The International Future Of American Pro Soccer

Landon Donovan

The World Cup came and went last summer but I have continued to follow soccer.

As a sports fan there’s a lot to like. There’s the national teams and international competitions, the top-four European leagues (EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A), UEFA Champions League (all the best teams throughout Europe) and ingenious in-season tournaments like the FA Cup in England.

Want to watch something really cool? Check out Manchester United Wayne Rooney’s jaw-dropping game winning bicycle kick goal to beat rival Manchester City last weekend. It’s being debated as one of the greatest goals in soccer history! Also watch American Clint Dempsey try to one-up him the very next day with his acrobatic rebound attempt off his shocking blocked penalty kick in extra time against Chelsea.

Unlike the most popular professional team sports, in soccer the best stuff is happening on the international stage. That means I don’t watch the MLS. I’ve tried. But I find it awfully tough to enjoy a product that not only doesn’t feature the elite players in the world but doesn’t even feature many of the best Americans. I feel like I’m watching I-AA college football.

I’d like to give the MLS its due credit. Entering only its 16th season, it’s become an established professional sports league with steady growth and franchise expansion. New teams in Vancouver, Portland and Montreal will give the MLS 18 teams by 2012. Over 4 millions fans attended games in 2010 with average attendance up 5.5% thanks in large part to the Seattle Sounders FC rapid fan base (36K per game). Despite the 2010 MLS Championship game receiving the lowest rating in its history (.5), the league is still hoping to raise its television revenue by 7x over it’s current $3MM annual deal with FOX Soccer. The business they’ve built is both solid and sustainable. That is no small feat as no other upstart pro sports league in the last few decades has fared as well.

For the MLS to attract the casual sports fan a whole lot more needs to happen. The key will be for the MLS to embrace the competition. It’s no secret that the best soccer is being played in Europe. Those live broadcasts are now widely available to the US audience through weekend morning games on ESPN and FOX Soccer Channel (cable) as well as FOX’s online package (not to mention the pirated streams that my dry cleaner seems to be watching 24/7). True, you can’t easily attend an international game, but in this media-dominated sports world it sure is easy to still be a fan. The MLS shouldn’t and can’t ignore the fact that the best product is readily available in the US. Instead, it needs to find ways to connect with the European game.

Overseas Affiliates
MLS teams should form partnerships with European clubs that include exhibition games, marketing partnerships, player transfers and fan outreach. I’ve been spouting this theory for a while but it actually became real last week when the LA Galaxy and Tottenham Hot Spurs (EPL) announced a strategic alliance.

AEG President Tim Leiweke said “We have an existing relationship now with Tottenham, where we are beginning to think outside the box on football and how we do things together on football,” Most notably, this could include player transfers. Talented Americans can get some burn with the Spurs while well-known veterans can wind down their careers in Los Angeles. But it should also mean that Tottenham comes to LA for exhibition games each off-season and the Galaxy goes to London. Heck, they should play each other every year and create a little rivalry. Let youth soccer players in LA root for both the Galaxy and the Spurs. Let the alliance elevate and legitimise the Galaxy into a team that is relevant on the world stage. Show all Spurs games on local cable in LA. Boston Red Sox owner John Henry just acquired storied EPL team Liverpool FC. They should team up with the Kraft Group to form an alliance with the New England Revolution. There’s been a huge swoon of investment into the EPL as sports owners (many of them Yankees!) see the opportunity to take the league global. The opportunity to expand into the US market is one you can bet they are focusing on.

Overseas MLS Teams
Actually, the MLS should do more than just create partnerships with foreign clubs. They should buy a European team and turn it into a barn-storming MLS team that competes in a European League. This would allow the MLS to transfer players to their own team overseas and give their young players much-needed exposure and experience in international competition. This MLS can acquire a second division team in a strategic city/town and try and work their way up through promotion. Tickle the patriotic itch to root for American as underdogs in a foreign land. Allow MLS fans to watch Americans play overseas competition in meaningful games. They could also do this in Mexico and South America. The MLS should become synonymous with American Soccer and export its product around the world.

Copy The FA Cup
The FA Cup is a tournament in England that dates back to the 1870’s and includes just about every soccer club in England. The competition is a knockout tournament with random drawings for each round (no seeds) although the top teams get byes into later rounds. Hundreds of teams ranging from local minor league clubs to most the prestigious Premiere League organisations compete against each other. It’s the NCAA Tournament, the US Open and Hoosiers all combined into one.

The MLS should do this. Let local semi-pro teams, college teams and minor league squads compete for the chance to work their way into the main draw to complete against MLS teams. Soccer is a hugely popular recreational sport. The league needs to embrace that and build the connection between recreational soccer and the professional game.

Develop the American World Class Superstar
US Soccer tried to create the American superstar with Freddy Adu. Bust. They play up Landon Donavan as the face of American Soccer. While Donavan has gained respect as a top player in the MLS and for his play in international competition he also has washed up a few times in the Europe. They hyped up Jozy Altidore who skill level is nowhere near his athleticism. America’s two most respected players are probably Tim Howard and Dempsey. They long ago left the MLS to play in Europe and no longer have any association with the league.

I like to imagine what professional American athletes would be world class soccer players. My list includes Rajon Rondo, Nate Robinson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Steve Nash (yeah I realise he’s Canadian and already plays rec soccer in NYC), Josh Hamilton, Chris Paul and Devin Hester.

It’s not that easy to develop the Lebron of soccer. The US Soccer Federation valiantly tries to develop top talent through its youth developmental program but something tells me the true star will come from the streets. But when that star does emerge I wonder how that player will navigate his career. Certainly, he’ll play a substantial role on the US national team. But would he be better off in the MLS or overseas? Is there a way to capitalise on both opportunities at the same time?

Professional soccer has a legitimate chance to explode in the United States. Yes, people have been saying this for years but the access to international programming is the game changer. The MLS has a unique opportunity to creatively shape the lens through which the American soccer fans views the sport on a global level. They’ll have to make bold and unconventional moves to do so. They have no other choice. Sports fans are smart. If the MLS recognises how the leagues fits into the global stage it will ultimately make it a stronger, more competitive, more compelling league. I hope it becomes just that.

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