By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (Nov 25, 2014) US Soccer Players – Even without games until last weekend, MLS did a good job of creating or feeding off the news cycle even with wisely not getting into the FIFA World Cup location debate. It’s not fair that MLS and US Soccer will get lumped in with FIFA, but it’s not an argument worth getting into. Better to try to move the focus onto other stories, hopefully on the field.
What MLS did to stay in the news while waiting for the start of the Conference finals was key in on a favorite subject of MLS watchers. Expansion, namely the next round that may or may not be it for at least the near future.
Last week, MLS held expansion meetings with Sacramento, Minnesota, and Las Vegas. None of those three would’ve made it this far in the expansion process without triggering public debate. At the same time, existing MLS teams continued to add reserve squads to USL-Pro. That redefines what it means to be an MLS franchise, adding to the mandate for expansion teams that includes the new MLS definition for soccer-appropriate stadium.
What MLS didn’t do last week was openly engage the debate on the calendar itself. As Jason Davis wrote last week, the international calendar does MLS no favors. There’s significance that MLS has either skated by or outlasted the schedule debate. It’s still odd that we started this season in what was technically still Winter (early March) and we finish in late, late Fall. The length of the schedule goes hand-in-hand with the issues with squad building in MLS. Simply put, clubs don’t spend enough money to maintain the type of squad necessary for the length of the regular season, much less the playoffs, and the US Open Cup, and the CONCACAF Champions League, and the summer friendlies.
Parity is a strength and a weakness in MLS. It’s a strength because of the uncertainty of winning from season-to-season. It’s a weakness because that parity is in large part built on handicapping clubs through the roster restrictions. MLS economy shouldn’t be the same thing as MLS parity in the short or long-term. It’s how a team like the San Jose Earthquakes go from strong to average to troubled so quickly.
That’s why the news that San Jose now has Avaya as a stadium sponsor was so welcomed during the international break. For the first time since the days when San Jose wore a Yahoo bumper sticker on the back of their uniforms as part of a league-wide deal, we at last see the marriage of Silicon Valley tech and Silicon Valley soccer. This isn’t the owner of the team building and naming a stadium. This isn’t one of the many stadiums with naming rights from a car manufacturer. This isn’t ownership leveraging their many properties to get a ticketing agency involved. Maybe more importantly, this isn’t one of the owner’s other properties or a multi-level marketing firm trying to buy respectability on the cheap.
This is a company handing over real money to a franchise that has always tried to make a virtue out of operating within a budget, to be generous. Oh, but Tony, it cost so much just to open Spartan Stadium and then Buck Shaw was so small. Fine, and the Quakes did significantly more than they had to in trying to bring Buck Shaw up to standards. However, they also tied one arm behind their back for years with the idea that staying closer to their hoped-for fan base would pay off in the long-term. The other option was playing games in bigger non-soccer facilities in Oakland or Berkeley or San Francisco or Palo Alto.
San Jose has been back in MLS since 2008. They’ve made the playoffs twice in that time. The Bay Area is the fifth or sixth largest market in the country. Fans here find themselves looking enviously at Portland and especially at Seattle. Quakes fans had to believe that hard work, some luck, and Chris Wondolowski’s work rate would make it all good while falling behind the stronger clubs in the league.
So does the Avaya deal justify the Buck Shaw years? Does it mean San Jose’s business plan is paying off as the team prepares to move into this bigger stadium?
I’m not convinced it does, but San Jose has a new/old coach who is a proven winner, a new stadium for the first time in their existence, and legitimate corporate money behind their efforts. All those are overwhelmingly positive movements for a franchise that has seemingly been all-too-happy with biding their time.
2015 could be an overwhelmingly positive year for San Jose, maybe the first year ever without some kind of question mark hanging over the franchise financially. That’s no small thing. Now, getting it right in the most-loaded conference in MLS history is another matter altogether.
Tony Edwards is a soccer writer from the Bay Area.
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