This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on April 21, 2014.
A Place to Call Home
By: Jon Townsend
The sunshine, the banging of drums, and the green, blue, and white-paneled Mitre Ultimax soccer ball are images that remind of Saturday, April 6, 1996 in San Jose, California as Major League Soccer kicked off its inaugural season with the San Jose Clash (with their ironically clashing kits) hosted D.C. United at Spartan Stadium. For the first time, I saw an ESPN crew, complete with the big cameras and foamy microphones overhead scramble around the pitch and concourse levels of the stadium. At eleven years of age, I wondered what the men carrying the Plexiglas “shields” were doing on the sidelines (I later learned these were microphones, as well).
My eyes took in the excitement and I yelled, “Dad, look! It’s John Harkes!” while pulling on my father’s arm. I had seen a loaded Brazilian national team train at Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw stadium two years earlier as they prepared to face Russia in the 1994 World Cup, but for some reason, this experience was different. These were the American soccer heroes of the time many of whom had returned to the US after successful stints plying their trade in Europe. I couldn’t believe we had a professional league with players who featured in the World Cup. The circus-like atmosphere reached an ear-piercing shriek as Eric Wynalda put the ball through a defender’s legs in D.C. United’s penalty area before clinically placing a shot past D.C.’s goalkeeper, Jeff Causey, into the side netting to score a late winner.
His celebration was perfect—the embodiment of a soccer celebration, sliding on his knees, shirt over his head, fists clenched and pumping. I’ll never forget that experience; being one of the 32,000 supporters jammed into Spartan Stadium where my father and I used to watch San Jose State University play against the other talented collegiate teams from the Bay Area: Santa Clara, Stanford, USF—but how could it be that professional soccer was actually being played, here, in the US? Finally, the sport I loved had a place to call home—or did it?
Over the years, Major League Soccer has gone through the predictable ebb and flow in its effort to sink its teeth into the American and now Canadian sports market. I moved to Chicago a few years later and watched the Chicago Fire play at Soldier Field before the stadium was renovated. The pace of that Fire team coached by Bob Bradley was amazing. It was also a unique blend of American and Eastern European talent that set the league ablaze (pardon the pun). I also remember how small Soldier Field made the game feel. But it was loud. “Section 8” had its diehard fans, The Ultras, who were welcoming but elitist in their efforts to implement a more global supporting style. They didn’t sit during matches; they bounced up and down shouting encouragement at the home players and abuse at the opposition. The [in]famous pre-goal kick chant—composed of the rattling drum line of fists against plastic stadium seats quickening in tempo and intensity leading up to the climactic and resounding, “You suck, Asshole!” shout as the opposing goalkeeper kicked the ball—this was part of being a supporter in our league. There was a passion and fervor that swallowed attendees up in that old and cold stadium defiantly located on the banks of Lake Michigan in the Windy City.
But then, it changed. Everything changed. Stadiums became soccer-specific, which was great. But soccer specific stadiums came at a price. Many of them, including Chicago’s Toyota Park, were difficult to get to and attracted the suburban fan. The soccer moms and minivan crowd filled the seats, sort of. I remember watching a match in Columbus, Ohio as the Crew played against the Fire and noticed so many kids running around the concession stands and concourse levels instead of watching the game. The Crew’s stadium was beautiful. Intimate and well-constructed—but the more soccer-specific the stadia around the league became, the farther the game seemed for the supporters both geographically and emotionally in some respects. But these stadiums, these shrines were what the fans of MLS wanted and needed, but in the advent of league expansion criteria and frequency, the fans must ask questions of a league that seems to bypass strong soccer tradition in markets like St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Phoenix in favor of big money injections to markets (like Atlanta and teams in Florida) that typically don’t have strong attendance figures due to a lack of dedicated soccer fans. Atlanta for example, has a demographic that is largely a transplant populous and has seen its NHL franchise accumulate reported losses of $130 million in just over a decade and return to Winnipeg. But soccer is a different beast, or so we all hope.
Since 1996, established teams like D.C. United and the New England Revolution still play in football stadiums. To many of the league’s supporters this isn’t a promising sign. What is more disappointing is the number of teams that have played or currently play on artificial turf. Maybe I’m a purist, but this isn’t gridiron football. The game should be played on natural grass. For a league that wants to attract promising talent while retaining domestic talent, the game needs to be played on natural surfaces. But MLS is a business entity that aims to make money and solidify its financial windfall in any way it can. Investing in turf, albeit expensive as upfront overhead, eliminates the need for a dedicated grounds crew. And of course, turf is “weather proof” so there’s that sell. The naïve fan buys this; the purist does not.
Additionally, each team should have a place to call its own—and many do. It’s tough to watch teams in Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, New England, and eventually, Orlando play on artificial turf or with artificially reduced seating capacities. Recent reports suggest the newest franchise in Atlanta will play on artificial turf and will have an artificially reduced seating capacity as it will share the stadium with an NFL team. Other teams subject to this awkward match day reduction include: D.C. United at RFK Stadium: reduced from 47,359 to 19,647; New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium: reduced from 68,756 to 20,000; and the Vancouver White Caps at BC Place: reduced from 54,320 to 21,000.
MLS can be criticized for many things, perhaps its name being one of them. Major League Soccer might suggest there is a Minor League Soccer entity circulating through the veins of interstate highways across the country. Perhaps it’s a beautifully hokey marketing term, one that captures and appeases the American sports audience to this “foreign” sport of soccer. But that’s the low-hanging fruit. It’s tough to actually judge the league for strengthening itself internally on the premise of fiscal responsibility, but Major League Soccer needs to make sure that future expansion clubs have their soccer specific stadiums (SSS) before they start league play. It sends a message to future fans that they will have a place to congregate and call their own, which is paramount for the short and long term success of establishing a dedicated fan base. Adding another team in New York is proof that MLS breaks the very rules it holds other potential expansion locales to and NYCFC meets only one of the three main criteria required by MLS to earn a franchise.
But these are minor points of contention for a league that has a business-focused structure on financial lockdown. A glaring problem is the absence of a cohesive, tiered system in American soccer. The MLS with its aggressive and sometimes blind expansion in the country’s Southeast region (where the two defunct teams were from in the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny) has perhaps reached a point that a self-imposed ceiling has to be implemented. The USL-Pro league is home to 15 teams with Orlando SC soon to be joining MLS taking the projected number down to 14. Another aspect of MLS’ business model in such a vast country might suggest that in time, MLS can be split into two entities, MLS “A” and MLS “B” for the future implementation of promotion/relegation system seen elsewhere around the world.
The keen observer has to wonder if MLS is biting more than it can chew as there are still three unresolved stadium issues: DC, New England, and now NYCFC. Additionally, the league has to run Chivas USA, which is embarrassing. With the possible expansion franchise in Miami pending stadium-related issues and the recently announced plans for a team in Atlanta, the league will have four new clubs in the next three or four years and yet, stadium issues remain a focal point. Eventually, as MLS has seen in some markets, the fever from expansion-related revenue streams will run out. Surely, MLS cannot see itself returning to days each franchise counted concessions and ticket stubs and a meager television revenue figures to sustain the league.
Arthur Blank is certain to pay a hefty expansion fee between the $70 million charged to Orlando City and the $100 million paid by Manchester City F.C. and the New York Yankees for New York City FC, which means both Orlando and NYCFC will begin play next year. The most obvious way to understand expansion is to view MLS as a buy-in club where cash is king—especially upfront. There’s nothing wrong with strong capitalism running the expansion of MLS from a business perspective, but from a sporting perspective many question the almost blatant circumvention of the very requirements put in place for expansion teams. Much like the growing problem seen at the grassroots level, MLS has become a pay-to-play enterprise, but perhaps there is no other way to grow the league.
Watching soccer in stadium built for baseball is less than ideal. Based off summer preseason attendance figures from the Guinness International Champions Cup in previous years, the stadiums sold substantial ticket amounts, but that was for internationally established powerhouses of the world game, which are themselves global brands. With all due respect, this is MLS, and like every American multicultural urban epicenter, how New York responds to NYCFC will be a big test for a club in a country where diehard fans are more familiar with leagues around the world and who still see MLS as a minor league they don’t fully support, yet. If the team is sharing a stadium with American football or baseball the atmosphere is compromised. Another fair point is although the New York Yankees have part ownership, the baseball season occurs on at the same time as MLS. The pitch will be less than ideal all season for both teams and the baseball team is the key stakeholder at Yankee Stadium.
The fact remains that Major League Soccer is proof that ardent and disciplined investing practices can move mountains and pave highways for a sport that’s struggled to establish itself as a serious contender in the North American sports landscape. Contrary to many a misguided belief, MLS doesn’t aim to uproot or displace the NFL, NBA, or MLB, but rather to continue to strengthen its infrastructure and expand into the niche markets of the sport. The biggest problem soccer faces in America is not Major League Soccer, but viability and distribution of strength, talent, and opportunities for grow in a cohesive tiered system that would see Major League Soccer become America’s Premier League, NASL become The Championship, and USL Pro America’s League 1. Whatever evolutionary path soccer in North America takes, the young boy who was part of the 32,000 excited fans crammed into Spartan Stadium in San Jose in April of 1996 is now a man and part of a generation that has grown up with MLS—and it sure has come a long way.