By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 7, 2015) US Soccer Players – This year’s MLS Cup Final between Columbus Crew SC and Portland Timbers featured two not-so-glamorous sides. No big market teams like the New York Red Bulls or Los Angeles Galaxy. No world-famous, pricy Designated Players to show off to a national audience. Instead, what we got were two smaller market teams (with very rabid fan bases) and players who may not have phrases such as “Champions League winner” or “Premiership champion” on their resumes, but nonetheless achieved greater success in Major League Soccer this year.
“We believe we have one of the most competitive leagues in the world,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said during his weeklong media tour ahead of Sunday’s big game. “I embrace the fact that two of our smallest markets are in the MLS Cup because it validates this idea that in our world every fan should believe that their team has the chance to win the MLS Cup. It is not a league of haves and have-nots. It’s a league that if you’re smart, you get rewarded. And if you’re not smart, you get penalized. That’s something that I think is empowering to fans and, frankly, should be something that has everybody around the league feeling good about.”
Few would have predicted this year’s finalists at the start of the season. The Crew SC, an original MLS club, faced the Timbers, who joined the league in 2009 but share a legacy with a club that originated in the original North American Soccer League. In what we thought would be an evenly matched contest (both had finished with the same regular season record of 15-8-11), the Timbers were able to defeat Crew SC 2-1 on Sunday at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio to win the title.
With Portland celebrating the title to cap off the league’s 20th season, here’s a look back at this season’s major milestones:
Improved TV ratings
Readers of this space know how much I have applauded the league for its scheduling this season. Creating a regular Friday night national TV slot during the regular season and airing it on Spanish-language television served a dual purpose. First, it created appointment viewing, something MLS has struggled with in the past. Second, it brought a great product to a largely untapped market of Hispanic viewers. The strategy seemed to have worked with UniMas and “Viernes de Futbol” (Soccer Friday). Ratings were up 3% compared to last year’s Spanish-language broadcasts on weekends.
Overall, ESPN and Fox Sports also did a great job. ESPN’s broadcasts averaged 249,000 viewers, up 4% from last year. Fox Sports 1, in its first year broadcasting MLS matches, averaged 197,000. That’s a 40% increase from what NBCSN was averaging in 2014. While there was growth (Mexico Liga MX games on Univision and Premier League games on NBC Sports draw three times the number of viewers), it is a move in the right direction. It has taken 20 years for MLS to get to this point. With more markets joining the league, sustained growth and increased fan support is something MLS can expect in the coming years. Higher ratings are sure to follow.
It’s true that superstars such as Frank Lampard (New York City FC) and Steven Gerrard (Galaxy) came to MLS in 2015, but we’ll remember this season more for the arrival of younger international players like Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC) and Giovanni dos Santos (Galaxy). The former Juventus attacking midfielder was one of the most-celebrated new arrivals and he returned the favor on the field, scoring 22 goals and recording 13 assists to win league MVP honors.
Overall, teams have invested more in Designated Players since David Beckham signed with the Galaxy in 2007. Eight years later, teams now spend five times as much as they used to on DPs. Who will come to MLS in 2016? No one knows for sure. One thing that is certain – you just never know who will end up playing regularly for your favorite team in a stadium near you. If experience is any measure, clubs are better off investing in a player in his mid-20s rather than one who achieved a lot abroad but is on the verge of retirement.
In yet another season where the West seemed to have the better teams, the Los Angeles Galaxy, the defending champions coming into the 2015 season, looked like it was going to repeat. It didn’t. Bruce Arena’s squad had a poor run of form late in the season and ended up losing to the Seattle Sounders in the first round of the playoffs. The Galaxy never really seemed to overcome the retirement of Landon Donovan and players like dos Santos and Gerrard never filled those big shoes when the team needed it most.
“We did a lot of good things this year both on the field and off the field,” Galaxy president Chris Klein told LAGalaxy.com. “We qualified for the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League for one, but in the end, we assess our season by how we do on the field, and our goal is to win an MLS Cup every year and move to the next round of Champions League. We accomplished one goal, but we did not do the other, so it fell beneath our expectations. In saying that, we feel that we have a group that can come back next year and compete for the things that we want to compete in.”
This was also the year where Canadian soccer benefited most from MLS. All three clubs – Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps – made the postseason. For Toronto, it marked the team’s first postseason appearance. It could have had an even better season at BMO Field if not for the fact that many US and international stars were away playing for their respective national teams while the MLS schedule soldiered on. The league announced recently that MLS will take a two-week break next summer during the Copa America Centenario. That means that players like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore will miss the fewest games for Toronto in 2016.
What this level of club success means for Canada’s National Team remains to be seen. The ultimate reward will be if the team qualifies for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Should the Canadians qualify for the first time since 1986 (its only World Cup finals appearance to date), then it can thank MLS for helping develop its players for future competition. When a player like Orlando City FC's Cyle Larin wins Rookie of the Year achieving success at such a young age, it bodes well for the country’s future.
With so much going on this season it was easy to sometimes forget that MLS had two new teams. NYCFC and Orlando City had a turbulent first year. Neither made the playoffs, but both left their mark. Both clubs brought to the league new fans and packed stadiums, a renewed sense of energy not seen for quite some time. The new markets helped the league's overall attendance average grow, pushing the average to over 20,000.
Expansion doesn't end here for MLS. Atlanta United FC will join the league in 2017 and already has 29,000 season-ticket holders and working on a soccer-specific venue that seats about 30,000. Not bad for a team with no coach or players. There was a time when MLS needed to bring in big-name players to attract fans, particularly in markets without a long soccer tradition. Now fans will flock to the league even before a team has signed any players – another sign the league (which will grow to as much as 28 teams in the future) has a product people want to see and one capable of reaching fans across the country.
Garber, in his state-of-the-league address last Thursday, said of MLS: “We’ve traveled a long way from the early days of the shootouts and playing in these cavernous football stadiums to sparse crowds having teams with names like Crash and Burn.”
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