A View from Afar

MLS conference final first legs show how far league has come

Note: This column was written Monday, before the fatal plane crash that killed members of Brazilian side Chapecoense de Brasil.

A few weeks ago, I attended a match in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, between hometown Atletico Mineiro, winner of the 2013 Copa Libertadores, the most prestigious tournament in South America, and Figueirense, a smaller club destined for relegation.

What struck me as remarkable about the match wasn’t the fantastic atmosphere or the exciting, dynamic attacking play, both of which I expected.

Rather, it was the fact that these South American giants were playing in the 23,000-seat Independencia stadium, which is actually owned by the smaller yo-yo club America Mineiro of Serie B, and didn’t sell it out.

I returned to Naples, Italy, about a week later, just in time to gather with about 200 to 300 others in front of several televisions at an outdoor cafe to watch Napoli visit Turkish side Besiktas in the UEFA Champions League. Thousands of Neapolitans watch Napoli’s games this way every week, whether the match is in Naples or elsewhere, leaving the stadium half empty for most games. Like most other major Italian stadiums, Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo is widely viewed as a crumbling, cavernous and lawless wreck in need of replacement. Napoli has averaged under 20,000 fans per game this season in a stadium that seats about 60,000.

Contrast all that with last week in Major League Soccer.

The first legs of the conference championship games drew a combined 103,778 fans, or 51,889 per match. The Toronto-Montreal match was one of the entertaining highlights of the year.

This reflects, at its best, the state of North American professional soccer.

Regardless of who wins the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday, you can expect a similar scenario for the MLS Cup final on Dec. 11.

A Montreal win would put the final in Seattle, where the Sounders are almost certain to sell all 60,000-plus seats at CenturyLink Field. You’d get parades to the stadium, memorable tifos, and the latest message to the American sports world and the international soccer community about the exponentially growing viability of soccer in the U.S. and Canada.

Should Toronto win, the Reds would host a virtually guaranteed sellout at BMO Field, which seats about 30,000, and you would get a match between two of the most high profile clubs in MLS.

MLS wins big either way. The biggest drawback could be weather for a final in Toronto, with average temperatures in Toronto for that time of year hovering around the freezing mark — yes, prime for snow, which can be either be a drawback due to the impact on quality of play or produce an extraordinarily memorable spectacle, a la U.S.-Costa Rica in Colorado.

A Colorado win over Seattle was always the least desired result for the league power brokers, as the Rapids didn’t even sell out their Sunday night playoff loss to Seattle at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and would have hosted the MLS Cup final had they won. Despite their surprisingly successful season, Colorado remains a struggling franchise in the big picture, thanks to years of lackluster ownership and a mediocre and unexciting on-field product. That is the downside of the state of professional soccer in America and Canada.

But MLS doesn’t have to tell that story to the world during this year’s MLS Cup final.

When the world considers that story next month, many major soccer countries will see their own soccer environments falling in comparison.

True, game for game, player for player, the technical ability remains generally higher in Italy and Brazil than in the United States, as it is in other countries, such as Germany, Spain, England, Argentina and probably France.

Over time, that gap will probably continue to narrow because, while the state of the game is improving in most facets in the U.S. and Canada, particularly at the professional level, its footing is increasingly rickety in economically struggling countries abroad. Countries like Brazil and Italy that really only have one major team sport will likely always turn out a higher per capita rate of quality professional players than countries like the U.S. and Canada, which have a multi-sport universe of professional sports to attract athletes. But we can’t deny the growth of soccer’s popularity in the U.S., where more and more top athletes are choosing this sport over others.

While many other top tier leagues are gradually falling, MLS is gradually rising. The MLS Cup final could be one of those games where, 20 years from now, everyone looks back and says, “That was the moment when the world realized just how big MLS would become.”

20 Comments

  1. MLS is definitely going to be pleased that the teams entering the finals are those that have the best base of supporters. Lots of empty seats in places like RB Arena, LA, and Colorado for playoff games wasn’t a great look. I don’t understand how that could happen, and I wish it would get addressed by soccer press in the U.S., though I understand MLS is a tough nut to crack — it’s not the most open organization.

    On the Football Weekly podcast the Guardian does, there was a conversation about declining attendance in the Championship for many clubs, where stadiums can be a lot less than 20,000 seats. (I think Bournemouth is still playing in a 12,000 seat arena in the Premiership). They explained it as mostly a matter of ticket prices. MLS tickets are likely cheaper than NFL tickets, but the price of good seats keeps me from going to more Union games. I hate sitting in one of the ends, and sideline seats are pretty pricey.

    • I would disagree overall on Union ticket prices as they are actually very cheap compared to any other major sporting group in Philly and the seats are way better. Sure you can probably get 10$ sixers tickets in the nosebleeds, but even 30$ endline seats give you a much better view than nosebleed seats. I’ve always gotten endline seats and always have a great view.

    • MLS tickets are MUCH cheaper than NFL tickets – like, 25% of the price for the best seats. You want a club seat for the Union, that’ll cost you $100. You want 10th row on the 50 yard line for the Eagles? Well, I hope you weren’t saving for a down payment on a house…
      .
      Lower-level Sixers tickets within the first 20 rows at Center court? About $170.
      .
      Flyers and Phillies will tell the same story.
      .
      It’s one of the marketable areas of MLS – their ticket prices are lower than the other 4 major sports.

    • I concede. I’m just cheap, I guess.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Not cheap, Pete, you utilize finite resources responsibly!
        .
        ” … it’s not the most open organization.” Overly understated, methinks.
        .
        “Makes I. V. Stalin look like the poster child for free speech,” does it better justice.

      • Thanks OSC. There’s a fine line between cheap and responsible, I suppose. But every time I look at tickets for a game, think about taking the family, and the $20 to park and time spent in the car, getting to a match gets less and less exciting.

      • This is a valid argument. I was simply pointing out that MLS is the least outrageous. But they are all ridiculous.

    • I noticed LA’s attendance decreasing last year. So I was confused/bewildered as to why mls was instituting an exspansion team there. At least nycfc made sense with Red Bull’s not even truly being a New York team. But I don’t think there is another 2 team market yet.
      .
      i feel like mls is just trying to force a derby where there isn’t one to be had

  2. Great article (as usual) but MLS will never become the league we all aspire it to be as long as MLS continues with its current player acquisition and roster rules. Teams need more lee-way to bring in players and the salary cap needs to be drastically increased. Despite the great playoff crowds, the on-field product still has a long way to go. MLS is, by its single entity structure, built on the “slow and steady” growth model but its about time to take off the training wheels and see how good this league can actually become. Most MLS teams have academy, USL teams, training complexes, and soccer specific stadium. The infrastructure so painstakingly built up over the years is now here. The next step is to allow teams to invest more in their on-field first team playing staff.

    • Also MLS needs to invest in good quality referees as it is a clear distinction between game play.

    • I understand that everyone wants to see the best players (or even 2nd-tier players) in our league, but having lived through the disasters of NASL and MISL and even MLS barely getting out of its own way for a decade, I greatly appreciate the Slow-And-Steady approach.
      .
      We don’t need to watch LA and NYC turn into a modern day version of the Cosmos (who are failing again, themselves) and take the entire league with them.
      .
      Patience, and the reins will be loosened.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Monopolists rarely relinquish their monopoly privileges voluntarily, be they robber baron tycoons or unions.

      • We’ve seen it in every major sport: once owners are left to their own devices, the richest among them will spend recklessly in search of championships and profit for themselves. And they do so with no regard for their league, the fans, or even their fellow owners.
        .
        It’s painful to see the numbers so low, but it’s better than having the league collapse and having to wait more decades to see the US emerge as a factor on the world stage.

      • I think the big obstacle regarding single entity is player salaries. Has to be the main reason there’s a single entity to begin with — keep those labor costs low. Because of that, owners have every reason to keep things as they are.

    • The current player personnel rules will evolve over time. The teams will gradually spend more. It’s a slow growth model. Slower than most would like, but it’s paid dividends so far.

      • John P O'Donnell says:

        Time will eventually change everything. In time with success, the pendulum will swing towards the players as the league becomes too big to fail. Like all American league’s, the players will strike and there will be leap in salaries because the owners can’t afford to keep the league shut down. It’s why they wanted free agency in this CBA. In the next CBA they already have a starting point with free agents pertaining to service years and minimum age. New revenue streams have been added with more corporate partners and media broadcast rights around the globe. Plus very quietly MLS has switched positions on training compensation and solidarity payments as they now have academies and it could benefit the league. Something the players oppose as it would cost them money. But if you’re voting on a big pay raise, it might be something you would concede with more money and more control of free agency. In the end, time will tell.

  3. I would be curious how much the Euro/UK press focused on the crowds and quality of those games, as opposed to the fact that the (North) Americans apparently can’t even line a pitch right.

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