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, April 25, 2016

First XI: Amazin' Metros

(by Jeff Bradley 3-1-05)

I'm feeling nostalgic. Perhaps it is because I ran into Ted Gillen, a member of the original MetroStars, the other night at a high school basketball game in Toms River, N.J. (Ted is currently the boys coach at Toms River East). Or perhaps it's just because I can't get over the fact that MLS is about to enter it's 10th season. Since I've been with the league since the beginning, I'm going to dedicate this First XI to Gillen and the rest of the '96 Metros.

11. Opening Night at the Rose Bowl. I'll never forget the first Metro game, a Saturday night affair in the Rose Bowl. Early in the day, we started hearing reports that the game would be a sellout, meaning the "downsized" Rose Bowl capacity of 18,000 would be sold out. As afternoon approached, word got out that we could be looking at a crowd of 30,000 or more, and that they were going to do away with the downsizing. Early in the evening, I got into a car with Tom Friend, now a colleague of mine at ESPN The Magazine, who was covering the game for the New York Times. As we got caught in traffic outside the Rose Bowl, Friend says to me, "There's only one day of the year when you see traffic like this heading to the Rose Bowl ... January 1." Ultimately, a crowd of 69,000 and change gathered to watch the Galaxy defeat the MetroStars 2-1. I was told that another 10,000 fans were sent home because they needed to keep a portion of the seats empty for a fireworks display. It was an amazing beginning.

10. Home Opener. The Metros' second game overall was its home opener and more than 40,000 were on hand to see the MetroStars take on the New England Revolution. What I'll never forget was the fan reaction when the Metros took the field. They went berserk for a Metro team that was still awaiting the arrival of Roberto Donadoni and Tab Ramos. Of course, Metro fans will all remember how the game ended ... with a 90th minute own goal by Nicola Caricola. After the game, Nico answered many questions about the blunder, explaining that a Revs player had clipped his heel, causing him to touch the ball over Tony Meola's head. Upon review of the replay, there was no Rev within five yards of Caricola. There was no heel clipping. Just a Metro gaffe that will never be forgotten.

9. Even Worse. The MetroStars would lose their second MLS home match in equally horrendous fashion, dropping a 2-0 game to the Columbus Crew. The game marked the debut of Ramos, who played brilliantly save for one moment. With the Crew leading 1-0, the Metros were awarded a penalty kick. Now, I do not recall Tab ever taking a PK for the national team (which would've been the only times I'd ever seen Tab play up to that point in his career), but he wanted the ball on this occasion, his home debut for the Metro. As he went to take the kick, Ramos' feet slipped out from under him and he flubbed the ball right at Bo Oshoniyi. Moments later, Billy Thompson was scoring the insurance goal for the Crew and the MetroStars were 0-3.

8. First Flop. The home loss to Columbus was also the debut of the original Metro villain, Ruben Dario "Rubencho" Hernandez. Put it this way, Rubencho was the "king of goals" of his day, or so Metro was told. In his debut against Columbus, within the first five minutes of play, a ball fell to Hernandez's feet with an empty net to shoot at. He flubbed the shot and grabbed his head in disgust. He'd play nine more matches for Metro and score a grand total of zero goals. Rubencho was sent back to Colombia shortly after Carlos Queiroz came to the Metros to take over for original coach Eddie Firmani.

7. First Hero. Not only did he score the first goal in MetroStars history, Giovanni Savarese scored the first eight goals in MetroStars history. Amazingly, however, Savarese always struggled to find a place in the team's starting lineup.

6. First Cult Hero. With eight games to go in the regular season, the MetroStars finally found a replacement for Rubencho. His name was Antony De Avila and he was known as "El Pitufo" or "The Smurf." De Avila arrived and immediately set the league on fire. Scoring six goals and dishing out two assists in those eight games. De Avila was truly amazing in '96, finding little openings once or twice a game and finishing perfectly. The Metros were convinced they had a striker for the long haul, but a year later, when De Avila stopped finishing so efficiently, he was shipped out ... and never heard from again.

5. Clincher. My favorite De Avila goal came in the Metros final home game of the season, against the Crew. About 10 minutes in, he gets played into the box and absolutely ripped one into the upper corner past Brad Friedel, who had been all but unbeatable in the nets after arriving in Columbus from Turkey. De Avila's goal stood up for a 1-0 MetroStars victory that clinched the team a spot in the playoffs.

4. Playoffs. For my money, the most passionate playoff series ever contested in MLS was the first-round matchup between Metro and D.C. United. I remember saying to Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News, as I looked at D.C.'s fans as they bounced and sang, "Can you imagine people caring so much about a team that's been around such a short time?" The series was epic with the MetroStars winning the first game in a 10-round shootout (Savarese sent the game to the tiebreaker with a late equalizer off the bench), D.C. answering back in Game 2 with a 1-0 win, a late goal by Marco Etcheverry. I'll never forget the goal because Marco actually shot the ball with his right foot. I am now left to wonder if the it was the only right-footed goal of Etcheverry's MLS career. Game 3 lived up to the billing. D.C. took an early lead and was in total control of the game until De Avila scored late to equalize. In the waning moments, Roberto Donadoni hit the post with a free kick and De Avila missed an empty net from inside of six yards. Just as it looked like the game would go to a decisive shootout, Etcheverry gathered a ball outside the box, sidestepped one defender and was taken down by a fellow named Rob Johnson. A PK. Raul Diaz Arce buried it and D.C. United advanced and ultimately won it all. Not too long ago, Bruce Arena told me that '96 Metro team, coached expertly by Queiroz, was one of the most difficult teams any of his D.C. teams had to play against.

3. Aftermath. In a quiet Metro lockerroom, I walked up to Matt Knowles, a defender whom the Metros had taken with their first pick in the inaugural draft. Matt goes down in my book as the funniest player in MLS history. I patted him on the back and asked him, "Will you keep playing indoors?" To which Knowles looked around the locker room and stated, "Oh yeah, are you kidding me? This (stuff) here is WAY too serious."

2. First Departure. The post-mortems on that season had not even been written when we learned that Queiroz would be heading for the big, big bucks of the J-League, where he'd be coaching a team called Grampus Eight. It was a tough loss for the Metros. Queiroz was not only a good coach, but also a very hard worker who did an amazing job of making the '96 MetroStars a quality team. As we would learn later on, however, Queiroz was not one to stay put in any one place for very long. Japan was just another stop on a tour that has no end in sight. We'll see him back in MLS one day, rest assured.

1. First Offseason. So it was out with Queiroz and in with Carlos Alberto Parreira, one of the game's real gentlemen (who just so happens to be in charge of Brazil's national team once again). Parreira will not, however, go down as a great MLS coach. Not even if he wins another World Cup with Brazil. When you consider he had a team that consisted of the following players: Tony Meola, Peter Vermes, Branco, Roberto Donadoni, Tab Ramos, Antony De Avila and Shaun Bartlett, and did not make the playoffs. That's pretty hard to comprehend. It is all part of history. And as we enter Season 10, it's great to have it.

RSL Partnership With Real Madrid Falls Short Of Initial Promise

( 5-28-09)

Though MLS Real Salt Lake (RSL) Owner Dave Checketts heralded the club's 10-year partnership agreement with Spanish La Liga club Real Madrid as including "training visits, exhibition matches and the joint construction of a soccer academy for elite young players" when a deal was reached in '06, "little of that has come to pass," according to Michael Lewis of the SALT LAKE TRIBUNE.

RSL has trained in Madrid "only once, not annually Checketts said it would," and the "first of what was supposed to be biennial exhibition games between the teams in Utah was canceled last summer, when RSL agreed to allow Real Madrid to play elsewhere for more money."

A proposed $25M RSL soccer academy also "remains up in the air ... amid a faltering global economy and scandal within the Real Madrid hierarchy involving the former president with whom Checketts reached the agreement."

Checketts: "What they're saying to us now is, 'Let us get the new leadership put in place, the entire board of directors signed off on our agreement with you -- and you will continue to have our support and enthusiasm ... and we'll come back to you.'"

Real Madrid Dir of Strategic Planning Ivan Bravo said the club continues to have a "know-how exchange with Dave and his group, consulting each other on topics ranging from sports decisions to business opportunities."

But both sides said that the "weak global economy has been a big problem."

RSL has not traveled to Spain outside of its '07 training trip because a "weak dollar has made it too expensive."

Lewis noted the "confluence last summer of the weak dollar and soaring oil prices kept RSL from hosting Real Madrid for a scheduled exhibition game."

Bravo said that Real Madrid "must alternate its summer trips to cultivate its world-wide fan base."

He said the club will return to Utah "when the timing is right."

Meanwhile, Checketts said that both sides are "'still enthusiastic' and 'remain committed' to building" the proposed academy, though RSL "won't be able to do so until Salt Lake City finalizes plans to build an adjoining multi-field soccer complex."

Checketts said of the academy, "In this economy, all the rules change. I don't know when or if that will get done".


Real Madrid backs out of exhibition with RSL

(by James Edwards 5-17-08)

Real Madrid has officially backed out of its scheduled and contracted Aug. 9 exhibition game with Real Salt Lake according to RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey.

Real Madrid played a friendly at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2006 in front of more than 40,000 fans, and a contract was signed between the two teams for a return visit in 2008.

Citing finances, Lagerwey said Real Madrid will instead will be in Colombia the first week of August, followed by a visit to Germany the following week.

It's estimated that RSL was supposed to pay Real Madrid 1 million Euros to make a visit to Utah in 2008. At the time, that translated into about $1 million U.S. dollars, but today would be about $1.6 million.

Real Madrid has decided it can earn significantly more taking its globally renowned brand elsewhere. Lagerwey couldn't help but admit that from the business side, it made sense for the European super club.

Lagerwey is obviously upset about the decision but stressed that RSL is committed to delivering quality international games to soccer fans in Utah anyway. He couldn't be specific, but RSL's GM said the club is in talks with a couple of Mexican League teams and a few European teams as well. Lagerwey also reiterated that Real Madrid's decision not to come to Utah this year doesn't impact the partnership between the two clubs that was signed in 2006.

Last year in a span of four days in July, RSL hosted exhibition games against Everton of the English Premier League and Boca Juniors from Argentina. It also faced the Fijian and Chinese National teams.

In addition to facing Real Madrid in 2006, RSL also played a friendly against Morelia of the Mexican first division.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Houston Dynamo's new Zona Naranja proves a hit with supporters

(by Phil West 4-13-16)

Sunday’s nationally televised match between the Houston Dynamo and the Seattle Sounders showcased two of the league’s most intriguing (and some might say confounding) teams, ending in a 1-1 draw. But it also showed off some exciting developments for fans of Houston, the home team that night.

After a series of off-season meetings with club officials, Dynamo supporters' groups moved from two sections along the end line on the stadium’s southwest side, which they were in danger of outgrowing. Now they've got new digs, the Zona Naranja, a more spacious upper deck underneath the scoreboard at the opposite end of the stadium, encompassing Sections 215-217.

It was a trade-off that the supporters groups determined had net positives. There would be opportunities to create tifo that could be seen throughout the stadium, and even more importantly, there would be a chance to accommodate more supporters than the 500-ish that the original section provided.

Three home games into the season–including a pair of heartbreaking wins-turned-draws, sandwiching a delicious 5-0 romp over rivals FC Dallas in the Texas Derby–the new Zona Naranja is not only new. By many supporters’ accounts, it's also providing an experience that's improved.

“I think moving up to the 200s has changed the dynamics for the better,” said Manny Gutierrez, one of the leaders for El Batallon, the barra-styled supporters group that stands in the center section of the new Zona. They're responsible for the brass instruments and drums that play almost continually throughout the match. “It’s not people who might be buying tickets just to get cheap, close seats. The people coming here want to be actively involved.”

While most of the Dynamo supporters buy season tickets to sit in the Zona, the available single-game tickets allow potential new supporters to chant and stand alongside more seasoned supporters. That allows for the increased participation at which Gutierrez hinted.

Faith Stringer, a Texian Army member who drives two hours from Bryan-College Station (best known as the home of Texas A&M University), concurred. “I think the view’s much better, and I feel like we’re much more noticeable,” she said. Pointing to her wide-brimmed hat, she added, “The sun’s not great, though.”

The Zona is backed by a giant scoreboard and thus doesn’t have the overhang that the opposite end of the stadium has to shield from the elements. Home matches from mid-April to October offer more forgiving evening start times to keep fans from overheating, but supporters have sensibly negotiated water coolers in the Zona to make sure they’re getting enough water.

“Dehydration can sneak up on you really quick, especially when you’re chanting at full volume throughout a match,” said Chris Smink, the former Texian Army president, who’s gone beyond mere tents to shop fans and generators at some summer tailgates.

“The fans are definitely enjoying it,” said Houston Dash managing director Brian Ching of the new Zona. Ching has been instrumental in bringing supporters and team officials together to remake the supporters section into an anchor for stadium-wide atmosphere. And he noted that despite some early trepidation about change, he said “95 percent of what we’ve heard is positive, and we’re continuing to work with the fans to make it even better.”

It’s clear that the organization is taking a role in pumping up the crowd. The PA system jump-started the “Forever We Are Orange” chant that is the Dynamo go-to, as the team lined up to start the match. And then, the Zona Naranja supporters took it from there.

They kept the chant going through the kickoff and, accompanied by incredibly emphatic trumpets and trombones, well into the match’s eighth minute. And when Giles Barnes scored in front of the supporters late in the first half, they broke out a giant orange, back, and white version of the Texas flag–current Texian Army president James Hromadka describes it as “car dealership big”–and unfurled it over the whole section.

It’s a tradition that they’ve gone to since BBVA Compass Stadium opened in 2012. But now, it’s become a bigger and more visible tradition that ever before.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Real Salt Lake announces plans to build $50 million training complex in Herriman

(by Xoel Cardenas 4-9-16)

Real Salt Lake and Herriman Mayor Carmen Freeman unveiled plans to build a $50 million soccer training complex, the Major League Soccer club announced on Saturday.

“As an organization, we believe that building this gathering place from ground up, developing local talent, and training that talent to an elite level, will lead to stronger connection and ultimate success,” said RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen in a news release. “The goal has been to create a program for youth training and academy training that is equal to anything that you could find in Europe at the elite soccer academies: Ajax, Barcelona, England. So we've looked at them very closely.” RSL and the city of Herriman plan to break ground on the 42-acre plot later this month. The training complex will include eight fields, one for Herriman city public use, and a total of seven regulation-size soccer fields. Four of the fields will be natural grass and outdoor, with the remaining three fields utilizing artificial surface. Two of the artificial fields will be housed in a 208,000-square-foot structure, the largest pre-engineered free span building in North America.

The complex will house daily training activities for RSL and the Real Monarchs, as well as extensions of the club’s Arizona-based U-18 and U-16 USSFDA Academy setups, according to an RSL press release. Potential future additions include an RSL women’s professional team and other youth development age groups.

“This defines professionalization of soccer in America,” said Craig Waibel, Real Salt Lake general manager. “This is commitment from an owner to build an organization — not build a building, not build a field and call it an organization — this is commitment beyond what we’ve seen to this point. This is creating a definition for our organization that’s going to exist and identifying what defines us for years to come.” The facility will employ 50 full-time staff members and 20 part-time staff, according to RSL.

“Every city looks for an iconic landmark that will identify it regionally and internationally,” Freeman said. “From a job creation standpoint, the stimulation of economic growth, with great benefits for our residents, to have such a unique opportunity of an incredibly inclusive nature is enormous.”

“Herriman, I have to say, really went out of their way to invite us to be there,” said Hansen. “This complex will serve as the crown jewel of Herriman City, with our residents experiencing huge benefits on all fronts,” said Nicole Martin, a Herriman city councilor. “It is rare yet incredible that a successful entity such as RSL shares our city’s vision for creating a family-friendly, world-class destination, and now we become essentially a ‘soccer-topia’ to hone athletic and academic skills for decades to come.” RSL’s Herriman Training Complex will also sit adjacent to a 250-student STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) charter school developed by Utah State University, with 77,000 square feet of classrooms and a 90-acre campus.

“We have a passion for how our residents live, work and play, and this complex and the adjacent STEM school will provide amazing value for our residents,” said Herriman City Councilor Coralee Moser.

Hansen has also created the nonprofit “RSL Youth Academy Foundation,” which will create “regional training centers” across Utah and potentially Arizona. The first three locations are scheduled to be North Logan, Ogden and West Valley City, with Orem and St. George planned for later on. “Our collective passion about building this community is at the core of everything we do, with my job being to guide the group and lead us in how we connect to the community of nearly 10 million people across Utah and Arizona,” said Hansen. “I’m Salt Lake, I’m Utah, this is what I care about, and this is what the RSL values reflect, the club rooted civically in the community with everyone invited as a point of unification.” The facility is scheduled to open in July 2017.


Here is a photo taken this summer showing the progress of the academy.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Why MLS’s Expansion to 28 (or 32) Teams is Good for NASL

(by Chris Kivlehan 1-17-16)

Major League Soccer has announced its intent to expand to 28 teams, and while it may seem counterintuitive, I believe this is actually a good thing for the North American Soccer League. Further, it is a good bet that MLS isn’t stopping at 28, but rather 32 seems like a more likely number. MLS shares many owners with the NFL, and more than any other league, MLS looks up to the NFL.

The NFL has 32 teams and its owners seem quite content with that number.  The NFL could easily support more than 32 teams; cities like Columbus, Salt Lake City, Portland, Orlando and Oklahoma City are as NFL caliber as Buffalo, Jacksonville, Kansas City and New Orleans.  That’s before looking North to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver or overseas to London or Frankfurt.  So why doesn’t the NFL have 40 teams?  It’s about maximizing revenue and value of the franchises.  The scarcity of NFL teams drives the value up.  

The illusion of scarcity is why MLS, with 24 franchises awarded to date, is only saying they are going to 28 teams right now, rather than coming out and saying that 32 is the end game limit.  If there are four expansion spots left, and two of them are practically spoken for by Sacramento and San Antonio, that artificially drives up the value of the “last two” spots because there is more demand than supply.  If there were six spots readily available, they would be worth less than just two.  MLS will likely stop expanding once their owners, who again overlap in many cases with the NFL, decide they have hit a number that maximizes league revenue per owner and franchise value.   The NFL has identified 32 teams as the sweet spot for revenue and franchise value maximization.  MLS may determine the right number for their league is less than 32, but they are unlikely to decide it is more than 32 teams.

A 28-32 team cap for MLS is a boon for NASL.  There are 70 markets in the USA that could support a first division soccer team.  The top 10 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs)  could likely support several teams, as they do in Europe only to a lesser extent here since the market for the game is less developed.  NASL can likely put teams in different parts of the 10 largest MSAs, and be the most relevant team within a comfortable drive of the area they serve.  

For example, MLS is moving into downtown Atlanta.  The city’s northern suburbs are populated and wealthy, and traffic in Atlanta is notoriously bad.  The MLB’s Atlanta Braves are moving to Cobb County north of Atlanta because of a sweetheart stadium deal and the fact that is an attractive part of the market to be in.  An NASL team could thrive in Cobb County near the Braves, while Atlanta United FC flourishes in its downtown stadium shared with the NFL Falcons.  The recent failure of the Silverbacks in that market is a result of not having the right owners in place with financial strength and determination to field a strong alternative to MLS.  Challenging in an MLS market requires a strong backing with a good strategy to carve out their own niche.

Not all markets offer this opportunity, however.   The top 10 markets, and perhaps Seattle-Tacoma, would be interesting bets as MLS-having locations NASL could compete in.  The good news is as MLS selects its final 8 markets, there are plenty of excellent metropolitan areas that will be left over NASL.

Where will MLS go?

Teams 21-24 are set with Atlanta United FC due in 2017, Minnesota United FC moving from NASL to MLS in either 2017 or 2018, LAFC debuting in 2018 and Miami Beckham United finally nailing down their stadium site.

25 and 26 appear to be locked up as well. Sacramento ticks all of MLS’s boxes like no expansion bid before, and the San Antonio Spurs acquisition of Toyota Field and launch of a USL franchise has been done with an open wink and nod from MLS.

So there are 2 more open spots “available” for MLS, and likely a hard maximum of 4 additional berths beyond that.  This is good for NASL.  It is not as good for USL.

It is good because it will attract more qualified investors in soccer across the country – more than can possibly join MLS.  These prospective owners will have three options:  invest in something other than US pro soccer, invest in a developmental league in USL or invest in an aspiring alternate major league in NASL.

MLS commissioner Don Garber says they are talking to groups in St. Louis and San Diego, which would position the league to fill gaps left in those towns by potentially departing NFL teams.  He has tossed out Detroit and El Paso in similar conversations before. Long ago, MLS coveted Cleveland and Rochester as well. The billionaire owner of FC Cincinnati probably isn’t investing in USL to stay there.  The Charlotte Independence owners have signaled their intent for MLS. Arizona United hired Frank Yallop as part of a plan to drive to MLS. Louisville is talking about a stadium plan to land MLS. MLS rejected investors from Las Vegas.

So let’s say MLS goes to 32 teams and they are:  25. Sacramento, 26. San Antonio, 27. St. Louis, 28. San Diego, 29. Cincinnati, 30. Phoenix, 31. Charlotte 32. Detroit.

Those are eight of the biggest MSAs left on the table, so that’s a pretty significant list of open markets lost.  One region I am leaving off the MLS list is Tampa Bay.  Certainly Tampa Bay is larger than some of the other metro areas on the list and expanding to Tampa Bay strike a blow to NASL.  I left it off because the current owner, Bill Edwards, is unlikely to want to give over the control necessary to join MLS, there is a nearby MLS franchise in Orlando, and failure of the Tampa Bay Mutiny once before. However even if we replace Charlotte on the above list with Tampa Bay, and NASL loses the Rowdies with all the history and tradition they represent, the overall trend would still be favorable.

Why MLS maxing out is good for NASL

Because it means MLS is done growing, which means if you are an ambitious independent USL team owner, what are you investing for? You either need to suck it up and make peace with being minor league playing MLS reserve teams, you close up shop or you move to a more ambitious league of fellow independent teams aspiring to be first division.  This conundrum almost certainly awaits Louisville, which is too small of a market to attract one of MLS’s final spots.  I would expect a defection of spurned independent USL owners who are locked out of MLS when it stops growing at 32 teams. Tulsa, Charlotte, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Austin are all markets with more potential than what that USL would be able to harness and would be ripe for NASL to poach.

Beyond the present USL towns, where does a maxed-out MLS leave great markets like Nashville, Memphis, Buffalo, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Baltimore, New Orleans and Milwaukee?  Locked out of MLS forever, or waiting patiently until an MLS franchise falters enough to be relocated.  Those are all strong potential MSAs for NASL to move into.  Beyond that there are solid markets like Chattanooga, El Paso, Hartford and Birmingham, which MLS would never touch.

MLS going to 28 or 32 teams may mean NASL loses another franchise or two along the way, but it has so much more to gain by capitalizing on the demand generated by the prospect of MLS expansion along with the impact dwindling odds the USL independents have for moving up, as the game of soccer grows in popularity across the country.

If MLS goes to 32 teams, what could NASL grow into?

In a scenario where MLS stops at 32 teams, NASL could look every bit as major a league in terms of the markets it supports by putting teams in the top 10 MSA/TV markets as well as in top 11-50 markets passed over by MLS.

If you positioned NASL teams with the right investor backing into different sections of the top 10 MSA markets with MLS, you could put teams in Orange County, East LA, Ventura County, the Inland Empire or the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles; in the city or northern suburbs in Chicago; in Arlington or Fort Worth in the Dallas MSA; in the Sugar Land area of the Houston MSA; in the city or northern suburbs of Philadelphia; in northern Virginia or southern Maryland in the DC area; in the city or northern suburbs of Boston.  This would be in addition to the Atlanta example above, as well as the existing New York Cosmos, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Miami FC.  Reports have a Peter Wilt-led revival of the Chicago Sting potentially following the city/northern suburb path mentioned above, as well as the Bay Area Professional Soccer group looking to land a team in San Francisco or the eastern Bay Area.  While it might not be necessary to have teams in all of these markets, it would be helpful in getting NASL a good TV contract one day.

Add to those teams in Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, Nashville, Memphis, Las Vegas, Hartford, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Austin, Providence, New Orleans, Virginia Beach, and more.  Not only are there enough markets to support an alternate first division of American soccer, but you have enough available markets to support a multi-tier pyramid structure with promotion and relegation, should NASL want to introduce the much in-demand system to differentiate the product it offers in the marketplace from MLS.

Available markets are not the problem, not by a long shot.  Qualified and motivated investors are the scarce resource for NASL right now.  There are sure to be many groups who fail in their bid for a MLS team, whether they are independent USL clubs or investment groups that don’t presently operate a club.  When the MLS musical chairs game is over, NASL will look more appealing to those left standing who don’t want to damn themselves to a minor league existence forever, and who are willing to make an investment in a league that has big time ambitions.  As new investors emerge after MLS is maxed out, their choice will be between NASL and a USL that offers no growth beyond minor league purgatory.

NASL is like any challenger entrant into a business market with an established leader. It needs to find a different angle in the market to be successful and appeal to an audience that is not served by the leader. That niche can be its base of strength and it can grow from there.   Just as Coke and Pepsi co-exist as successful soft drinks while there are plenty of alternative beverages (sports) available to the consumer, so too can MLS, NASL and USL each find their own path to success without requiring the failure of the other.  For MLS, that success is to be the best American style sports league in US soccer.  For USL, that is to be the best minor league supporting MLS.  For NASL, that path is to be the best traditional soccer league in North America.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Wynalda recreates MLS' first goal

Looking good Waldo!

(I think he should have worn a San Jose Clash replica uniform though. I wonder if he by chance hung on to that uniform he wore that night.)

DC United vs San Jose, 20 years later


Monday, April 4, 2016

NASL loses two teams ... but gains Paolo Maldini and Carmelo Anthony

(by Jack Williams 2-10-16)

The 2016 season will see a number of changes in the makeup of American soccer’s second-tier, the North American Soccer League. Over the coming months, two new franchises will be introduced, before a third is added in the fall section of a two-part season. The off-season, though, has also seen two teams jump ship, with another of its franchises, Minnesota United, set to move to Major League Soccer, in 2018.

First, the departees.

The first team to opt out were the San Antonio Scorpions, who, in December, announced the sale of their stadium, Toyota Field, as well as its accompanying soccer complex. In a business model that was unique in American sports, the Scorpions’ owner, Gordon Hartman, gave profits from the club's operations to a special needs theme park inspired by his daughter, Morgan. The sale of the facilities funded his cause – as did a reported $3m donation from Spurs Sports and Entertainment. But led by Spurs Sports and Entertainment’s MLS intentions, it was announced that the group would be leasing the facilities to join the MLS-affiliated United Soccer League, America’s third-tier, rather than keep a team in the NASL.

“Where we need to get to as a league – and we are pretty close – is where owners may come and go, but clubs stay,” Bill Peterson, the commissioner of the NASL, told the Guardian. “And that’s what this country needs. You’re the steward of a team, you are not the owner of a team. That’s where the sport comes from.”

The Atlanta Silverbacks, who had been with the league since its inaugural season in 2011, would leave for entirely different reasons, but also left a supporters group void of professional soccer. Last season the team were operated by the league while it searched for an ownership group committed to the Silverbacks’ long-term future. With no ownership group meeting the league’s standards – and potential investors perhaps being deterred by the city’s new MLS franchise, which has already surpassed 20,000 season ticket subscriptions for the 2018 season – it was announced last month that the team had suspended operations. Despite this setback, the NASL has said that it still sees Atlanta as a market for the league.

“We are not going to leave a city we are in currently and close the door completely, because all of the cities we are in, we believe in them and we believe we can be successful,” Peterson said. “As far as owners’ aspiring to be in the top division: all of our owners, I think, aspire to be in the top division. When you get up in the morning, I don’t know anyone in sports that wakes up and says I want to be second best today; you want to be the first on the field, off the field; you always are striving to do the best you can do in what we do.

When it comes to the newcomers, perhaps the most noticeable aspect about all three is the variety of backgrounds each of the ownership groups has. Miami FC, for example, entering that market ahead of David Beckham's planned MLS franchise, is a team owned by entrepreneur Riccardo Silva and retired Italian international Paolo Maldini. Having a name like Maldini associated with the league is seen as a major coup, Peterson said. And Maldini has also installed another well-known Italian defender in Alessandro Nesta, who will coach the side when it enters the league in April.

There’s a rather European feel about Oklahoma’s new franchise, too – helped partly by the its name, which is a moniker that La Liga fans will certainly recognize. Rayo OKC’s ownership group is made up of Oklahoma native Sean Jones and majority stakeholder Raul Presa, the owner of Rayo Vallecano of Spain. The NASL has been interested in the Oklahoma market for a number of years. But after a potential investor pulled out to help fund a ULS franchise, the Oklahoma Energy, those who remained committed to the NASL were left to searching for alternatives. Having reached the agreement with Rayo’s owners - whose intentions seem geared towards brand-building rather than player development, given that no Rayo players have moved stateside just yet - the club is hurriedly putting together a roster capable of competing come the spring.

Unlike Miami and Oklahoma, there will be no rush on the roster front for the league’s final new franchise, Puerto Rico FC, as it is set to join the NASL in the fall of 2016. Puerto Rico will be representing a market that was previously occupied by the NASL - only for its team, the Puerto Rico Islanders, to suspend operations after two seasons, in 2012, due to low attendance numbers and a lack of adequate funding. It is hoped that that the island’s new team will be able to build momentum off the back of its high profile owner, Carmelo Anthony. The New York Knicks star is an avid soccer fan. Having used his foundation to successfully refurbish basketball courts on the island, he announced in June that he hopes to restore soccer’s infrastructure on the island, too. The league hopes Anthony’s team will give them a foothold in the Caribbean and other North American regions.

“For a league that’s now starting its sixth year, to have people like Maldini, and Rayo, and Nesta, and Carmelo Anthony involved in a league that is this young, we’re not learning through trial and error,” Peterson said. “We have people on board as owners – and coaches, in relation to Nesta – who have been at the highest levels of the game. They understand how to structure a club, top to bottom, on the field and off the field. And what that’s going to allow us to do is ramp up much quicker than maybe if we had a league of people who were still trying to figure out the sport.”

Moving forward, Peterson said, the league intends to remain tight-lipped about the markets it is looking into. The goal is for the 12-team NASL to eventually become a 20-team league. Over the past few seasons, the NASL has frozen its entrance fees at a figure in the “single digit millions” as a way to entice investors away from $100m-plus reported figures of MLS expansion fees. Peterson would admit that interest in the league has been “organic out west”; growing in the midwest; and that “there’s always interest in the east.” In the near future he hopes to announce at least one west coast team - “we may be putting two or three there” - and when they are left with a final three or four slots to fill, the conversation will move from “what market is there interest from?” to “what markets are we still interested in?”

“We have kept the price the same for a long time, very simply because our owners aren’t looking for money from new people coming in; they want them to invest money in their clubs,” Peterson said. “There are owners who understand what this takes. They’ve got a long view on it, and they’re not greedy. It’s about where we end up in five, 10, 15 years - not where we are today.”

Finally, when asked about where such changes in participating franchises leaves the league’s reputation - particularly seeing another team leaving for the MLS, and some, as in San Antonio, preferring a MLS-associated league - Peterson said that the league is only focused on continuing to grow attendance, quality of play and the number of teams. Rivalries with other leagues are healthy, he added. And despite the talk last season of promotion and relegation being on the agenda - a concept Peterson supports - the NASL has made no contact with other leagues – it is something they would look into internally and much further into the future. Peterson admits that having such a closed system is one of the key factors why the six-year-old league has seen so many movements this season.

“It’s America, so there’s freedom of choice; people can do what they want to do.” Peterson said. “The movement has always been expected. A lot of it can be chopped up to the fact that it’s a closed system, so teams can’t move up or move down, depending on the situation they are in with their ownership or performance on the field. So you put the teams in a bind by not having options on the go forward, and that’s caused some of the issue that we have, and it’s also something that’s been common with every league that’s ever started up in this country.”


Saturday, April 2, 2016

MLS, 20 years but still a long way to go…

(by Martin del Palacio 3-7-16)

When MLS was launched in 1996, the general perception in the world and the region was “America has finally arrived to the world of football and they will eventually win it all”. The world's most popular sport was up for the taking for its most powerful country. The perception was fortified when the USSF published an ambitious project to win the World Cup in 2010.

Of course, we now know that none of that happened. This week, four Mexican teams qualified to the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League, easily disposing of their American counterparts. The USMNT is as close to winning a World Cup as they were in 1996 and none of their players are even close to the World’s Top 10 in their respective positions.

What went wrong? Why America hasn’t developed into the monster that the world expected and the region feared? I will try to explain it in this column and I'll use the Liga MX as a comparison point.
The key point is that when, back in the times, the media prophesized the future American supremacy, they underestimated the enormous advantage that the rest of the world had over them. And that not only refers to the popularity of the sport itself, but a series of practices that are taken for granted in the strongest leagues in the world and essentially do not exist or are just starting in the MLS 20 years later.

Let’s start with the talent detection. In Mexico, all clubs have academies throughout the country, with decent-level coaches, and constant tryouts even in the most remote parts. In the United States, it’s customary that universities detect young talents, but that doesn’t work out for soccer, and clubs’ scouting systems are simply subpar. In fact, the best Latin players north of the border are usually detected by the academies that Mexican clubs have over there.

But that’s not all. If a young American stands out quickly is invited to Bradenton Academy, to train with the National Teams. But if not... Nothing. They do what they can with what they have. In Mexico, for each U17 called up to the National Teams, there are 5 more who will keep on training with their clubs, going on international tours and competing in youth tournaments organized by the Liga MX.

Then there is the infrastructure. Soccer is still not a mainstream sport in the US, therefore only some clubs have dedicated stadiums, training complexes are merely adequate and coaches are far from being the best in their field, simply because there is no money to pay them. Never in its wildest fantasies an MLS league club could think about building a training complex remotely similar to the one Mexican side Pachuca has, with numerous pitches, a hospital, complete technical staff for all their teams and the latest technological advances in training systems.

And most importantly, the talent. MLS has made headlines by signing illustrious players, albeit veteran, but the rest are considerably worse. The homegrown players, because of the deficiencies in preparation mentioned above and the foreigners, because of the salary cap and the lack of income that prevents teams to find quality footballers, and have to make do with the best Concacaf has to offer or unknown South American players who couldn’t cut it in Europe or Mexico.

And finally, the league doesn’t really help itself. The structure of salary cap made sense to start with, to avoid a repetition of the bad experience of NASL, but neither the world nor the football are the same as then. Similarly, the summer schedule prevents their clubs from competing with the best in the area, and even if they usually try to downplay them, those bad continental results discourage the fans. And let’s not mention the SuperDraft…

Ultimately, it can be argued that MLS and the US national team have had better results than they should, given the circumstances. But for the same reason, they are still far from being a danger to the most powerful footballing countries.

Since 1993 the US has advanced, no doubt. Soccer's popularity has increased to a point that was unthinkable in 1996 and it has found its own niche in an extremely crowded market.  But in terms of international standards, as the world has also moved forward, the MLS seems to still be walking in the same place.