Popular Soccer

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By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 20, 2012) US Soccer Players — Given my lengthy response to the first one, we're going to go ahead and wade right into the reader mail this week. We'll start with a technical note. I was asked if it makes more sense to send in an email rather than reply to my articles in the comments section. That's a good question. I would say if you're looking for other people to respond the day the article went up, the comments are for you. If you're really interested in what I think, send me an email. You don't have to make it formal and include your full name and city, but I'm happy to include those details if you want to make them available. I'm not going to put up anybody's before the @ sign email address. If you don't tell me who you are, you're anonymous.

Derrick writes: "I saw on the latest Forbes list that Manchester United is once again the richest team in soccer. Would you say they're also the most popular in the USA?"

Uh… maybe. To catch everybody else up, here's what we're talking about. It's tough to judge what popular means. If we're talking about clubs in general and basing it on TV ratings, Manchester United would be behind a few Mexican Primera Division teams. Chivas, Club America, UNAM Pumas, and there's an argument for a couple of others draw a lot of support in the US market. You can tell by the TV ratings and people wearing their gear. If we're limiting it to European only, it's tough to tease out.

By gear alone, it's whoever happens to be winning at Champions League level. Right now that's Barcelona, and I'm seeing people wearing more Barca shirts than United. But that's a limited sample set based on the Mid-Atlantic region. For all I know, half of Des Moines is suddenly interested in Chelsea and spent on their shirts. The TV ratings aren't helpful. Anything shown on Fox's main channel outdraws every other European club soccer property.

I would say in terms of mainstream American appeal, should Chelsea win the Champions League you'll see significantly more Chelsea shirts worn as casual attire in the United States. To me, it's the Champions League driving the interest just like all of those people here who woke up the morning after the World Cup final and realized they were in desperate need of a Spain shirt.

What does that really mean? I'll return to my initial response. It's difficult to determine real fandom in any sport for any club, especially when the fashion aspect takes hold. There are teams that make it difficult to wear their brand, others who arguably make it way too easy. If your primary colors are navy blue, white, and grey and your logo is iconic of the biggest city in the country, that's almost always going to be an easier sell than something that requires an explanation. At the same time, something that classic might not tell us anything about whether or not the person wearing it could name four regular players on the roster much less tell you what happened in the last game.

Again, it's a question of definition and scope and that's where the ratings tell a significant part of the story. Even there, I think it's unrealistic to expect the same level of interest for the other domestic leagues as we see for the Premier League. There's not the same level or depth of coverage from the US outlets and there's the multiple language barriers. The Champions League solves that and it's why a European super league would be an easy sell in the United States.

It's the easy part that would be so important here, removing the degree of difficulty in really trying to follow these clubs like you would a local team. That's also where Mexico's Primera Division already has an advantage, since they're treated like local teams on easily available over-air Spanish-language networks and print media.

The mysteriously first-named B. Forster writes: How disappointed should we really be that the Champions League final doesn't involved an MLS team? Mexican clubs can spend more than anybody else in CONCACAF, so they should be the ones winning the regional championship. MLS made runs, got three teams in the quarterfinals, and couldn't knock out the best team in Mexico. Is there really any shame in that?

'No,' replies the not quite as mysteriously first-named me (it's Joseph by the way, but nobody has ever called me that). And it's a good point to make after Monterrey's reminder that they've figured out how to beat pretty much anybody at CONCACAF Champions League level.

It's not exactly a secret that Major League Soccer's message is decidedly mixed here. They talk of what the League will be like in 2022 and the push to make it one of the world's elite, but at the same time they stress the importance of the Champions League right now without spending at Primera Division levels. In fairness, what choice do they really have if they're not going to immediately start spending on depth.

That's one of the distinctions between the Primera and MLS right now. At Champions League level, Primera squads are stronger after you get past the superstars. That's what even a team like the Galaxy runs into. In theory and on paper, they're the strongest club in Major League Soccer, but they lack the kind of depth taken for granted at Primera level.

Nothing new here and all of these are points many have made more than once from a variety of people. The roster exemptions and other squad tweaks MLS has allowed in recent years are an improvement, but they're not the significant changes that need to happen to really compete at Champions League level. An MLS team winning the tournament in these circumstances would have to be considered an upset. Unless MLS chooses to reset the regulations on how their squads are built, that's going to continue to be the case.

Jeff writes: "I want to go off-topic. You mentioned Van Halen in an earlier article, and I wanted to get a list of your top VH songs. Why I'm asking is that I'm working on a theory that the current love for Roth-era VH is just a fad and the Hagar-era stuff holds up."

Off topic you say? Sure Jeff, why not. When the original Van Halen broke up, I was at that crucial age where my hometown had just got cable. My first exposure to Van Halen was the Hot For Teacher and Jump videos they were showing on MTV and David Lee Roth's new solo stuff. Why do we need the preamble? Because Yankee Rose remains my favorite Van Halen-esque song even if Roth was the only Van Halen member on it. 'Ah, so we're getting the standard pro-Roth list, right?' Nope.

  1. Unchained (my favorite Van Halen song and it uses drop D tuning to make the intro work)
  2. Seven Seals (Hagar era and from an album most would put bottom of the list)
  3. Push Comes To Shove (Fair Warning is my favorite Van Halen album)
  4. I'll Wait (not a fan of the 1984 album for the most part)
  5. Fools (Listen to the intro and tell me who it sounds like)
  6. Ain't Talkin bout Love (Not a fan of the first Van Halen album either)
  7. Humans Being (soundtrack single that does the best job with a patented Sammy bridge)
  8. Stay Frosty (new album, that's too long overall but still quite good)
  9. Dancing In The Streets (cover, and you really can't hear what I like about it except with headphones – Eddie's almost out of place keyboard riff that's Who-esque in its execution)
  10. Could This Be Magic (The Women And Children First album is severely underrated)

As for your theory, I don't think it requires a lab coat and a Roth-approved 'research assistant' to make that point. People were making it when I was in high school in either direction. It's a fun argument. Records sold versus long-term importance of the material, and all the time we're talking about a massively popular American rock band that's never had much of a problem filling arenas. And we're back to talking about soccer.

An anonymous emailer writes: "Jay (nope, that's not it) I read your Hall of Fame column about the problem with honoring early MLS players. Who do you think is the best player to ever play in MLS with the weight put on his MLS contributions? I would say it has to be Carlos Valderrama. Why? Because he adjusted his game to MLS and it worked with two different teams. He got a lot of grief for staying in the middle of the field, but his distribution was without comparison. He deserves to be in the MLS wing of the Hall of Fame, and I've yet to see any player do what he did in this league."

That's my point, and though we could play around with names you've already made it for me.

Jason writes: Why do you guys capitalize 'league' but only when it refers to MLS?

It's a show of respect for the North American first division… even when we might be criticizing them.  Thanks for writing in everybody.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

More from J Hutcherson:

9 Responses to Popular Soccer

  1. !!! says:

    MLS wants it both ways. They want the NBC network audience, but they also want to cheap out when it comes to paying the players they don’t consider marquee or bringing in the kind of players that would improve the league. DaMarcus Beasley said he had no MLS offer when he signed with Puebla. Herculez Gomez said he had no MLS offers and now has to get Kansas City to trade his rights if he wanted to return to MLS. Focus too much on that, and this becomes a hard league to like.

  2. Eric says:

    Soccer soccer blah blah. Ok, Van Halen. I’m guessing we’re around the same age (37) and that meant Van Hagar was the big deal and Roth-era was greatest hits. It took me awhile to listen to the Roth era albums in their etirety. Once I did, they shot up my ‘best American band’ chart. There’s some really good stuff there, especially for a party rock band.

  3. That’s certainly part of the mixed message idea.

  4. Most of the Roth-era Van Halen output is in the $4.99 rack at Best Buy, so you can hear it as it was originally presented. I don’t think the single or two-disc VH greatest hits does them any favors.

  5. AndyB says:

    Do you know what spending at FMF levels actually means? $60 to $150 million budgets for most of the league. Can you justify any MLS club having a budget in that range? FMF clubs can because of television. Mexico is a country of 112 million. With FMF as the top league in their only real sport. MLS is in a country saturated with pro leagues and college sports. And soccer, even at its highest level(EPL, CL), barely registers with the American public. It is a niche sport with very limited appeal. So they are totally different animals.

    Your answer is for MLS to spend more. But can you provide some factual data on how much MLS should spend based on their financial situation? They don’t have a major television contract. How much should they spend on depth players given the going world rate? What should the salary cap be? You have to back up your statements. An article about the economics of MLS would be very interesting. Throwing money at problems just isn’t the answer. Spending beyond your means isn’t the answer. Least we remember the NASL. MLS did and that is why they are still around and growing. Sadly not fast enough for some impatient Americans.

    My other problem is something you wrote before about that MLS clubs define success only about winning and not about playing attractive soccer, whatever that is. You said teams in the FMF concentrate more on playing pretty soccer. As if soccer were a dog and pony show. I am not sure exactly what you want MLS to do about this? Tell clubs to stop playing defense and let the other team pass and score? Should MLS be the WWE of soccer? Where we do not worry about competition and get together to put on a show?

    You do realize that the NHL was able to change their rules? Do you want MLS to also follow them and get rid of the offside and make the pitch wider? I am sure that will go over well with purists. Also trying to tie dropping attendance to MLS’s “disruptive” style of play is laughable. MLS attendance is their strong point. And style of play is left up to the individual clubs. No one stopping anyone from passing like Barca. Except maybe the other team.

    You say MLS wants it both ways, but aren’t media and fans the same way? They want MLS to be an American EPL, but don’t want to put the investment in making that happen.

  6. 1. I don’t agree with you here. It’s an excuse for not spending to really compete. MLS doesn’t occupy that niche you’re describing when they can bring in an overseas team for a friendly. They’re happy to be part of that general sports conversation when it’s on their terms. What I’m suggesting is they compare themselves to the successful league in the region and compete with them. Though the numbers aren’t normally made public, from what I’ve read it doesn’t take $50 million to be a competitive Primera Division club.

    2. Nope (this would be your factual data point, and neither can you or anybody else who isn’t an MLS employee). We’re not shareholders, and according to League policy that means we’re left to assume. What they should be doing is simple: fully participating in the transfer market and making a realistic case that a player is better off linking their career with MLS than anybody else. To turn it around, how do you think MLS gets to where they are right now in 2012 to where they say publicly they want to be in 2022? Spending. You’ll notice I’ve said nothing about dropping single-entity and allowing true free agency. This is about MLS spending relative to other leagues in this region, not MLS clubs spending against each other.

    3. You paraphrase me and then head off in a direction I didn’t go, which is fine, by the way. But for the sake of discussion, let’s stick with what I actually wrote. Any league in any sport can reward a style of play and make it abundantly clear that other styles are a problem. It’s not just changing rules like the shot clock in the NBA or the holding up the puck rule in hockey. It’s how the existing rules are enforced, who gets hired both as coaches and players, and the style teams are trying to sell to attract a wider audience. It’s what stops pro sports teams from simply neutralizing each other game after game. No one would pay to watch that after awhile, even if it was fully within the rules.

    4. MLS wants to be an American EPL. Actually, they probably want to be better, and they’ve put a timeline on it. That means taking steps, and major ones at that. It also means spending and taking the risks financial and sporting that go with that.

    Thanks for the comment Andy.

  7. And just so we’re all clear on the MLS in 2022 references: /2011/08/mls-has-a-bold-2022-vision.html

  8. Puxa Sporting says:

    Hands down, Roth-era VH. Hager gets props for putting up with a non-sober Eddie, though. Bought the “4.99” VHII last month. Crank it loud, the album rips, which really comes to the point: the first three VH albums rock much harder than anything from Hager era. Plus, Roth was a much better front man. Now, if you want to talk Hager while with Montrose (God rest his soul)…

  9. Agreed on all counts, and I wouldn’t really argue for the first two VH records as compared to the middle three.