Monday MLS Breakdown: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Seattle surpassed 20,000 in season ticket sales last week.'s Kyle McCarthy can't help but wonder if Seattle's success will raise expectations too high for teams in other markets.

By Kyle McCarthy

The average Seattle sports fan may have wondered if the Puget Sound Business Journal mixed up the numbers it published last week in an article on season ticket sales in the Emerald City.

One prominent Seattle summer sports team projects to sell 14,000 season tickets and expects a bump over the next couple of weeks as anticipation grows.

The other boasts 20,000 season ticket holders and thinks the number will continue to rise before the season starts.

Most would suggest Sounders FC is the first team and the second team is the more established Mariners. Most would be wrong.

In what can only be described as a peculiar event given the recent economic downturn, Sounders FC has generated enough excitement in the Seattle area to line up corporate sponsors and prospective fans in droves by giving them a slice of the hope in a sports town that has lost one team and watched two others swirl to the bottom of their respective leagues.

It's an indescribable feeling,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid told the Seattle Times.

Seattle's success is unprecedented in league circles. Only Toronto (16,000 or so season ticket holders, a lengthy waiting list and a rocking BMO Field every game) and a Beckham-fueled Los Angeles (26,000 average at the Home Depot) can approach those numbers. Most teams can't draw crowds of 18,000 consistently, never mind cycling that number of season ticket holders through the turnstiles on a regular basis.

It is a credit to MLS that recent expansion to Toronto and Seattle has paid off so handsomely in those markets. While it is presumptuous to characterize Seattle's support before the team has played its first game, the Toronto fans resemble the passionate followers of a European club. TFC's success has goaded other supporters into raising their game and improving atmospheres in places like Columbus and Chicago.

The only problem? Seattle and Toronto's resounding commercial success redefines what it means to prosper as a MLS franchise.

Teams will have to adjust to the expectations that come with the heretofore unseen and non-gimmicky attendance numbers in Seattle and Toronto. The scale of success has flown out of whack and there are many teams that just won't be able to catch up, whether because of small market size, inefficient business models, meager resources or market indifference.

Suddenly, the consistent numbers and the steady business models followed in Chicago, Houston and D.C. pale in comparison. Suddenly, the 16,459 league attendance average looks like a disappointment rather than a reasonable expectation. Suddenly, those often weak and double-header inflated attendance numbers in half a dozen big and small markets across the league look all that much worse, as if those teams are far behind the curve when they are only slightly below it. Suddenly, the low four-figure season ticket sales some teams boast look like a small list of invited wedding guests.

Heightened expectations aren't fair to place on any professional sports league in the current economic climate. Sponsorships and season ticket sales are expected to decrease across the board in the major sports (teams across the MLS say they are keeping pace right now) as families and businesses reassess whether four season tickets or a luxury suite is a luxury rather than a need. It is harder still to raise those goals for a league which saw its average attendance drop last season (even taking into account the smaller stadium in Kansas City and a full season of Beckham ticket sales) and watched its English-language national television numbers fall.

Unlike most leagues in these tenuous economic times, MLS remains on relatively sturdy footing. The costs are managed through the salary budget and the league continues to make profits in the transfer market. Fund-sapping stadium deals are on the decline. Teams are generally well-managed and realistic in their expenditures. Single-entity may be the bane of existence for those who want higher player spending, but it sure does help businesses ride through a lull by spreading costs.

Yet all of the slow and steady growth may not matter as much when people sit up and take notice of the eye-popping numbers in Toronto and Seattle and wonder why the rest of the league lags behind. One can point to novelty or to the unique situation in each of those cities with Toronto's multiculturalism and Seattle's burning need for a team that wins, but those explanations aren't a panacea. The skeptics will point to Beckham, say he didn't make an impact, chalk up Seattle and Toronto as aberrations and go back to dismissing MLS as some cross between the AHL and Arena Football.

In professional sports, expectations and perceptions are everything. As much of a boon as the success in Seattle and Toronto is for MLS on the balance sheet, it may end up also proving a burden for the league in other markets by creating standards that are likely impossible to match in the short- and medium-term.

When is a deadline not a meaningful deadline?

Today is March 2. All teams must be roster and cap-compliant by today, according to league regulations and this snappy schedule of important dates. While it sounds like an important milestone, the roster compliance date is more like a paper tiger.

Teams do have to comply with the standard regulations, but this deadline only pertains to players under contract with the team. That means any unsigned college picks or trialists do not count underneath this deadline.

The final resolution? A few players may end up leaving their current teams today and stock tomorrow's Waiver Draft in the process, but most teams will end up complying without any substantive blood letting. Expect teams to ignore most of the available players on Tuesday as well.

Around the League

- If figuring out where Santiago Hirsig will play this season is keeping you up at night, you may be able to rest easy soon enough. Hirsig has lined up on the right side of Kansas City's diamond midfield formation in the Wizards' past two preseason tilts. Don't take any preseason lineups as gospel, but it is a glimpse into Curt Onalfo's thinking at this point.

- Speaking of Onalfo, he said in a phone interview last week that Hungarian striker Ferenc Beres would stay with the team through the end of this week before the club makes a final decision on his future. Also, for those diehard Adam Cristman fans out there, Onalfo said the team will be patient with Cristman as he attempts to recovery from a toe injury that plagued him last season in New England. With the number of strikers the Wizards have in camp, K.C. can afford to wait and ease Cristman back into the lineup.

- No wonder why Becks doesn't want to come back. Lake Como is lovely this time of year, especially in George Clooney's villa.

- Interesting to look at Columbus' pre-season lineups and see how little the Crew has deviated from last year's starting lineup. Guess there isn't much reason to experiment when you end the season by lifting MLS Cup.

- One change in Columbus: the television package. Ohio News Network will televise 25 Crew games and air a weekly show on the Crew on Wednesday nights.

- More from the Columbus Dispatch: the Crew received $100,000 in cash and allocation money from Seattle in exchange for Sigi Schmid and each team received $125,000 for its allocation coffers to start 2009.

- San Jose is expected to announce the signing of former Crystal Palace midfielder Aki Riihilahti this week. Riihilahti, 32, recently left Djurgardens in Sweden. Like most of the other midfielders in San Jose, Riihilahti can't stay healthy; he played only 11 games for the Swedish club over the past two seasons. With Ramiro Corrales and Simon Elliott also expected in the fold, Quakes head coach Frank Yallop will certainly have enough options in that holding midfield role.

- D.C. signed Canadian international defender Dejan Jakovic to help bolster the back line. The 23-year-old Jakovic doesn't exactly fit the experienced model United sought to marshal its defense, but there's potential there. Red Star Belgrade may not win European championships or name Prosinecki or Jugovic in the side any more, but only talented players need apply to don those colors.

- Remember Gregory Richardson? The former Joe Public striker torched New England in the CONCACAF Champions League before going on trial with Toronto earlier in the preseason. TFC shipped Richardson's rights to Colorado last week in yet another example of the Rapids' new emphasis on team speed.

- One last note: I have joined the Twitter community. The goal going forward is to provide quick updates and links to every story I write. Find the link here or plug in this URL: While you're on Twitter, make sure to add USA's feed, too.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and Contact him with your questions or comments at