair Play falls flat and deficit-spending continues, in a decade or so the steady growth of MLS will probably put it in a realm between the “selling leagues” like Argentina and Brazil and the “destination leagues” like Spain or England. That’s not super exciting.

But it’s also not a bad place to be. Think of it as a Dutch Eredivisie Light.


Friday, August 15, 2014

RSL and Club Tijuana play to 1-1 draw in friendly

(by Connor Johnson 8-12-14)
An army of 13,222 strong braved the elements at Rio Tinto Stadium, including rain and lightning, to watch Real Salt Lake draw versus Club Tijuana of Liga MX in an international friendly 1-1.
After the first 20 minutes of action were in the books, it hardly seemed like a friendly in Sandy.

Three players were shown yellow cards in those first 20 minutes, with Elio Castro’s 11th-minute foul on Luke Mulholland leaving the Englishman face down on the pitch writhing in pain.

“These games kind of seem to end up this way all the time,” said RSL coach Jeff Cassar, who told reporters that Tijuana coach Cesar Farias apologized after the Mulholland challenge. “Their coach was extremely classy. He came up to me at the half and apologized for that. He had a young team out there, and they made a poor choice.”

Luis Gil gave RSL its first attempt on goal in the 25th minute with a booming shot from distance. Gil, playing in Javier Morales’ spot at the top of the diamond, took a few dribbles before picking up his head and firing a 30-yard attempt that was deflected away by Tijuana keeper Gibran Lajud.

Sebastian Velasquez also had his shot on goal deflected away by Lajud in the 37th minute. Velasquez took a beautiful ball by Mulholland into the box, but Velasquez’ left-footed attempt was thwarted by the Xolos keeper.

RSL finished the half with five shots on goal, while Tijuana had just two.

Minutes into the second half, the Xolos had several attempts to find the first goal of the match.

The first opportunity came in the 50th minute on a Tijuana breakaway, but a sliding Carlos Salcedo was able to deflect the ball out of harms way. Two minutes later it was Salcedo again, this time deflecting Edgar Villegas’ shot on goal over the goal post. On the ensuing corner kick, Oliver Ortiz’ diving header sailed wide left of the goal.

Gil had another opportunity to find the back of the net, this time standing over an RSL free kick on the corner of the box. Gil elected to go over the wall with his shot, which had to be deflected away up and over the cross bar by the Tijuana ’keeper.

In the 75th minute, it was Gil again who had an attempt on goal, but his skill shot rattled the crossbar. It was agonizingly close for RSL, and was accompanied by the collective groan of those in attendance at Rio Tinto Stadium.

“Luis went 90 minutes and looked sharp all the way to the end, which is really positive,” said Cassar. “He had a lot of great ideas attacking-wise, but was committed on the defensive end as well.”

Just minutes later, the Xolos struck with the lone goal of the match in the 77th minute.

Edgar Villegas found some open space on the right side of the box, and his left-footed beauty sailed easily past a standing Lalo Fernandez into the upper corner side netting.

When it all seemed like it was said and done, RSL struck. Gil, who had been stellar through the entire match, finally had his goal with a tipped pass to himself that the young midfielder easily buried into the back of the net.

“I felt it coming, and that’s why I kept going at it,” said Gil after the match. “All I was thinking was just hit it, and get some contact on it. You’ve just got to take chances.”

Friday, August 8, 2014

Donovan to retire at end of season

LA Galaxy's Landon Donovan explains decision to retire: "There was not that same passion"
(by Scott French 8-7-14)
Ultimately, it came down to passion – or lack thereof.
Landon Donovan, in announcing that he will hang up his boots at season’s end, acknowledged that he doesn’t have the burning desire that once fueled him, and his "gut" told him it was time to walk away.

He called it "bittersweet" and admitted to "some sadness" but said the time was right to end his playing career.

"Last year I took a long break from the game, and that was really the first time that [retirement] was a real possibility," Donovan said during a StubHub Center news conference Thursday afternoon. "I wanted to get away and take some time to see how it would feel after getting away for awhile. I came back rejuvenated. I came back refreshed. But after a few months even of last season, I started to have some feelings of, you know, it doesn’t feel the same, there’s not that same passion, that same energy.

"So I kept going, and there was some ebbs and flows and there were some good times through the summer – I felt great, I was playing well, we had the [CONCACAF] Gold Cup, it was exciting – and then as this year started, I was enjoying myself. I was, I think, playing well, doing well, and in the last few weeks I started thinking a lot about it again. I was talking to my family quite a bit about it, and my gut just told me it was right and it was the right time."

Donovan said he made the decision before the Galaxy’s 3-0 romp at Seattle on July 28, let club brass and head coach/general manager Bruce Arena know, told his closest friends among teammates and then informed the entire team before Thursday’s training session.

It’s a decision he said that has heightened his desire to win a sixth MLS Cup championship – he’s captured three with the Galaxy and two with the San Jose Earthquakes – and served to eliminate an enormous amount of stress.

"The way I’ve felt and played and enjoyed myself [since making the decision] is reflective somewhat of a weight being lifted off my shoulders," he said. "Now it’s time to enjoy the rest of the season, and there would be no better way than to go out a champion, so that’s where my focus and my goals are now."

Donovan, who turned pro as a 16-year-old and has been the face of American soccer more or less since winning the Golden Ball as MVP of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 1999, said the "obligation" wore on him as time went on.

"For the last few years, I haven’t had the same passion that I had previously in my career, and to some extent I had felt obligated to keep playing," he said. "And so when that obligation goes away, I realized it was just relieving, and I could just enjoy it as a player again, almost as a kid again. ... It’s allowed me now to really enjoy myself, and that’s what I want. I’d rather have three or four months of really playing well and enjoying myself than a couple years of mediocrity and not being passionate about it."

The loss of that passion, Donovan said, is "probably a natural evolution."

"I’m sure anybody who’s in one industry for that long has those feelings at times, so I think there’s sometimes the sense of obligation in people’s lives – there’s a sense that you have to do something," he said. "I’ve never lived my life that way, and I’m sure it’s not always popular with everybody, but at the end of the day, I have to live the life I want to live. And I think that’s an important thing to go by.

"I think it’s very important in life to make decisions that are best for you, best for your friends and family and, most importantly, best for your happiness. And so, at this point, this is the decision that is best for all those things, and that’s why I’m making it."

Donovan leaves a rich legacy. He’s in his 14th MLS season, to go with stints in Germany (two brief tenures with Bayer Leverkusen, the first as a teen, and a short-term loan in 2009 with Bayern Munich) and England (short-term loans in 2010 and 2012 with Everton), and is No. 1 on the league’s all-time goals list (138) and No. 2 for assists (with 124, 11 behind Steve Ralston). He could make his 300th regular-season start in LA’s game Friday night against San Jose.

He’s also the US national team’s all-time leader in goals (57) and assists (58), in 155 international appearances, and starred in three World Cups. He’s the American soccer player nearly everyone overseas can identify.

None of that matters much to him, in terms of legacy, he said.

"I hope that my teammates will say I was a good teammate," he said. "I hope that my coaches will say they enjoyed working with me and having me on their team. I hope that the fans enjoyed watching and could see how much I gave to this sport over the last 16 years.

"And that’s really it. Because at the end of the day the goals and the assists and the accolades and that stuff, in the end they don’t mean a whole lot to me. But the relationships matter. ... I think my teammates have all enjoyed being around me and playing with me, and I think they know how much I’ve dedicated to this whole thing."

His announcement comes on the heels of his MVP performance in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game in Portland, Ore., where he scored the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich.

"All I could think [in Portland] was ‘if everybody only knew what was going on,’" he said. "It was perfect."

He’s seen MLS and soccer in America grow immensely during his time in the game, and he has played a massive role in prodding that growth.

"I played here the majority of my career for two reasons," he said. "One was I wanted to be happy, and my happiness always lied in being here, close to my family. And two was I wanted to help grow the league. I always thought it was much more important to be here doing that than to go be lost in the shuffle somewhere in Europe or elsewhere. That for me was the perfect fit.

"It doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s choice, and that’s OK. But for me that was the perfect fit, and I was fortunate that I had people that wanted to come along on that journey with me."

Donovan said he plans to spend more time with friends and family, do some traveling, and that he would like to work with children.

"I absolutely want to work with kids," he said. "I spoke to [Galaxy president Chris] Klein extensively about working with the Academy, and that for me would be a really good way to come full circle. So I fully expect that will happen at some point."

RSL to make formal minor league stadium proposal to state fairpark officials

(by Amy Joi O'Donoghue 7-31-14)

Real Salt Lake is expected to present Utah State Fairpark officials with a proposal Friday to fully pay for up to an 8,000-seat soccer stadium at the central Salt Lake location, revitalizing the aging grounds and surrounding neighborhood.

"This would be an anchor tenant that would have new fans, new people coming to the fairgrounds. The community is all over this," said Michael Steele, executive director of the Utah State Fairpark. "I believe it would be a perfect fit."

Steele said consultants priced the construction of a sports stadium where the existing grandstand is located at somewhere between $10 million and $12 million.

"The devil is in the details," he said.

Officials confirmed the proposal Thursday to KSL, with a formal announcement slated to be made Friday, according to Steele and Trey Fitz-Gerald, Real Salt Lake spokesman.

On Thursday, during a meeting and tour of the state fairgrounds by members of the Legislature\'s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee, Steele said he had a breakfast meeting with Real Salt Lake officials in which the nexus of the Fairpark and a soccer future were discussed in exciting scenarios.

"(Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen) feels this area is underserved," Steele told the committee.
Steele said he believes the draw of Real Salt Lake â"” a sold-out game on a Wednesday night just this week that was televised â"” can spill over to the Fairpark, where the facility could be home to a minor league team, a women\'s team, a Hispanic soccer league, lacrosse and more.

The idea of a public-private venture soccer stadium involving Real Salt Lake and the Utah State Fairpark was revealed last week in a proposal that teemed with excitement but few details.
A multiphase study by architectural firm CRSA noted that a sports complex would be part of a bevy of improvements estimated at $47 million that are necessary for the Fairpark to be financially viable.
The stadium, combined with a completed rodeo grounds and convention center, would help turn the Fairpark into a 365-day-a-year venue rather than the sporadic offering of events that occur now.

Last year, RSL made a $7.5 million donation for Salt Lake City\'s construction of the Regional Athletic Complex, which includes 16 multipurpose fields and a stadium with 1,500 permanent seats surrounding an artificial turf field.

The $22.8 million facility will host regional tournaments and local sporting events starting at the end of summer in 2015.

Lawmakers have been struggling with the challenge of what to do with the state Fairpark and the notion of if the state fair should continue to be held at its current location.

The problem reached a new urgency in the last legislative session because of condemned barns that threatened to cancel the more than 100-year-old tradition.

Lawmakers came up with $3.5 million to cover renovation of the buildings and to carry the fair forward into this next staging Sept. 4-14.