MLS / US / USMNT / World Cup

2013: Tough to match this year for American soccer

Photo: Barb Colligon

At the start of this year, how many people thought, “Gee, this is going to be a banner year for soccer in America!”

Probably not many. I half-expected a nail-biter of a time qualifying for Brazil. Many of you surely did too. That didn’t happen, and the United States cruised to the top slot.

Many of us have the same feeling going into 2014, with the U.S. national team drawn into the World Cup’s clear Group of Death. Could we be in for another happy surprise with another banner year ahead of us for American soccer?

Expectations couldn’t be much lower

Group G has given the United States a handful. So much for all of that hard work tearing apart the Hexagonal.

That’s one unique aspect of the grand sport of soccer: There is value in the randomization through drawing. In American-centric sports, there would be an intricate algorithm mulled over for weeks upon months, trying to discern the best way to fairly distribute teams based on record. We see this in MLS and some other North American leagues, using a seeded bracket. But Europe especially values random draws, and it’s randomly put the US in a pickle.

Therefore the Americans get two Euro 2012 semifinalists in Germany and Portugal. For good measure, bogeyman Ghana is the weakest member of Group G, just to rub more salt in the wound of a country looking for a quality result.

Obviously, this is an uphill climb. US Soccer basically admitted that by extending Jurgen Klinsmann’s contract six months prior to any negative vibes possibly emanating from the saunas of northern Brazil.

All that said, I like the Yanks’ chances. Facing Ghana in the first match is a great help. The confidence built in fending off their greatest bane in recent history might just propel the US to a result against Portugal.

If they struggle against the Black Stars? Well, there’s always Russia in 2018.

MLS makes some gains

If we shift to our professional league, things tend to be status quo. That’s what MLS wants after all: slower, steady growth. Television viewership has been a mixed bag, but attendance figures continue to be positive.

Let’s focus on the good to start, though: Two new teams announced for 2015, New York City FC and Orlando City SC. One more in Miami, with the Beckham aura infused in its genesis, seemingly on its way to being tabbed at No. 22. Don Garber knew the Southeast was a big gap in the MLS portfolio, and by 2016 or 2017 there ought to be at least two teams serving the region.

The next will be a neutral — player acquisition and retention. Clint Dempsey’s return to MLS seemed a real coup at the time, but he suffered in Seattle to close out the 2013 season. It may not have been entirely his fault, but Seattle’s great run of form seemed to dip as Dempsey’s influence within the team grew. For Clint, the offseason will include a loan to his old stomping grounds at Craven Cottage to get his groove back.

Staying with personnel, the new Retention Fund initiative within the league has allowed MLS to offer more incentive to key players (primarily US internationals) to remain domestic. It should help the league’s marketability to keep some familiar faces in the country. It begs the question whether it will stunt the growth of those players though, and ultimately hamper the National Team.

Some concerns remain on attendance, however. Out of 19 teams, 10 saw attendance increases, but Houston’s stadium looked like a big orange bowl in their home playoff matchup against Montreal, and it wasn’t “Orange Tee-Shirt Giveaway Day.” We’ve obviously seen the barren seats at Red Bull Arena, and even at PPL Park there are times when the paid attendance announcements leave the impression that a lot of ticketholders stayed home.

What to expect for 2014

First off, the US in Brazil. This is where men step up and teams show their makeup. We saw some of this in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, and even in the way the team responded to a friendly shellacking by Belgium by downing Germany at RFK Stadium. I think the US gets that second slot in Group G, sliding in ahead of Portugal. If that happens, they likely will have a tough time with the aforementioned Belgium.

As far as MLS goes, 2014 will be the “Year of the New TV Deal.” Will MLS be able to commandeer more lucrative terms than their last deal? We’ll have to see. If they can, there will have to be some changes to their scheduling strategies, to help improve viewership throughout the country. The nationally televised matches at 11 PM ET do nothing to maximize ratings.

Most of all, Sporting Kansas City’s success gives the teams in the league a model for improving their marketing and development of the fanbase. No matter how you decide to play the game on the field or build your team, SKC has shown that a team in a second-tier market can rebrand and develop into an engaged supporters culture.

4 Comments

  1. I thought that Group G looked tough, and Klinsmann was correct about the flight schedule. I think that the rest of the hexagonal teams are looking at the game in the “jungle” as Klinsmann put it, as payback for the Snow Bowl during qualifying.

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