By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 2, 2019) US Soccer Players - MLS commissioner Don Garber's talking points around the 2019 MLS All-Star Game mostly gleamed with positivity. Major League Soccer is growing by leaps and bounds, adding two teams in 2020 and another in 2021. An announcement of two new teams appears to be in the works. By the time the next World Cup rolls around, the top division for the United States and Canada could have 30 teams.
Putting aside the issues of competitive balance, the league's push for more and more expansion helps improve its reach across the continent and sets the stage for a stronger television deal come 2022. Groups are clamoring to get in. Though MLS's stated cap is 30 teams, there's no reason to assume that the league will stop there.
The undeniable attendance success of recent expansions additions in Atlanta, LA, Minnesota, and Cincinnati gives MLS credibility when it comes to adding new teams. It's an indication of the rising interest in MLS that big money and big crowds are attracted to the league. There's still plenty of work to do to ensure that those big crowds in the early years stick around. No one should take anything for granted.
Chicago and New England can tell tales of waning excitement about soccer in their regions over time and the impact on the bottom line. For all of the boom that expansion represents for MLS, the struggles of clubs like the Fire and the Revolution adds a whiff of bust. Those two teams play in two of the richest sports markets in the country. MLS's failure to capture attention in those regions is a problem.
The chief problem for the Revolution is its stadium far removed from the tasty demographics of Boston. New England is one of several teams Garber spoke about during the All-Star news churn in Orlando. His words on the Revolution stadium situation weren't encouraging.
"The Krafts were founders of our league, and they believe in it deeply. Jonathan is perhaps our most engaged owner. He's the chair of a couple of different committees," Garber said. "I can remember seeing rats crawling around in (RFK) Stadium and thinking we'd be stuck there forever, so I'm confident that we'll be able to get a better outcome in Boston, but nothing to report sitting here today."
If referencing RFK Stadium and DC United's long quest for a purpose-built home is meant to foster hope in Revolution fans, it misses the mark. Garber made no direct reference to efforts to finish a stadium plan for the Revs. Instead, he praised Jonathan Kraft with general platitudes while bringing up one of the most painful stadium processes in league history.
New England has a history of potential stadium sites and plans. The history of leaks leading to nothing is a reason to keep things quiet until a real plan emerges. Garber's language didn't even hint that he's playing coy.
On the field, New England is enjoying a renaissance this season until recently appointed head coach Bruce Arena. Heading into Saturday's match with LAFC, the Revs haven't lost a game in their last 11 played and is steadily climbing up the table in the East. Arena will oversee the entirety of the soccer operations for New England and will benefit from the $35 million training facility currently under construction in Foxborough.
So what about that stadium? Boston as a soccer market checks the boxes for MLS. Right now, it's a market the league can't maximize.
NYCFC's quest for a stadium is somewhat different. For one, the club isn't an MLS original who has watched the rest of the league change around them. NYCFC is still "new," playing in just their fifth season. On the field, NYCFC is a success story, though they are chasing their first trophy.
Off the field, the club has watched as attendance numbers at Yankee Stadium continue to deflate year-over-year. That's probably because the novelty and newness of NYCFC have worn off. It's becoming a bigger ask for fans to travel to the Bronx to watch professional soccer played on a tiny field jammed into a baseball stadium.
It doesn't help that David Villa left, of course. However, NYCFC's problems are more about their stadium situation than anything else. Yankee Stadium was a temporary fix. The collective power of City Football Group and the New York Yankees would make a deal somewhere else in New York City. It's now year five with no end in sight.
"I've been saying for a long time that they are on the cusp of trying to finalize an agreement with a new stadium, and I still believe that the next big stadium announcement we're going to have is going to be in New York as opposed to another market," Garber said in Orlando.
"I have nothing else that I really could announce there, but they are, they have probably a half a dozen people that are working on this full-time. That wouldn't be an investment that they would make if they didn't think there was an opportunity to get something done."
Garber's logic seems thin since not having any employees dedicated to the stadium search would be a PR disaster for NYCFC. There's no guarantee that six people working on making a stadium happen in New York City will make progress. To this point, all we've heard about NYCFC's quest has been extremely spurious rumors and mooted ideas.
The commissioner was more forceful when talking about NYCFC than he was with the Revolution. Maybe that's because Garber is based in New York and is close to the efforts for NYCFC. Perhaps it's a real sign something is in the works. NYCFC fans and the club itself desperately need something to happen. As long as NYCFC calls Yankee Stadium home, it's a problem. Imagine an MLS Cup held there.
Garber also talked about Chicago. The Fire's move back to the city of Chicago, away from a purpose-built stadium and into an NFL venue at Soldier Field, is an admission of failure on the part of all involved. Garber, as is his duty, chose to spin it as a positive.
"I believe in the Chicago market," he said. "I think Soldier Field will work fine for them. "They've got a lot of work to do, they've got to get really energized, they've got to connect with the community downtown. It's one of the best sports markets. It's almost perceived by many as the best sports market in America. I have no doubt we'll be successful there, but they've got a lot of work to do, and I've got confidence that they'll put it together."
That's about as trepidatious as Garber gets. The Fire returning to Soldier Field is taking the best of two poor options. Bridgeview wasn't working, but it's hard to see the Fire playing third choice behind the Bears and concert dates at Soldier Field as a win for the club. Building back a fan base driven away by bad soccer and a bad location will be extremely difficult.
Notice that Garber didn't mention a long term plan for the Fire that would mean getting out of Soldier Field and into a soccer-specific building presumably closer to Chicago's city center. Building another stadium for the Fire might not even be an idea worth considering for a number of years. It's a different problem than what we're seeing in New England and New York, but it's still a problem. Right now, what they represent is three of the biggest markets in the league struggling with longterm solutions.
More From Jason Davis:
- The importance of the MLS All-Star Game
- The MLS transfer business is changing
- Portland's difficult season
- Aaron Long and the Red Bulls way
Photo by Mike Lawrence - ISIPhotos.com