By Ridge Mahoney
There's enough positive momentum and steady progress to believe that MLS has 'arrived,' whatever that might mean, but a look at attendances from the first heavy midweek schedule tamps down the giddiness.
Along with lagging TV ratings, midweek attendances continue to be a major issue in about half of the league’s 19 markets. While the numbers may perk up as the weather gets warmer and parents don’t have to worry about getting their children home in time for bed on a school night, a few intriguing matchups didn’t translate to good crowd figures:
New York-Montreal at Red Bull Arena: 11,892 (2013 average: 16,021). A three-game winning streak and a matchup of Eastern Conference leaders didn’t get the turnstiles spinning. Those who did show up saw a spectacular overhead winner from Thierry Henry and a late Impact flurry that nearly extracted a tie instead of a 2-1 defeat.
D.C. United-Houston at RFK Stadium: 10,116 (13,718). Last year’s United revival seems well and truly dead, and so was the D.C. crowd that witnessed a 4-0 thumping and fifth straight loss. On the field and in the stands, the outlook is grim.
New England-Real Salt Lake at Gillette Stadium: 8,040 (12,231). The Revs don’t draw well, day or night, weekend or weekday, rain or shine, and those fans that did show up saw a 1-0 lead evaporate into a 2-1 defeat and a stoppage-time penalty kick saved by Nick Rimando.
Sporting Kansas City-Seattle at Sporting Park: 18,602 (19,117). SKC is one of the league’s great success stories, and a midweek sellout confirms it is building a following just has passionate and loyal as those in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and a few other places.
FC Dallas-Portland at FC Dallas Stadium: 10,112 (14,966). A five-game home winning streak and FCD can barely tip into five figures, if that? While the league doesn’t release season-ticket figures it can be assumed FCD is lagging near the bottom, or that Frisco is still regarded as too far away on a weekday.
San Jose-Toronto FC at Buck Shaw Stadium: 10,048 (10,392). The Quakes can only fit 10,525 into their cozy little facility on the campus of Santa Clara University and their challenge comes next year, when there will be 18,500 spaces to fill 20 times a season.
The six hosting venues ran the gamut of facilities: soccer-specific in New Jersey and Kansas and Texas, big and out-of-town (Gillette), big and rundown and city-based (RFK), and stopgap (Buck Shaw).
It’s great to marvel at the consistently strong crowds drawn by the Northwest teams along with the Galaxy and RSL, but the Rapids and the Revs and even the Red Bulls just don’t seem to have found the right formula. Each has its unique stadium situation, of course, and there's no magic bullet to solve the problem.
The rundown would have been worse had Chivas USA, dead last in average attendance with 8,045 per game, played at home. Conversely, a midweek of matches hosted by the Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps, Galaxy, etc., would generate outstanding crowd figures.
If it were possible and practical, MLS would pack as many midweek games as possible into the half-dozen cities that can draw well on those days to beef up its average attendance. But that would create an artificial image of how the league is doing with midweek games. The reality is: in some places, great; in a few, OK; in several others, not good, not good at all.
League commissioner Don Garber’s speaking gigs feature him waxing optimistic and sounding cautionary, sometimes in the same sentence. Looking at the midweek numbers in at least one-third of his cities, he's got good reason for concern, and there's not a great deal he can do about it.