MLS: The Job Doesn't Change

A scintillating series of friendlies showcasing many of the world's best players generated excitement but won't change Major League Soccer's reliance on stadiums and sound business practices to flourish.

If nothing else, a six-game swing through the United States by Chelsea, Barcelona and Real Madrid vividly demonstrated to MLS officials that their nomenclature needs refining.

A ''sellout'' refers to stadiums full, or very nearly so, of paying spectators. Packed to the brim was each facility used during a giddy, glorious 10-day stretch and the occasional empty place merely emphasized the fullness of the section surrounding it.

By contrast, rarely - if ever - is Home Depot Center full when the Galaxy announces a ''sellout'' of 27,000. An exception was last year's visit by Real Madrid. Fans crammed into every corner to see David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, et al, and so smitten was Anschutz Entertainment Group president Tim Leiweke he's been lobbying to lure Beckham to Southern California ever since.

The formula by which MLS teams can regularly, legitimately sell out its stadiums is far more complex than staging big games with big names. Fans will flock to a few such matches a year, but the staggering costs of maintaining such a stable of players is far beyond the capabilities of the American market, a discerning audience whetted on telecasts of the Champions League and domestic leagues that are truly major, and not seduced by just any team showing up during the summer.

In July, an English Premier League team of more modest means than Chelsea visited Columbus. Only about 10,000 fans were moved to see the Crew play Everton. Yet Everton's payroll also exceeds that of the 12 MLS teams combined.

''There's a relative issue and an absolute-quality issue at play,'' says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, a professor of economics at Columbia University and former deputy commissioner of MLS. ''The argument is, 'If we had a few more higher-priced players, you could improve the level of play,' not that we should spend the same sort of money that Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona do.

''If you add a few additional-quality players, whether that be foreign players or American players currently playing abroad, and it elevates the entire level of play, is it going to become something people are going to be interested in and attracted to? The answer is probably yes. The question is: Can you make that cost-effective?''

The internal debates among MLS executives will continue. Splashing out big money for big names has been voted down for now, but by hosting sensational spectacles league officials expose their league's stark realities. Raucous atmosphere, exciting play (even if exhibitions) and riveted fans emphasized yawning gaps between what these games and those of MLS can produce. Yet they do have value, aside from the tens of millions of dollars raked in by ticket sales, merchandising, sponsorships and TV rights. Real Madrid has formed a partnership with Real Salt Lake, and Barcelona's business interests might include investing in the league one day.

''It's a different type of experience,'' says Ivan Gazidis, deputy commissioner of MLS and president of Soccer United Marketing, which promoted the All-Star Game and the three Barcelona matches. ''What we're offering is not the grand spectacle. What we're offering is an intimate experience, where you're watching a league that's in its development stage, getting better every year.

''Nobody who comes to our games thinks they're watching FC Barcelona. Do I think we have special players, do I think we have great excitement, do I think we have a good product and a good atmosphere in our own stadiums? Absolutely, I do. The experience of seeing soccer live is very different than watching soccer on TV.

''You can only see Barcelona live once a year, or once every three years, or once every four years. You can see an MLS team week in and week out, and there are some exciting players that deserve support.''

SPAIN, SI; CHELSEA, NO. The dazzling play of Ronaldinho and his flamboyant Barcelona teammates, and the royal elegance of Real Madrid brightly illustrated why they command followers all over the world. In their five matches against MLS and Mexican opposition, the Spanish powerhouses scored 13 goals, several of breathtaking bravado.

Aspiring to spread its name across the globe is Chelsea, yet its cadre - less than two weeks into preseason training - strolled through a 1-0 loss to an MLS All-Star contingent at Toyota Park, the freshly minted home of the Chicago Fire. That sellout (21,210) didn't need parentheses, unlike the Fire's official opening match of June 25, and large sections of the crowd unleashed their cheers and shouts at rare good moments by the English visitors.

Yet a huge roar rightly greeted Dwayne De Rosario's stunning goal, a strike into the top corner after he'd controlled a throw-in from Ronnie O'Brien. Chelsea's players hadn't come to play and paid the price of treating their first preseason game as a formality.

''We had a combination of players who want to play this game,'' said Coach Peter Nowak, who welcomed another shot at Chelsea after D.C. United lost a tough 2-1 battle to the EPL champion a year ago. ''I'm glad we choose this kind of route, together with the MLS officials, and as I said, we were the fighters on the field today and the game showed it.''

Sights like defender Jimmy Conrad scrapping and clawing with Didier Drogba in the All-Star Game or Joe Cannon snuffing John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, or a five-player passing sequence culminating with Alecko Eskandarian scoring against Real Madrid, provided grand - if lesser - entertainment and the chance for MLS players to test themselves.

Few players, American or otherwise, can trigger the electricity and excitement sparked off by Ronaldinho. After scoring two goals against the Red Bulls and mesmerizing foes and fans alike, he left the game, waving and smiling, to a standing ovation.

His first goal came on a penalty kick after rookie right back Marvell Wynne had hauled down Samuel Eto'o. Some observers might cite that incident as a barometer of the glaring gap between the teams, but dozens of defenders with far more experience have been victimized by Eto'o.

''I think it's a really, great unique opportunity for our teams to play those teams,'' says Gazidis. ''I don't think it hurts us at all. I think it helps us, actually. It's part of a broad strategic initiative to raise the level of the sport in all ways in this country.''

Says Conrad, ''More than anything, it's about winning over the American fan who's the World Cup fan, paying attention to soccer every four years as opposed to coming out to support MLS.

''I think games like this show that the perceived gap between MLS or American soccer and European soccer is closing. We have players that can compete.''

In the games' wake inevitably followed wails and lamentations from fans and certain journalists about MLS's modest quality of play, similar to those generated in 2003 and 2004 during the robust but ruinous life of ChampionsWorld Series. And such moaning is destined to continue, for the MLS business foundation is real estate, not Real Madrid.

''We're not going to be these superclubs in the short term,'' says Gazidis. ''It's not a product that we offer. We aspire to offer it some day, and we're taking steps every day towards it, with the new television money, bigger sponsorships, our own facilities will allow us to invest more in our product. I think you'll see that in the next four or five years.''

REAL EXCITEMENT. On the day Real played its namesake in Salt Lake City, ground was finally broken for a stadium in suburban Sandy, seemingly ending nearly a year of political wrangling between city and county officials and team operator-investor Dave Checketts. A few days earlier, a September groundbreaking date was set for Red Bull Park. Expansion club Toronto will have its own stadium when it begins play next year, and a stadium for the Rapids is scheduled for completion in 2007 as well.

SUM and MLS didn't directly promote the Real Madrid games, unlike last year's matches against the Galaxy and Guadalajara managed by AEG. Still, some of the revenues from a 1-1 tie with D.C. United in Seattle that drew 66,830 to Qwest Field and the 45,511 fans who filled Rice-Eccles Stadium to see a 2-0 Madrid win will wind up on the MLS balance sheets.

More importantly, the buzz generated by Real's Utah visit helped push through the RSL stadium project. Proceeds to Real Madrid for its two U.S. matches: About $2 million. Value to Real Salt Lake and MLS: Priceless.

The three foreign teams took time out from their schedules to spread some goodwill and, surely, to pump sales of jerseys and other branded merchandise. Chelsea trained for a week at UCLA (good) and charged $25 to attend a low-key training session (not so good) in Bridgeview, Ill.

Nike hosted a party in Los Angeles during Chelsea's stay. Included on the invite list were Prime Minister Tony Blair, gangsta rap icon Snoop Dogg, and Galaxy players and executives.

''Snoop was introduced to a few of the Chelsea players,'' says Alexi Lalas, who didn't mind being upstaged. ''He met Arjen Robben, and the woman who introduced them just said, 'Robben.'

''So Snoop leans back and says, 'Where's Batman?'''

Score one for Snoop.

No such witticisms were uttered at Johnson Space Center in Houston when several Barcelona players spoke with three astronauts in orbit on the international space station, yet there was wonderment on both ends of the connection. Players considered to be out of this world chatted and joked with brave men who really are.

MEXICAN CONNECTION. More than a decade of spotty success attracting Mexican fans to MLS matches has given way to other methods of reaching that audience. SUM holds domestic rights to Mexican national team games, stages and promotes the Interliga tournament and manages the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

The Barcelona matches drew heavily on a domestic Mexican-American population estimated at 40 million. With Mexican international defender Rafael Marquez on its roster, Barca played a 1-1 tie with Guadalajara in the Los Angeles Coliseum (attendance: 92,650) and an incredible 4-4 deadlock with Club America at Reliant Stadium (70,550) in Houston before thumping the Red Bulls in Giants Stadium (79,002). Tens of thousands of Barca replica jerseys were sold, and those who witnessed Ronaldinho and friends in person for the first time will be fans forever.

At Barcelona's request, the average ticket price for its tour was about $40. The take from tickets alone in the three U.S. matches would be nearly $10 million. Reportedly, the club will reap between $5 million and $6 million for its tour, which began in Mexico with a game against Tigres in Monterrey.

''SUM is a profitable venture,'' said Gazidis, without elaboration.

This is a fairly recent development, as for the first few years after its startup in 2001 the operation lost money, according to sources. The Mexican national team games - five or six per year in the U.S. - are now moneymakers, and Interliga may break into the black as well with a new TV deal by which games will be televised by Fox Sports en Espanol.

Lalas compared the 1994 World Cup to a circus, since after a brief buzz it leaves town. The glamorous international stars of August 2006 have departed, but MLS won't be folding up its tent.

''The turnout and the interest level from the media and the spectators that you have over a 10-day period in very high-profile games is fantastic,'' says Gulati. ''There's nothing wrong with not being at that level.

''We're 11 years in; Real Madrid won a European championship 50 years ago. The level of play and the standard of everything has gotten better in 11 years. Results in friendlies help support that, but you can't put too much credence in a friendly match.

''There are some pretty big attendances for games in a lot of countries that are not in the Champions League. Charlton-Everton sells out. Having teams come to the U.S. and draw huge crowds is a plus for the sport. But the job of MLS, and the federation for that matter, doesn't change.''

(This article originally appeared in the September, 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

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