Fox Soccer Channel
Tuesday, those of us who care, saw an “all-star” team of MLS players lose to Real Madrid in Spain, 5-0. It was an embarrassing loss, another missed opportunity for a still-young American league that maddeningly manages to blow chances with abandon. If you’re honest and if you know something about the sport you have to ask yourself how many more chances MLS is going to get? MLS’ history is littered with failure. Ignore the millions of dollars flushed away, the attempts to mine South Florida that ended in contraction, the “sales” of franchises that have never come to pass, and the abject failure to convince the country’s media of the sport’s legitimacy. Just look at the steady attendance declines, and the lack of meaningful coverage of the sport. Why sleepwalk through an event that could have brought some badly needed attention? The shellacking at the Bernabeu will resonate for a while to come, at least among the soccer community and with the sport’s bashers, who are always ready to pounce. Think about it: one of Europe’s best sides, playing at half-speed, put on a display that went beyond schooling – there was a nasty edge that underlined the opportunistic play of the Spaniards. Perhaps the Galaticos had read the papers and seen the quotes attributed to the some-time American captain Landon Donovan about how he much rather would have stayed in Los Angeles. Perhaps Real Madrid’s squad has kept up with the Financial Times and knows how much money MLS’ backers have lost and yet how little of their fortunes they have actually spent to date. It doesn’t matter why, really. If you are a fan at all of American sport, it was painful to watch Ronaldo, Guti and Beckham celebrate their goals by mimicking the panicked MLS defenders. With the flips of the head and the laughter at a hopelessly adrift back-line, the Madrileños emphatically underscored the division between the Old World and the New. So many things are so awry with MLS that many fans simply walk away from the nascent league. Every expansion team in the league loses at least 25% of their attendance from Year One to Year Two – here in Chicago I’ve seen the Fire go from a team that could on any night get up to 30,000 fans to a team that struggles to draw 12,000. American fans are (somewhat patronizingly, I must say) often described as “increasingly knowledgeable” by marketers and flacks. That means they know that the world’s best players aren’t wearing MLS uniforms. According to my mailbox, they think MLS matches are scrappy and slow. They are frustrated by the mindless, uncritical assessments of the teams on TV and in the papers. They don’t bother to tune into “sports talk” radio, because the sport is never mentioned. They spend their money at pubs and on satellite dishes, watching games from Germany, England, Italy and Spain. Most of all, real soccer fans see right through the fabrications that surround MLS’ players. Let’s take Donovan for a minute. Anywhere else in the world, he’d be known as a never-was who crashed out twice in the Bundesliga. Fans would be singing “German reject” if he played in England. Elsewhere, the sportswriters would ream him for his behavior – is he really such a spoiled, childish man? But in the USA he gets a free pass from a press that not only doesn’t know any better, but doesn’t care to know. He isn’t alone. Few – if any – of the soccer writers in the USA want to tell the truth about many of the so-called stars in MLS – that they are illusions, by and large manufactured by marketers who desperately need a personality to hook their product to – because they’ve spent ten years convincing their bosses to give the game some space. Like Damocoles, they’re always under the sword and it’s bad business to point out the flaws in an Andy Williams, a Kevin Hartman, a Tab Ramos, a Mia Hamm. To be perfectly fair I think the American game is improving, and I say that after having sat through a number of games involving the Tampa Bay Mutiny, the New England Revolution or (ugh) both at the same time (Note: I am still owed hazard pay). I honestly feel that today, when two good teams play each other – say D.C. against Chicago – you get a pretty good game for the buck. I also think the folks that rank MLS below the second-tier European leagues are snobs who haven’t seen a game in Scotland, Belgium or Poland lately. But only a fool – or someone desperate to keep their job writing about the sport – would deny the huge disconnect between the packaging and the reality.
Tuesday, we got to see the difference between $100 million and $1.7 million per team. We saw where MLS is without Carlos Valderrama, Peter Nowak and every other star the league has seen go without replacement. We saw the limitations of guys trained at American colleges and paid subsistence wages. Even if you knew nothing about the sport, the excellent telecast from Spain illustrated just how lousy some of SUM’s deliberately cheap productions are. The New England Revolution’s Sunil Gulati once famously said that paying American players more doesn’t make them better players. I felt then, and still do now, that that cynical attitude has sold the league’s patrons on an entertainment that has chosen fixed, cheap costs at the expense of taking the risks that owning a pro sports franchise in the USA entails. Gultati is also demonstrably wrong: paying more would certainly attract better athletes. If you don’t believe me, go ask any 13-year old who can shoot hoops or bench 400lbs where the money in being an athlete is. MLS has some choices to make. It can coast along and hope (as it has) that attention-deprived municipalities such as Bridgeview, IL and Salt Lake City will drink the Kool-Aid and fork out money to build an arena. For some investors, this would be perfect – it’s damn near impossible not to make money under those strictures. Or, MLS can live up to its press kits and do what nearly every other sports team around the world does. MLS needs to get rid of the single-entity system. It needs to hire people who actually know something about soccer on the field, instead of marginalizing them. MLS’ owners need to spend money on some known names and quantities instead of throwing a Nate Jaqua out on the field and wondering why no one knows who the heck he is. Above all, it needs to be realistic. If MLS really wants to be a world-class league, it had better get ready for an era of ballooning payrolls, prima donna stars and consistent discussion in the media. It will have to accept cutting checks and getting dissected in print. It will have to acknowledge that people will criticize it on radio, on TV and in bars. It will have to stop pretending that international no-names like Donovan, Taylor Twellman, Tony Sanneh and Ante Razov (to name just a handful) are “stars”. In other words, MLS will have to grow up. Sadly, as the league remains infantile on virtually every level, I find it hard to envision such a change. Someday, we may be able to look back at August 23, 2005 and realize what a favor Real Madrid did the USA. The Galacticos tartly demonstrated what real talent, real passion and, yes, real soccer looks like. I hope the guys in New York have paid attention. And if they haven’t, then consider this an open letter to Don Garber: You can’t market your way out of this. Jerry Trecker contributed to this report. Send plaudits, gripes, musings et al. to firstname.lastname@example.org.