SBD/Issue 135/MLS Season Preview

Roundtable: Soccer Writers Discuss ‘07 MLS Season

As MLS begins its 12th season with a number of changes both on and off the pitch, soccer writers Steve Goff of the Washington Post, Jeff Rusnak of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Steve Davis, a freelance writer with ESPNsoccernet.com, recently discussed the upcoming season with Staff Writer Jim Bentubo.

Q: What stories are you watching for the ’07 season?

Writers Agree That Beckham’s
Arrival Is MLS Story Of The Year

Davis: It all starts and ends with Beckham and the impact Beckham will have on the league in a year that the TV contract is finally leaning more in their direction and in a year that they added a 13th team in Toronto. The other story that I think everyone is going to continue to follow is, “does MLS get on the same slippery slope the [NASL] did with the Beckham contract?” I think the consensus is that it’s a completely different feel but it still deserves monitoring.
Goff:
Beckham will not arrive until mid-season, so there’s going to be this kind of slow build up to his arrival. Certainly the story lines stay the same but in terms of gauging the reaction of his arrival, of his first game, national TV ratings, it’s going to be awhile before we actually see that. But it could work to MLS’ advantage because they have all this time now to use Beckham and his imminent arrival to their advantage and make sure everything is in place in terms of logistics and television and selling tickets especially in cities outside of Los Angeles.
Rusnak:
Clearly Beckham is the center of gravity for this season. He will bring some energy and atmosphere into games that has been missing. The games that Beckham will play will matter. You will have an elite team in the Galaxy that people will shoot for. He’ll be a player that players want to make an impression on, and you’ll have sold out stadiums. The second story is more about the long-term future of MLS, and it’s the SuperLiga tournament. That to me has a more long-term value than Beckham.

Q: What kind of impact will David Beckham’s arrival have on MLS and soccer in U.S.?

Davis:
Dan Patrick on his afternoon ESPN radio show will be talking about soccer. “Good Morning America,” shows like that that only just nibble at the edges of soccer, will now be engaged a little bit more. It’s going to be more absorption into the mainstream American culture that the league will gain. Soccer now resonates a lot more generally in the country then MLS does. So its impact to the greater sport I don’t think will be quite as substantial but it certainly will be for MLS.
Goff:
Freddy Adu had the same thing, people were talking about Freddy Adu. It didn’t matter what team he was playing for. It didn’t matter initially what he actually did on the field. The important thing for MLS was that people were talking about Freddy Adu. They knew he was playing in the American league. They knew he was playing in something called MLS and that helped them expand the name recognition, expand the brand. Beckham needs to perform on the field. That’s the tricky part about soccer because you can’t use statistics to back up the player’s performance for the most part. If David Beckham does not score a goal every game, how do you know he had a good game? How do you measure it?
Rusnak:
You boil it down to the team and if the Galaxy becomes this elite team that MLS desperately needs. The league desperately needs an identity team, not just an identity player, and L.A. is a good place for it. If L.A. wins with Beckham performing well then he will have a good impact on soccer.

Q: How do you think the move to Thursday night games on ESPN will impact ratings, and what would you like to see in ESPN’s game presentation?

Davis:
It will end up being such a Beckham-heavy Thursday night schedule, so it’s going to be difficult to assess how Thursday night is truly working out. I do like the destination night. The problem they have is an audience, which is seeing half empty stadiums in a lot of cases. As far as presentation, that’s an ongoing struggle. Game presentation for TV has gotten so much better since the earlier days, and yet they still really lack something. Also, I think the Dave O’Brien issue is going to keep cropping up among soccer fans [O’Brien was criticized for a lack of soccer knowledge during the ’06 World Cup] because it seems ESPN for whatever reason is determined to bang a round peg into a square hole here. Dave O’Brien is not a soccer authority at this point in his career.
Goff:
The important things about the addition of Thursday matches are consistency. Fans know they can see a game on the same day every week; ESPN's promised high-quality production; and the lack of significant sports-viewing competition on a Thursday as opposed to Saturday and Sunday [should help].
Rusnak:
Short of importing 15,000 Boca Junior fans into these stadiums, I think there’s going to be a challenge. I had a profound viewing moment the other night while watching the national team game. I found it pretty hard to watch and I switched over to a Copa Libertadores match. When you switch on Copa Libertadores, it’s like the colors, the light and the sounds just burst out of the television. We can’t come up with that equation for our game in this country.

Q: With GolTV and Fox Soccer Channel showing matches from leagues with what many would describe as a higher quality of play, how can MLS lure TV viewers?

Davis:
It’s an ongoing struggle for them because MLS faces a problem that no other United States entity, including colleges, face, which is that the best soccer on TV is not MLS. The proliferation of games available on TV has really allowed people in this country to be soccer snobs.
Goff:
I don't believe fans will choose between Euro and Latin matches and MLS; they'll continue to watch what they love. What MLS is hoping is that people will add MLS to their viewing habits.
Rusnak:
This is way, way early in the game for MLS, and by and large, they have done quite well by identifying where they are in the culture and getting the most out of it. The American players have gotten better, but the stars are not there. MLS needs to at least become comparable to the better leagues in their own hemisphere.

Q: Should MLS be sending U.S.-born players such as Clint Dempsey overseas and getting large transfer fees or paying them to stay in the U.S. to help grow the league?

Davis:
I don’t have a problem with a league that wants to be a second tier league in the world. When you look at the Dutch league, they keep plenty of young players but they also recognize what they are and they make money by developing players and selling some of them away. I think if MLS wants to sell Clint Dempsey for $1.5M you look at that and say “no, that doesn’t make sense because he can bring fans here.” But if Fulham’s going to offer $4M, well you look at it in the greater balance and you say “for $4M we can go out and get a couple decent players.” You constantly need to recalibrate where that balance is.
Goff:
It's a tough situation. But until MLS can compete financially with major leagues around the world, it cannot, in my opinion, turn down lucrative offers for players they clearly can't afford to keep.
Rusnak:
A player can often dictate his terms. So you can’t always control that. What I don’t think has happened quite to the extent that one would hope, is a little more foreign money coming into MLS for players like Dempsey. That’s just going to be a natural part of it. You can’t transfer an NFL guy anywhere. Where’s he going to go, Canada? In this game, you can’t contain the border the way other sports do. MLS is always going to be part of this world marketplace. There’s going to be this challenge of developing young players while at the same time bringing in guys.

Q: How closely tied is the success of MLS to the success of the U.S. national team?


Davis:
Nothing creates a stir in soccer like a World Cup. These things build in stages. I think you can grow gradually, but you grow slowly that way. What happens is you get a big blast then you take the next step up like with David Beckham. Incrementally you go slow but you get the big cannon shots, and that’s how you do the real damage.
Goff:
It’s mandatory that the U.S. qualifies for every World Cup, and I think it’s gotten to the point with expectations that they need to advance out of that first group.
Rusnak:
I think reaching the semifinals of a World Cup would have a transformative effect. But there is no panacea, there’s no magic wand. Soccer is competing with so much in this country. In places like England or Argentina or Italy, this game is part of the blood line. In these countries, it’s as closely aligned to the culture in ways food, music and dance is, and it never will be that here. When it’s really, really good, people will watch it; if it’s not so good, people will find something else to watch.

Q: Should the league be focused on converting soccer fans to MLS or converting sports fans to soccer?

Davis:
I’m not sure they have to create a doctrine that excludes either sect. Everybody’s money is just as green. I don’t see the need for them to make that determination. They need more fans period.
Goff:
I agree. Beckham attracts mainstream interest, Adu attracts mainstream interest, but at the same time you want to put a quality product on the field and that will attract the people who love soccer. The quality of the product will attract fans from a wider spectrum.
Rusnak:
I think MLS needs to widen its footprint to at least 16 [teams] over the next two years and then upwards of 18 or 20 eventually. The best way to convert people is to put them in a stadium that’s full in a match that’s meaningful.

Q: If you were MLS commissioner what one change would you make to the league?

Davis:
I would put a stop to the gamesmanship that I believe really drags down the quality of matches. It's up to the league to give referees the authority to deal with these matters. And if the refs won't do it, it's on the league to get new ones.
Goff:
More money to attract better players. Right now they’re so conservative with their approach. It’s changed a little bit with the Designated Player Rule, but the salary cap is so low it undermines the Designated Player Rule to begin with.
Rusnak:
Better players.

Q: Besides Beckham, who should MLS be marketing?


Davis:
Claudio Reyna has returned, and he’s a recognizable name.
Goff:
I would try to promote and market the Brazilians [on DC United]. There haven’t been many Brazilians in MLS and the ones who were here were not marquee players.
Rusnak:
If I had to pick players, it would be the DC United team. But if I really wanted to market and reach the wider audience, I would market generally David Beckham’s entourage. The guy who cuts David Beckham’s hair can definitely bring you some publicity you might otherwise not get.

Q: What is the next market that should get an MLS franchise?


Davis:
The next market that can come up with a good stadium plan. I would love to see Portland [get a team]. The stadium there is terrific, but it has baseball in it. St. Louis, I think, would be a terrific market, but these places have to have a stadium. The days should be long gone where they put a team in a market because they can.
Goff:
You have to have a team in the Northwest whether it’s Seattle or Portland. They have to go back to the Bay Area if the plan is right. Then at some point you have to have a team in Florida, but it has to be the right place. But bottom line you have to have a stadium plan.
Rusnak:
Florida International University is building an 18,000-seat stadium for its football team, and MLS has had one meeting with the school, and there’s still a lot of question as to whether FIU would construct the stadium with MLS in mind. That is probably the only chance MLS has playing in Miami because the money isn’t going to be there. They’re coming up with money for the Marlins. We might not see a team down here as much as this is a market that MLS knows it needs to be in and wants to be in.

Q: How media friendly are the players? Who is the most media friendly?


Davis: It is a very media-friendly league. I never had a problem getting access with most players. Every now and then a couple of the U.S. national team guys tend to be a little more standoffish when they get in their MLS world. But even the biggest guys are easy to work with.
Goff:
I think they have to be media friendly. The only issue is players who have been in Europe previously whether they’re American or European. There seems to be a little bit more of an attitude there. But in general most of these guys are very accommodating.
Rusnak:
I think “the more money you make the less accessible you become” is probably the general rule of thought. But for me it’s a clear case of Pablo Mastroeni. He is not only someone who was always forthcoming about soccer, but I can talk to him about food and wine and travel and other things.

Q: What is the best venue in the U.S. to watch a soccer game?

Panel Feels RFK One Of League’s Best Venues

Davis:
I still love RFK. It’s an older stadium with history and the tube stop right outside. No disrespect to the new, wonderful soccer parks that have been built, but there’s something to be said for history.
Goff:
You step in RFK and you feel like you’re in Europe to some extent. If you have a good crowd and the game means something, it’s a pretty powerful environment. [PGE Park in Portland] is a great place. It’s right in the city, the city’s transit system comes right past and there’s restaurants and cafes nearby. Just a great, great atmosphere.
Rusnak:
I’m going to say Lockhart [Stadium]. That stadium showed this league that it had to start shrinking down its seating capacities and creating venues. Also, the way the deal was structured as a public partnership, it sort of became a paradigm for which MLS has been operating ever since.

Q: Who are your picks for the MLS Cup?

Davis:
United-Galaxy. Winner: United.
Goff:
United-Dynamo. Winner: United.
Rusnak:
United-Galaxy. Winner: Galaxy.

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