5 Next Steps for MLS

Now that Clint Dempsey has debuted in Seattle, MLS must look forward
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

Last Sunday was a night to behold in Major League Soccer history.

One of the greatest American-born players who had found success abroad made his home return, as Clint Dempsey donned the rave green Seattle Sounders jersey and competed against the rival Portland Timbers.

Dempsey’s debut, though not as league-altering as David Beckham’s entry into MLS, set another benchmark for the 18-year-old league.

But what comes next?

Expand, expand, expand

MLS is already on the path towards expansion with its promise of 24 teams by 2020.

But the league shouldn’t stop there.

It’s no question this country is packed with cities enthralled by soccer. Our writers at Soccer Newsday recently picked their top 4 expansion cities, and the staff ended up naming 13 cities in total that deserved clubs.

MLS is lucky in that this country is packed with cities waiting for soccer clubs. From Pittsburgh and the Carolinas to Sacramento and San Diego, sea-to-sea the USA is stacked with cities begging for a soccer club to slide its way in and ramp up sports culture.

Not every city can afford to bring in an NFL or NBA franchise. MLS clubs, though, offer a less hefty price and can instantly bake up a fan base. Salt Lake City, Kansas City and Indianapolis are examples of soccer clubs starting in unusual and untapped markets and springing intrigue and delight from fans. MLS can continue to do this across the United States, especially if the league takes advantage of cities without many or any pro soccer teams.

Sort out LA and NYC

It’s odd that 2 of the most major markets are facing some of the biggest issues in regards to MLS.

Los Angeles has 2 clubs at the moment – the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA – but one is sexy, glitzy and super, while the other is a blemish and bruise of MLS’ image. Though Chivas has offered entertaining matches and has made attempts to grow, the club is surrounded by a cloud of negativity and has to make a significant change if it wants to become more than a failed experiment to appeal to a Hispanic demographic. Relocation and rebranding should both be on the table for discussion.

NYC is in less disorder than LA, but only for now. MLS has brought in its gem in New York City FC, which will actually play within the city limits (likely) unlike Red Bull New York, which competes in New Jersey. But with rumors of the New York Cosmos eventually joining MLS, NYC could find itself in a chaotic battle where NYCFC and the Cosmos rival each other (essentially poisoning one another because of travel for fans, fan support and exposure) while Red Bull remains on its own outside the city.

Though it’d be great to see the Cosmos reach the top level of American pro soccer, and NYC deserves to have a mixture of different clubs competing within the boroughs, the plan as it stands now could spell out destruction for any NYC club to exist.

Go from brutal to beautiful

It’s a glaring issue MLS is facing today. The league is too physical.

A prime example happened on Sunday night when Portland Timbers’ Pa Modou Kah viciously tackled Eddie Johnson late in the match, which led to Johnson scoring the winning goal for the Sounders.

Kah’s tackle shows the physicality and brutality MLS has allowed. But the league should separate itself from the physical nature and move towards encouraging and protecting skill on the ball and fluid play.

Few times have casual sports fans marveled at a soccer player unnecessarily scissor-tackling another player. Rather, it’s those ping-pong passes and those glorious nutmegs that wow audiences and are the centerpieces of MLS building an identity in American professional sports. If casual sports fans want something physical, they have MMA and the NFL for that. MLS and its teams should work to write poetry on the pitch.

This won’t be easy, as it’ll require a shift in tactics for nearly all of American professional soccer. But we’re already seeing teams like Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers develop specific styles, which is progression towards the league filling up with good play rather than physicality.

Modernize the past

The New England Revolution, Columbus Crew and DC United all have one thing in common – in the 18 years they’ve been in the league, they’ve showed little change.

DC United is closing in on a new stadium, which would lift the Black and Red to a new level in MLS. It’s been a long-awaited situation and could really bring the facelift DCU needs. But DC still has a laundry list of issues to tackle to get that stadium built.

The Crew are also inching closer to reaching the present, as their new owners Precourt Sports Ventures LLC and managing partner Anthony Precourt recently promised to modernize the club and increase its presence in MLS. Columbus is not necessarily a major soccer market, but it does hold significance for American pro soccer as the US Men’s National Team always seems to fare well against Mexico there. It’s unlikely Columbus will ever drop off from MLS, but the club is in need of a resurgence and refreshing to keep up with the expanding number of new clubs.

But the Revs are the worst of the batch. Few changes have been made to their logo, they still play as a side-show act in Gillette Stadium and owner Robert Kraft offers little care or consideration. A total rebranding – name, location, stadium, kit, vibe – is needed for this club to become an asset to MLS.

If you move the Revs towards Boston, and reach out to the myriad of cultures in Boston and its surrounding cities, you could build one hell of a soccer club. Look at the support the Football at Fenway or general friendly matches get in Boston. Apply that to an MLS squad and you have something incredibly special. Boston is piled high with championship-winning teams and sports enthusiasts. Soccer shouldn’t be left out of the fold.

Find a broadcasting home

We’ve seen MLS on FOX, NBC and ESPN. We’re all familiar with how each of the broadcasting networks displays the league and the ways in which MLS is promoted. It’s time for MLS – with its current TV deal with NBC expiring after the 2014 season – to pick its perfect home.

The league has a bit of leverage, too, seeing as shiny NYCFC is joining the league in 2015 and will, clearly, appeal to an international audience as well as America’s biggest market – more so than RBNY currently does.

But finding the right home will be difficult. NBC is all hands on deck for the English Premier League, and FOX is less soccer-specific than it once was. ESPN and ABC will likely enter their names for full exclusive rights, and it surely could use the boost seeing as ABC won’t be broadcasting the World Cup, Champions League or EPL.

This next phase of MLS is going to be very important, and the right network is needed to fully force MLS to its next benchmark. With Dempsey, Donovan and a myriad of other stars filling out MLS rosters, and new teams like NYCFC joining the fold, the right promotion and broadcasting will solidify MLS’ place in the American professional sports realm.

Herb SCRIBNER

Nationality:
USA
College:
UMass Amherst
Club Domestic:
RSL
Club Foreign:
FC Barcelona
SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.
HERB'S SPONSORS