By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 20, 2013) US Soccer Players – Does Major League Soccer conclude the Conference finals with confidence? There’s a case that the quality of play in 2013 declined, failing to buck a trend set during multiple rounds of expansion.
It’s impossible to put quality into numbers. It took 59 points to win the Supporters’ Shield in 2013, down from 63 in 2012 and 67 in 2011. But what does that tell us? Not much in terms of quality.
How about the scoring championship? Chris Wondolowski won in 2012 with 27 goals and a nine goal lead over 2nd-place. In 2013, it took 22 and a strong finale from Camilo. Again, are we supposed to use this as evidence for quality? Maybe, but like the Supporters’ Shield there’s an argument for having several teams or players near the top speaks to higher quality than a runaway winner.
We could look at the bottom of the table. There were some horrific teams in 2013. DC, Toronto, and Chivas USA make the case for relegation. Yet all three of them put in performances that made other teams look worse. Some of those teams made the playoffs.
How about the rookie class? The standout player was an 11 pick. Dillon Powers should win Rookie of the Year, and that’s two picks lower than 2012’s winner. We can spend the early part of January reading about MLS teams failing in the draft. For this league, it’s not an indication.
Maybe a surprise contender tells the story. Los Angeles finally fell in the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Then again, the era before LA dominance was about low seeds taking the trophy. If we’re talking about quality, too many upsets shifts the story.
What about parity? It’s the gold standard for football, but soccer has too many games over too long a schedule. Parity can be deceptive. It also applies to a bunch of mediocre teams playing boring games. Or, like we’re seeing in the NFL this season, a bunch of teams with losing records still in playoff contention.
Sports media seemed pleased with itself comparing MLS television ratings to the WNBA’s. Is that the indication that quality is declining in pro soccer? Eh…. If that sounds like MLS’s official response, there’s a good reason. TV ratings are tough to judge, especially at the low end of the scale. We’re talking about the difference between 10k viewers for two professional leagues that don’t average over 250k a game on ESPN. Really, what’s there to make of that?
Attendance falls in the same category. It was great in some cities, average in others, and disappointing in a few. There’s nothing new, and no real change over what we’ve been seeing in this league. Even DC United only fell by a couple hundred over last year.
Chivas USA is a problem. Attendance tanked in 2013, declining by over 4500 fans a game. That’s tough to reconcile when the 2012 number was barely over 13k. There’s also the HBO Real Sports expose on their hiring practices.
We saw a marquee move and several upgrades by MLS teams later in the season. None of them led to an immediate turnaround. It’s worth remembering that 2012’s major addition didn’t exactly lead to glory. The Crew got much better with Federico Higuain, but they missed the playoffs. With a full season of service from Higuain, they missed again in 2013.
After a lengthy break, is it possible for three soccer games to push all of this to the side and shift the focus this season? Houston carries the banner for pragmatic soccer going into the second-leg of the Eastern Conference finals tied at 0-0 with Sporting Kansas City. The Portland – Real Salt Lake series gave us a better opener. It would require the #1 seed in the West coming back from two goals for the Timbers to push through, a scenario that favors entertainment.
Still, there’s a strong feeling that the league is heading for another disappointing final. It’s MLS as a league stagnating around a set of tactics that end to work. Overly defensive, relying on the other team to miss makeable chances, and eventually sneak away with a forgettable win. That’s not what MLS needs to cap a forgettable season.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him email@example.com.
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