A steady stream of encouraging developments marked the latest MLS offseason.
Aside from dubbing its opening weekend "First Kick," there's much for which to laud MLS as it embarks on its 13th season.
More teams have exercised the Designated Player option and, granted liberal use of international players slots, many teams are stocking up on South Americans.
A new stadium for Real Salt Lake is set to open next fall, and the building of Red Bull Park is well underway. Construction in Kansas City could begin late this year.
MLS returns to San Jose - after two barren seasons following the decision of AEG to move the Quakes to Houston - with a powerful local ownership group, a popular coach and a viable stadium project.
Two seasons in Houston have generated two league titles, a downtown stadium project, and ownership investment from one of the most popular Latino-American athletes.
Seattle comes on-line next year and Philadelphia is on board for 2010, adding two more popular cities, powerful ownership groups and valuable markets.
The menu of international competition has been expanded. Los Angeles and Houston traveled to Hawaii in February to play Australian and Japanese opposition in the Pan-Pacific Championship; four MLS teams rather than two will participate when the Concacaf Champions League begins in the fall; and the success of the inaugural SuperLiga last year has prompted its return.
But the most vital change, though subtle in its process, isn't subtle at all; gradually and inexorably, as it emerges from the shadow of failed leagues, indoors and outdoors, regional and national, MLS has shed the stigma it might go bust at any moment.
"As a developing league, we need to be disciplined as to how we operate so that new owners that are looking to come in and municipalities that are prepared to assist in funding with stadium development, and sponsors and broadcasters can know that we have the kind of stability they can rely on," says MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who has been with the league since its launch in 1996.
"We obviously have a very good record in that after 13 years. Through the first five or six years of our existence, people really didn't think we were going to survive. It's only been by being really disciplined that those questions have gone away and we're going through such a vibrant period in our development."
Since the axing of Tampa Bay and Miami prior to the 2002 season dropped league membership to 10, and left the league with just four ownership groups, the league has grown to 16 teams and numbers 15 ownership groups. Only AEG, which owns the Galaxy and shares Houston with Golden Boy Productions, the company founded by boxer Oscar De La Hoya, and Hunt Sports Group, with Columbus and FC Dallas, hold a stake in more than one team.
"One of the great stories about our league is the diversity and expansion of the ownership group," says commissioner Don Garber. "When we get AEG down to one team and get the Hunts down to one team, then I will be really happy for what it will mean for our diversity of thought.
"We'll no longer have the power of tradition, the power of history. We need to have the power of new thinking, combined with that great tradition and heritage our original founders had."
TO DP OR NOT TO DP. At least one of the original founders, the late Lamar Hunt, didn't like the idea of a Designated Player at all. Spiraling salary costs have crippled many professional teams, forced the National Hockey League to suspend operations for a year, and greatly contributed to the demise of Hunt's first soccer love, the North American Soccer League.
But among the first wave of DPs, David Beckham, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Juan Pablo Angel delivered, Claudio Reyna disappointed, and Denilson flamed out. For Year 2, D.C. United chased Juan Pablo Veron and got a far more flashy Argentine, Marcelo Gallardo, instead; Kansas City chased and nabbed one of his former international teammates, striker Claudio Lopez. They are both earning upwards of $1 million per year.
Gazidis maintains the DP process will be reviewed after 2008 and more fully examined in 2009, when the league must negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players' Union.
"As a general rule, we are always in favor of seeing MLS players receive contracts that are commensurate with their true market value," says MLSPU executive director Bob Foose. "Thus we generally support the addition of a second designated player slot for each team.
"However, in order for such an addition to have a positive impact on the league, MLS will have to raise each team's salary budget to account for a second 'maximum' salary budget charge. Adding a second slot without doing so would merely result in the addition of a small group of high-end players coupled with downward salary pressure [and thus loss of talent] at the middle and lower ends of rosters."
MLS has instituted a $415,000 salary cap hit for DPs against the salary cap, which is said by sources to be about $2.2 million for 2008. The teams pay anything above $415,000, so regardless of what the cap is, the spread of salary budgets throughout MLS could fall right at that number, plus allocation money, for a team not choosing to use a DP, to the vast sums paid by the Galaxy for David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Co., and teams in-between, such as the Fire and the $2.3 million annual salary paid to Blanco.
Poor publicity and criticism have periodically rained down on the league regarding microscopically small salaries - between $12,000 and $19,000 - paid to most developmental players, and the minimum salary - $34,000 this season - for players on the 18-man roster.
NEW PROCEDURES. In addition to increasing the limit on international players to eight per team and eliminating age restrictions, MLS has also revamped its policies regarding the use and distribution of allocation money, which can be used by teams to sign new players or re-sign current members of their teams.
Nearly two dozen international players had been signed by league clubs a month prior to the closing of the domestic transfer window on April 15, and Gazidis says the rate of exchange - players lost to foreign clubs compared to those imported - can't be accurately evaluated until the U.S. summer window - June 15 to Aug. 15 - has come and gone.
Juan Pablo Angel, David Beckham and Juan Toja were signed months before the start of the 2007 season, but in the summer came Blanco and Denilson, a trio of Argentines to Real Salt Lake, Ricardinho on loan to FC Dallas, etc.
"It's not possible to make the judgment until you get towards the end of the season," says Gazidis. "Last year, most of our signings were made between April and September. They were made much later than the outgoing players. This year, we're actually ahead of where we were last year in terms of incoming signings, but there will be more, as we go through May, June, July, August, and September."
MORE TV. For the second straight year, all league games are to be televised. National broadcast partners ESPN/ABC, HDNet, Fox Soccer Channel/Fox Sports en Espanol, and TeleFutura will show more than 100 of the 210 league games combined, and innovations for this season include several doubleheaders.
Both FSC/FSE and ESPN2 will air doubleheaders to open their broadcast schedules on March 29 and April 3, respectively, and on June 29 an ABC broadcast of the D.C. United-Galaxy league match from RFK Stadium will lead into the network's live telecast of the European Championship final in Vienna, Austria.
JP Dellacamera has taken over play-by-play duties for MLS and U.S. national team telecasts. He will work with former U.S. international John Harkes, who takes over for the dismissed Eric Wynalda.
Regular coverage of MLS on ESPN Deportes and ESPN Deportes Radio has been added. The number of 30-minute windows - for pregame and postgame segments - on ESPN2 has been increased from nine to 16.
Last year, FSC introduced on-site, half-hour pregame and postgame shows to its telecasts, yielding the first regular three-hour programming block of MLS coverage since the league began. The March 29 doubleheader will feature five straight hours of MLS coverage, including the half-hour pregame and postgame coverage.
CONFLICTS. Expanding international competitions also increase conflicts with league dates. The Olympics being played in August and the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying starting that same month squeezes the schedule even tighter.
The SuperLiga will be played from July 12 to Aug. 5. It starts two weeks earlier and ends nearly three weeks earlier than it did last year. D.C. United has no league matches scheduled in July and Houston has just one to facilitate their schedules for SuperLiga games, yet Chivas USA has league matches July 5 and July 10. New England plays July 4 and has the rest of the month free of league competition.
With regular rosters of just 18 players, and salary budgets that are one-third or one-fourth of the top Mexican teams, SuperLiga stretches MLS teams nearly to the breaking point. Still, the Galaxy reached last year's final, only falling to Pachuca on penalty kicks, and Houston beat Club America and tied Morelia in the group phase before losing to Pachuca in the semis, also on penalties.
"We need a big squad this year, because we're going to have our injuries, and suspensions, and callups, and qualifiers, so we need as many good players as we can," says Houston coach Dominic Kinnear.
Houston president Oliver Luck believes his team's showing against Mexican teams in the SuperLiga and Concacaf Champions' Cup yielded larger Mexican-American attendances late in the 2007 league season and in the playoffs.
"The switch, or tipping point, to use that popular phrase, came with SuperLiga last year," says Luck. "We beat Club America and had a great, raucous crowd. There was a classic scene: the dad in the Club America jersey and his son in the Dynamo jersey. Thirty years of assimilation was evident right there. We played well against Pachuca in both the Concacaf and the SuperLiga, and played well against Morelia.
"Our Latino supporters said, 'You know, this Dynamo team's not bad.' A lot of people began to take notice. Our two playoff games were probably 50-50 crowds, and the 50 percent of the crowd that was Latino were singing and chanting. There was a tremendous atmosphere."
TURNAROUNDS ABOUND. In the spring of 2008, all is not peaches and cream, certainly. But the changes in New Jersey, Missouri and California, not to mention the incredible sagas of Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia, reflect the erosion of skepticism and creeping influx of acceptance in the general perception.
Quakes coach Frank Yallop, who left the original version in 2003 to coach Canada, can't believe a team came back to Northern California at the same time his tenure down south with the Galaxy unraveled. Oakland A's co-owners Lewis Wolff and John Fisher and their baseball management team will oversee soccer operations.
"When you speak to Lew Wolff and the people in our organization, there's a real build-for-the-future situation there," says Yallop. "It's great. We have an owner who wants to do anything he can to make sure it's comfortable and correct and professional for our team: training sites, a youth academy, and he's really pushing to build this stadium in downtown San Jose."
While their stadium project comes together the Quakes will play at on the campus of Santa Clara University in Buck Shaw Stadium, which will seat about 11,500. Renovations at Arrowhead will force the Wizards to play at least two seasons at CommunityAmerica Ballpark (capacity: 10,000, give or take a few).
Those cozy venues may hold down the league's average attendance figures (16,770 in 2007) yet should drive up demand for tickets in those cities that can be exploited when the facilities are ready. As of early March, season-ticket sales league-wide were up about 25 percent, with Toronto having already cut off sales at a ceiling of 16,000.
"Everything they said they were going to do they've done," says defender Jimmy Conrad of OnGoal LLC, which bought the Wizards from Hunt Sports Group a year and a half ago and have already unveiled a first-class training facility. "It's got plasma TVs, hot tubs, everything you could want. They really believe in the sport in this city, and it's really exciting to be a part of it."
(This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)