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Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Before we get to the mail, I’d like to point out three positive things that I’ve seen related to MLS since the last time I wrote a column. I apologize if it seems like these items are biased towards DC United but they are because, well, that’s where I live and what I get to see more than anything else.

1) When DC United traveled to the Meadowlands to play the Metrostars suspended midfielder Christian Gomez took his family up I-95 to watch the match in the stands. Rather than sit in a press box, he put on an Argentina jersey and took his turn on the drum that one of the United supporters groups brings on the road. We complain a lot about athletes in this country being out of touch with the fans and this was a great counter example to that complaint. Not only was he hanging with the fans and supporting his teammates but he traveled from DC to northern New Jersey on his own time to do it.

2) The return match with the Metrostars here in DC took place a week ago Saturday after a day marked by torrential rains. Despite the terrible weather, the 18,751 people packed the majority of the lower bowl at RFK Stadium. Just by way of comparison, the Capitals of the NHL only drew 16,325 in their first home game after an entire year of not playing. We have a tendency to want to compare MLS attendance figures to the NFL or Major League Baseball but outperforming the NHL (and likely many NBA franchises) isn’t a bad place to be, especially when you consider that those sports don’t have to worry about bad weather keeping people away.

3) Finally, on a beautiful evening this past Saturday, DC United played a completely meaningless match against Columbus with no implications for anything with DC already cemented in 2nd place in the East and Columbus starting to evaluate coaching candidates and draft picks. Despite the fact that the game was meaningless and some of the best college football of the year (USC/Notre Dame and Penn State/Michigan) was still in progress on TV, more than 22,000 people came out to thank the team for a great regular season and get fired up for the playoffs.

On that note, on to your comments on the second part of the Sixteen Candles feature…

An Excellent Topic for a 25 Candles Feature

Reader Matthew Keane has some worries about the long term implications of my 16 Candles recommendation for MLS saying “…I am…leery of codifying developmental relationships with teams in [E]urope… over time we should want MLS to be less and less developmental and more able to compete directly with the [E]uropean leagues. There is no argument that currently MLS is not at the same level as [those] leagues. And exposure to the highest levels is almost always good. But I do not want MLS to be permanently in the position of AA baseball…With the reserve league added just this year and a greater shot at profitability due to Soccer Specific Stadiums, the league will improve organically. The question you raise is Will this organic growth be enough? I say yes.”

Matthew has put forward a legitimate worry that any organization faces when they attach themselves to a higher profile, more established partner. Do you go for the quick win and risk being thought of as the “little brother” forever? Or do you forgo the benefits of partnership in favor of going it alone as an independent succeeding or failing on your own terms? There are many documented cases from the business world of companies being successful with both strategies. MLS’s willingness to try this sort of strategy should come down to how confident they are that they will recognize when they’ve gotten all they can out of a partnership and have the fortitude to end it before Matthew’s worry became reality. You’d hope by then – say 5 to 8 years from now – that MLS management would be strong enough to make those decisions but you never know.

An Additional Candle

For our country’s 16th soccer birthday, Al Bicker would like to add to my list of requests “One thing that I would like to add, and it is a very small thing but I think it would improve TV ratings. Raise the production bar for US Soccer broadcasts. I live pretty far away from any MLS city and don't have the opportunity to attend matches in person. However, when you watch an EPL match and then watch an MLS match, the broadcast production of the two events is a stark contrast. It really is a pain to watch an MLS broadcast. Why does the producer feel that his only two choices for camera angles are from 3,000 ft. up and a close up of one player? This doesn't make the soccer any better, but it would make what we have more enjoyable to watch.”

Let’s hope the nice people at ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel, and all the other regional sports networks around the country are reading the site. I have a sneaking suspicion that the low ratings that soccer traditionally gets here in the States leads to an unwillingness to spend at the same level that broadcasters in England are willing to. We benefit from high quality feeds from the BBC, Sky, or ITV while MLS is on its own.

Why Not Try Closer To Home?

Joseph Beach likes the loan program idea but suggests a slight modification of my proposal. ” …why not consider the program with South American clubs? They are not really closer to home, but the travel (north-south) is easier than east-west. These leagues are a step down from the euro leagues, so there will be more parity between MLS and its partners and, key to me, the young players from S. America are every bit as good (if not better) than the young euros. S. American style is so much prettier than European style, which would make for a more sellable MLS product. Finally, given the closer pay-scale of the leagues, MLS would have a better chance of retaining some of these players.

I’m not sure if he realizes it or not, but Joseph has already written most of my response for me. I agree that we should be employing more South Americans in MLS and I think that will happen – especially as the league expands and tests the depth of Americans who play with sufficient skill to keep crowds coming back for more. I know I’ve enjoyed the work of Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez in DC this season and think that Fucundo Erpen has a bright future as well. The reason that I don’t think partnership with South American teams would work for MLS are the exact reasons you point out. Closer pay-scale – why would we form a partnership with a South American team if we can just buy their players? One reason that Chivas USA is in the position they’re in is that they believed that they could populate an MLS team with 2nd choice players from the Mexican League and be competitive. How’s that working out? The reason I suggested partnering with high profile European teams is that even their reserve and youth squads would represent an improvement on the talent currently available in MLS. Even if MLS hired a Frank Arnesen-like figure and identified these players at a younger age, I don’t think they could afford the transfer fees. Hence, the need to find a different way to get those players over here in the short term.

And I Didn’t Have To Pay Him To Say It…

From Edward Harper “Neal Thurman it is apparent to me that you are the BEST soccer writer in the country, PERIOD. …I think the MLS is doing a good job, because first of all this is AMERICA, not Europe and soccer is at best the 4th most popular sport. So paying a lot of money for players, and having a couple super teams, and a bunch of other crap teams in MLS would not help spread the popularity of the sport and will hurt the league more than help at this juncture. …Unfortunately, I don’t agree that bringing the young guys over is a realistic option, or would really help out. I think the only way we will get technically better is by …continuing to get more of our players experience playing against top competition on a world level. MLS should have more teams competing in Copa Sudamericana, and why not bring in younger coaches from abroad to help with showing players the correct things to do, and differences in the styles of play across the world? Things like that and TIME are truly the only options we have on countries who have have at least 100 yr lead on us…”

Thanks to Edward for the compliment, but other than just liking to see something like that from someone I’m not related to, I love the notion that he appreciated the article at the same time that he disagreed with it. That’s what makes this fun.

Not Positive Enough?

In stark contrast to Mr. Harper’s opinion Evan Ream lives up to his last name and offers his disappointment with my outlook on soccer in this country with the following comment. “…why does Neal Thurman have to be so pessimistic about everything that has to do with soccer in this country? His failure to see when the bottle is half full, turns him off to me and most likely many other US soccer fans.”

I guess you can’t please everyone – hopefully, not too many of you mistake my desire to spur debate about how to make things better as being negative. If we want to win a World Cup, we can’t settle for making good progress – we have to continue to be innovative if we’re to make up for the years and years of a head start that the world’s powers have over us.

Copa America History

Scott Sterley points out that we did participate in the Copa America previously and have since declined invitations and have been replaced with Costa Rica.

You are absolutely right Scott and the time has long since past for us to correct that mistake. Relationships with the powers-that-be may be strained but I’m sure that if we are properly contrite and come bearing big bags of sponsorship money from Nike or Yahoo and TV money for English-speaking rights on ESPN, FSC or GolTV all will be forgiven quickly. Bureaucrats rarely let a 10 year old insult that likely involved none of the current players to get in the way of cashing a big check.

Start Younger

Anthony Ang suggests a group other than MLS or US Soccer to target for improvement. “…I believe that one the biggest hinderances of the game here is the lack of quality youth soccer. In Europe players are groomed from the youngest ages with the professional soccer clubs. Therefore, they have better facilities and more importantly better coaching at a younger age and play at a more competitive level…”

Anthony, I agree with you that improvement needs to come at all levels. I think MLS – for their part – is just beginning to develop their youth set-ups. Given the cost and complexity associated with such operations and the level of effort necessary to merely keep the first teams afloat and growing stronger I’m willing to cut them a little slack for now. If I see this message again in five years and MLS isn’t making any progress to this end, then the next iteration of this column will start right there.

Popularity of Soccer in the States

Aaron Gidding says that I’ve got it all wrong with my suggestion to try to accelerate the growth of MLS and US Soccer saying “There are too many people that still do not see the beauty of a slow build up to a goal, the beauty of a game where statistically a team plays better than the other but still manages to lose or the intensity of withstanding a 5 minute barrage of shots. Americans care too much still about the stat sheet the next morning in the paper, enabling the fan to see an entire game in a 1.5 by 4 inch box. Once that mentality is lost soccer will become more popular… As the generation gaps between our most skilled players closes, MLS's numbers will slowly swell enough to grow as a league. Soccer specific stadiums will help increase attendance. In time all of the soccer hating, ignorant sports journalists will retire, making way for a new generation that grew up with a soccer mom. Once the new generation of journalists and fans emerge soccer will gain a greater foothold on American TV as the quality of MLS slowly builds. With the added TV money more kids will drop their footballs (oval) and pick up the real football (round) because the money will be just as good. More Americans will stay in the US and MLS will slowly be acknowledged as one of the better leagues in the world. WE WILL NOT BE NUMBER ONE AS A LEAGUE BY 2010. It is simply impossible to change the psyche of American sports fans that quickly.”

While I agree with Aaron that time and the aging of the generations that have been exposed to soccer on some level – participant, NASL fan, MLS fan, etc. – will be the single biggest advantage for MLS going forward. However, I think Mr. Gidding underestimates how engrained the things he mentions are in our sporting culture. The NFL isn’t going anywhere. MLS will NEVER be as big in the States as the EPL is in England or La Liga is in Spain for the simple reason that there will always be more options here. Take the example of snowboarding – lots of people participate, it is gaining some popularity as a televised sport with marginally bigger prize money and tv revenue, people who care know who the stars are but do you honestly expect that with time and the passing of people who grew up thinking skiing was the only option in the snow and boarding was for knuckle-draggers only that Snowboarding will start to supplant the NFL? Without a serious focus on innovation and a perception that officials are doing everything possible to improve the product on the field. Soccer will languish as a niche interest in this country. Even WITH successful innovation, that may still be the case but at least we will have exhausted every avenue to make it otherwise.

Damage to MLS

Keith Watkins joins Mr. Gidding in thinking that I may not have considered all of the factors in my analysis…”Neal Thurman misses the point that the US National Team does not play in the Copa Libertadores because of the damage it would do to MLS, especially during World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup. The US will remain in CONCACAF for better or worse. Also, there is no evidence that MLS can afford to increase its spending on player salaries. MLS is as good as it gets for a American soccer league. Longing for something better only turns fans off as far as MLS. The real problem is Euro Snobs which are Americans who view MLS through the prism of European soccer and find MLS wanting. They are the real threat to MLS. They go to a pub or stay home and watch European soccer instead of going to an MLS game.”

I assume that Keith means Copa America when he refers to the US National Team damaging MLS. If US Soccer was worried about doing damage to MLS, then it should pull out of the Gold Cup. The tournament has become a joke for us and it undermined a solid 3 to 4 weeks of the MLS season and, one could argue, completely destroyed the incredible rhythm that the Revs had going in the beginning of the year. If you only have a limited number of dates that you’re willing to commit to in a given year, I’m convinced that the Copa America would be a better use of those dates than the Gold Cup. As for the US remaining in CONCACAF for better or worse – why? Should we accept the world the way it is? If so, we should shut down the web site because

Just Do It?

Reader Jay Newman is bucking for an honorary MBA from US Soccer as he offers the following analysis:

“…I think the best thing to happen to American soccer since the ‘94 World Cup is the new Nike commercial. It makes people re-evaluate their preconceptions on soccer and it’s just a freaking cool commercial that is very American and yet still very soccer. I think Nike realizes, and hopefully ESPN [will] soon realize, that if the US actually wins the next World Cup, it will be the single greatest feat in American sports history.”

I’m not sure that the US winning the 2006 World Cup would be quite up to the Miracle on Ice and even if it were, even that wasn’t enough to keep ESPN interested in hockey (they turned down the opportunity to renew the contract this season and let it drift to the rarely watched OLN Network) but the point is an excellent one. Nike’s continued participation in the soccer marketplace will do nothing but help the cause of soccer in the US. You might be able to question things about Nike but their ability to market sports and individual stars is unparalleled. If and when an American truly reaches superstardom on the world stage you can be sure that Phil Knight and company will do their best to promote that fact here in every way possible.

Do We Appreciate Skill?

Mark Fishkin questions our willingness to embrace the game at the highest level with the following comment… “While I believe the US should take part in the Copa America, I can't agree that "As a country, we get excited about...incredible skill," when it comes to soccer.”

I’m not sure that we have any evidence to base that opinion on since we’ve never really had any of the world’s best players playing here on a regular basis until they were well past their primes. That said, I think a clearer way to make my point is to say that we, as a sporting nation, have a hard time accepting anything better than the best. We have the best of so many sports assembled here, it’s hard to get too excited about watching anything but the best.

Finally…

Jeffrey Mauer gets the last word that might also double as an application to consult to the marketing department at MLS headquarters.

“…If American soccer is to retain the interest of teenagers and young adults, it will need to tap into some of the Beckham-enhanced Euro cool to which it has a natural claim.

Fortunately for soccer fans (and high school students), there is more than one way to be cool. Football has a monopoly on rap-rock, Ford F-150, tattoo-of-your-mother cool, and football and basketball share the market for hip-hop, And-1-tape, all-about-the-Benjamins cool. Soccer doesn’t have to encroach on those markets to be popular. But it must aggressively avoid being relegated to the suburbanite, white-sneaker-wearing, Disney Channel-watching black hole of lameness from which no cool can escape. The market for soccer in the U.S. is the young, educated, let’s-go-to-the-beer-smelling-theatre-downtown-and-see-an-independent-film crowd. To these people, soccer’s internationalist nature its position as an alternative form of entertainment are assets, not liabilities. This is the market that I’m in, and most of my friends like – or at least are not hostile to – soccer. But they generally don’t follow MLS because it’s tragically uncool.

The key to tapping into this market is quality control. MLS can’t look rinky-dink, or childish, or lame…ever! If you can’t make a good, Nike/Gatorade quality add for MLS, don’t make one at all. Don’t use the same promo music that they use for the X Games; this isn’t street luge, this is the world’s most popular sport. Increase the production value of MLS broadcasts, which means hiring better commentators (European ones, if necessary), getting better audio of crowd noises, and roping off sections of seats behind the goals so that TV images give the appearance of packed crowds. Produce your own version of the Premiere League Wrap-up show and put in on in place of that horrible Fox Soccer America piece of crap. Any of these projects would have more impact and be more cost efficient than buying aging, apathetic, European superstars.

If you have comments on these topics or anything else, http://www.yanks-abroad.com/content.php?mode=contact&action=show§ion=generaldrop us a line[endlink].
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A big question for U.S. fans heading into the World Cup is surely on Jozy Altidore and just what is plaguing the young striker at Sunderland.
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