New commissioner and Crew stadium yield kernels of hope
At some point between March and November, after baseball finished spring training and before the NFL staged its Thanksgiving Day doubleheader, the Year of No Excuses transformed into the Season of Angst.
No remark was too snide, no criticism too cutting for MLS. A rash of early-season shootouts, numerous officiating blunders, and a string of lackluster matches prompted media and fans to hammer the league as never before.
Badly fluffed shots, clumsily missed traps and fumbled crosses are labeled "MLSque." Potshots are so routinely fired at MLS referees, they should wear hard hats. Project-40 is a farce. Single-entity sucks. D.C. United cheats. The MetroStars get all the breaks, and they still reek.
All true, to some extent.
But recently there has been an outpouring of optimism regarding Commissioner Don Garber. Much of that confidence also is well-founded.
But Garber cannot sell tickets in Kansas City, and that's not his fault ù Preki couldn't do it, nor could Mo Johnston, nor could Alexi Lalas. Garber cannot direct ESPN games, nor officiate efficiently, nor pull the Fusion out of its own rear end, nor sweet-talk the likes of Ronaldo to play in the Meadowlands.
What he is doing, and will continue to do, is to infuse accountability at every level, from the league office down through the team's administrations.
It's way overdue, yet it's a start.
The shining symbol of Marco
As usual, Marco Etcheverry took D.C. United on his shoulders during the playoffs and won another title. A Goal of the Year was the wrong reward, but at least it went to the right player.
Marco's marvelous lob was to be savored, yet to anoint it as the year's best? A solo run polished off with a great strike a la Joey DiGiamarino, or a buildup capped by a brilliant setup touch and spectacular blast as performed by Eddie Lewis are the types of goals that deserve the highest praise.
But God bless Marco ù and his shoes, as depicted in the clever adidas television commercial. Fans flock to see him cut, drive, flick, stroke, and caress the ball. He is really two men: a robust wrestler and an inspired artisan, strong enough to topple a tackler with a fierce shoulder barge and gifted enough to whisk the ball clear just as an opponent's studs reach it.
In training Etcheverry will, just for fun, aim free kicks from 30 yards to hit the crossbar or post, and more than a few do. In effect, he's the quintessential MLS midfielder, for a bruising, inelegant caliber of play demands muscle as well as magic.
He has become familiar with the English language, that tangled thicket of grammatical gaffes and sinister syntax that America calls its native tongue. It's a joy to hear players bred in a Spanish-speaking culture conjure up comments as did Etcheverry regarding the bumpy sandbox that passed for a field at MLS Cup '99.
As he moved his hand quickly up and down as if dribbling an imaginary basketball, El Diablo said, "The ball was bouncing around like bunnies."
On grammar, Marco gets a C-minus for using both the singular and the plural in a simile. But for imagery, it's an A all the way.
And speaking of images, why isn't there an MLS promo piece depicting Etcheverry's brilliance? He sells tickets.
The lessons of Foxboro
That Foxboro field fiasco encapsulated much of what ailed MLS in 1999.
At a cost of $30,000, seating could have been removed to accommodate a wider playing surface. The league said no. Cheapness begets a chintzy persona.
Robert Kraft and his son Jonathan Kraft, the host investor-operators, were not present. Both were in Miami to see their other sports team, the Patriots, play a regular-season game against the Dolphins. The Patsies lost. Of the 30-odd projects and companies run by the Krafts, the Pats rank near the top, and it's quite clear where their soccer teams fit in.
Proper maintenance, specifically selective watering, could have softened the rock-like surface. There wasn't sufficient time to replace the dead grass in the middle of the field.
Ugly blotches and parallel gashes carved five yards apart are a harsh fact of sharing NFL stadiums, as many MLS teams do.
The incongruous image of teenage diva Christina Aguilera prancing about a stage at halftime lip-synching her selections personifies what MLS has been passing off as marketing, and many fans believe its product on the field is just as ersatz as was Aguilera.
If it cannot compete with televised competition from points across the globe, MLS must conquer each of its markets systematically while at the same time steadily bolster its national image.
In this day and age of dozens of matches on the tube per week, that's a staggering task.
Far too many American fans decry the poor quality of MLS play compared with leagues in Europe and South America, and they whine stridently when an American elects to take on the world's best by signing with a foreign club.
Some players aspire to test themselves at the highest level possible. For many players, MLS meets their needs. But not for all.
Few teams keep their stars for any great length of time. Bayern Munich spends more than MLS to buy and pay players. So does Manchester United, among many others. Those teams also produce gross revenue of more than $100 million per year.
That $100 million is fraught with meaning for MLS. It is approximately the sum total of operating losses incurred by the league to date ù not counting the income from sales of two expansion franchises and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
It is also roughly the amount pledged by the operator-investors last season at the behest of Lamar Hunt, who told the board of governors he wasn't going to build in Columbus unless his partners made a five-year commitment.
The travails of TV
Whoever dreamed up the pathetic MLS promo ads ù empty stadium, lonely ball, disembodied player's voice and a crumpled page depicting him torn from a game program ù should have been sent back to high-school business class to receive notice of flunking out.
Cost-cutting can cleave so deeply as to be useless, and those television ads are a case in point. Bare-bones television, be it commercials or game productions, have haunted soccer for decades, and MLS has fallen down the same well.
Properly spent, a per-match payment of approximately $18,000 won't win Emmys but can please the audience. That is rarely the case in MLS.
For years, the league's honchos have preached patience. Time is needed, they intone, to develop and hone the producers, directors, announcers and technicians to enhance the game's nuances.
But the honing and droning cannot excuse cluttered screens, close-ups of coaches as a ball floats into the goalmouth, or clumsy techniques.
It is through television the vast majority of fans, both of soccer vintage and otherwise, will sample MLS. Drawing that audience is critical to growth, and it must be done through a thoughtful, creative approach that doesn't trample action on the field as every last statistic is spit out.
There is surely a fair share of tiresome prattlers calling MLS games, yet tune into a local NFL or college radio broadcast, or a major-league baseball game, and you'll hear a lot more moaning, cheering and flat-out ranting than you do watching the Galaxy on Fox Sports West 2 or the Revs on Fox Sports New England.
It's not a high-brow art form, baby. There are as many homers in broadcast booths across the land as there are in Sammy Sosa's bats, but the MLS problems are greater. A gushing announcer can be tolerated ù or in extreme cases, muted ù if the directing is sharp, the camerawork crisp, and the production values excellent.
More resources and more money are poured into the national telecasts, yet their shallowness suggests those in charge as well as those in the stadium don't quite know what they're doing. Changes are imminent, and imperative.
The MLS Cup '99 telecast had a few good points, yet for all the hullabaloo about 18 cameras and replay machines, there were holes.
As a sole example, no replays were shown in the afterglow of Jeff Agoos' vicious volley and Kevin Hartman's stupendous save near the end of the first half. More than 15 seconds elapsed, during which we saw numerous reaction shots, between the save and the ensuing corner kick.
With modern technology, that's plenty of time to whip in a replay between reaction shots. If the director sees the corner about to be taken, he holds the replay.
A few days ago, I watched a Mexican League semifinal telecast. A behind-the-goal, slow-motion replay came flying onto the screen within three seconds of the save, and the reaction shots followed as teams set up for the corner.
There were ample replays of Hartman's gaffe that set the table for Ben Olsen. A replay from behind the Revs' goal of the Cobi Jones takedown could have clarified that incident.
Some cause for optimism
Much of the season was listless and forgettable, a problem the league has taken steps to correct by eliminating the shootout and heightening incentive for regular-season games by instilling wild-card playoff qualification. Some gimmicks can work.
MLS can't be blamed if some fans want to jump on cars in the RFK Stadium parking lots, or pick fights at Soldier Field, or throw beer at the Rose Bowl. But fans are paying customers. Few pose danger or inflict wounds. They deserve every consideration, and that is not the case at many MLS games.
Average attendance dropped a mere 30 per game from 1998, but a year that had been trumpeted as that of a turnaround instead became more of the same.
Yet there must be hope for this league when nearly 45,000 fans show up at a neutral site for the final. There must be hope when sponsorship renewals and new deals valued at nearly $50 million are consummated during a most troubling year. There must be hope when a cash-strapped league can snare an Ariel Graziani and retain a Chris Armas, although Marcus Hahnemann, Joe-Max Moore and Stern John are lost.
There must be hope when a soccer stadium is built in the Midwest, and when soccer plays a role in ending 20 years of rug burns and ravaged limbs at Jimmy Hoffa's mausoleum in New Jersey.
Hope won't carry the league to prosperity. But it can water down a lot of angst.
by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney