With the World Cup now concluded, MLS wants to capture a few of those new soccer fans.By Kyle McCarthy
More than a few Americans will return to their desks on Monday morning and start the day by lamenting the end of the World Cup.
While they probably won't remember the disappointingly pugilistic final fondly, they might replay the memories worth savoring from the month-long tournament as they settle in for the morning. From New Zealand to Spain and from Landon Donovan to Diego Forlan, World Cup 2010 offered more than its fair share of moments and players to cherish for the remainder of the summer.
As those workers return to their posts, a few quasi-regulars may swear off soccer as a quadrennial, event-based experience or focus their energies on supporting their chosen European club teams or their selected national teams during continental events. Some new World Cup supporters will ignore the sport until Brazil 2014, while others may continue to explore the passion aroused by the packed bars and the pulsating games.
MLS hopes to capture some of those fans invigorated by the World Cup and convert them to its own brand of American football. The question is whether the American top flight and its clubs can find a way to do so.
In the past, such efforts have fallen well short of expectations. While process stories detailing how “soccer has finally made it in the United States” have cycled through for the past three tournaments, MLS has so far struggled to transform the increased chatter into increased attendance in the aftermath of previous World Cups.
Facilitating the transition between the pinnacle of the sport and a developing league isn't easy. The difference between quality of the play and the quality of the players remains steep. Even introducing willing souls can prove more challenging than most would expect given the American tendency to sneer at anything that falls short of the highest standard.
MLS will attempt to bridge the gap this summer by securing at least a couple of household names to spike interest. Thierry Henry will complete his long-awaited move to New York on Thursday after Vancouver co-investor (and Phoenix's full-time point guard) Steve Nash finally confirmed the deal on Saturday night. Barcelona teammate Rafa Marquez could follow him as the Red Bulls' third Designated Player if reports out of New Jersey are true, while former Barcelona maestro Ronaldinho continues to loom as another potential acquisition at some point down the line.
While a few sexy stars may increase interest in the short-term, the key to fostering long-term growth remains highlighting the positives already in place and reinforcing the current setup with additional capital.
Many of the same people who dismiss MLS as a substandard league or harp on its flaws ignore its strong points. More than a few clubs have developed significant cult followings off the field. A few teams – FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake to name two – generally offer entertaining fare for the neutrals, while a couple of others – Columbus and Los Angeles are the best examples – operate with precision on a weekly basis. Several players sprinkled around the league possess the necessary talent to play in Europe. Young hopefuls develop in MLS with regularity because they are often given the chance for first-team minutes at an early age. And, of course, future U.S. national team players often spend a decent chunk of time Stateside before heading off to European finishing school.
Building on the strengths already in place requires further investment. Investors must continue to fund increases to the salary budget, lay the groundwork for more significant player acquisitions and restore some form of reserve league to give bench players regular games.
Of course, funding all of those initiatives requires the increased cash flow derived from additional interest and additional spectators. Given the widespread popularity of the World Cup on these shores, MLS would be foolish to ignore the immediate benefits – higher television ratings for a Donovan-headlined Galaxy game on July 4, for example – and the possible positives as it enters the second half of the campaign.
Only time will reveal whether the World Cup will spur new soccer fans to follow MLS as it continues to grow. MLS will continue its steady growth either way, but the league would benefit from a few new fans looking for something else to fill that World Cup void. And why shouldn't those fans sample something new? After all, four years is an awfully long time to wait.
Week 15 – Quick Hits
- MLS could have hardly drawn up a better advertisement than the one offered by FC Dallas and Seattle in their 1-1 draw on Sunday night. Plenty of attacking football, plenty of fans at Qwest Field, plenty of fine saves from Kasey Keller and plenty of talking points. Those two yawn-inducing nil-nil draws on Saturday night, however, are best left alone.
- Give Seattle credit for finally turning to its youth to add a bit of energy and vigor to a side that has lacked a bit of it so far this season. If Sounders FC can ally this sort of endeavor with the top-end quality provided by Blaise N'Kufo, Rave Green fans may yet support a playoff chaser.
- With all of that said, impetuousness often accompanies youth. Miguel Montano wrecked a rather fine evening with a needless blow to the back of Brek Shea's head to place his team in a difficult spot. Shea's tackle certainly merited the yellow card it reaped, but Montano will learn with time that such reactions have no place in winning sides.
- David Ferreira, on the other hand, would certainly find a spot in most teams these days. Ferreira offered up yet another irresistible indicator of his quality and strengthened his All-Star case with a sumptuous late equalizer for FCD. Ferreira has now scored in four of his previous five appearances. It is no coincidence that FCD has also not tasted defeat in those five matches.
- While Ferreira did well to volley home his effort at the back stick, two of his comrades fared miserably with easier chances in a similar spot. Brian Ching somehow scuffed a close range chance off frame from close range in Houston's 0-0 draw with Columbus, while Stephane Auvray nodded wide of an empty net as Kansas City pushed for an equalizer in its disappointing 2-0 home defeat to Chivas USA.
- Speaking of disappointing 2-0 defeats, Los Angeles trekked all the way across the country to offer a tame performance at New England. The midweek U.S. Open Cup match in Seattle and the absences of Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez didn't help, but the Galaxy never really found its stride against a side that entered the day joint-bottom of the league.
- Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena on leaving Donovan behind: "It was an easy decision to make. The player needs rest." Tough to argue with Arena's stance, even with the dropped points.
- New England pulled off the upset by keeping the game plan simple: get the ball up the field quickly and use Shalrie Joseph as the spearhead for a direct attack. By playing the game in the Galaxy's half, New England gave its back four some breathing room and piled the pressure on a Los Angeles back four that didn't look as cohesive as it has all season.
- Colorado unveiled a weapon it had rarely used this campaign in its 1-0 defeat at Toronto FC. Claudio Lopez made a late appearance as the Rapids pushed for an equalizer and immediately raised questions as to why he hasn't seen more time on the field. The former Argentine international supplied ideas in a match when neither side really offered much in the way of attacking creativity. Case in point: the game turned on one piece of passive defending by Danny Earls and one opportunistic finish by Fuad Ibrahim to give TFC all three points.
- How did Gary Smith express his unhappiness with Earls' miscue? He hauled off his left back and inserted Scott Palguta in his place just moments after the goal. The quick substitution reveals two important points about the Rapids coach: he doesn't tolerate elementary errors and he didn't believe he had more than two attacking options worth trusting on his bench.
- San Jose defined smash and grab with its 2-1 victory at Philadelphia on Saturday night, but Arturo Alvarez conjured up a worthy winner on the counterattack to give the visitors all three points in stoppage time. Then again, Roger Torres certainly helped the Earthquakes' cause by providing poor service from the preceding Union corner kick.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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