A New Era for MLS

The arrival of an international celebrity and fashion icon who also plays midfield is just one of many radical changes in store as Major League Soccer enters the big time.

MUCH BUZZ ABOUT BECKS. When will he arrive? Where will he and Victoria live, and where will the kids go to school? Will the team travel by charter or private jet to avoid massive crowds and possible security problems?

Nearly lost in the blizzard of speculation about David Beckham is how well will he play when burdened by insane scrutiny, summer heat, long flights and a whole new supporting and opposing cast? Will even the most sinuous free kick be savored by fans new not only to MLS, but to soccer?

Also under intense scrutiny will be the teams themselves and the league. A single-entity league founded on stringent financial strictures, a rather haphazard history of procedures and policies, and the very notion of professional soccer in America is destined to be examined, analyzed and dissected as never before.

''The good part is we've been given this platform, and the Beckham signing gives us this spotlight, not just for the Galaxy, but for the league,'' says Galaxy president and general manager Alexi Lalas, himself no stranger to the power of celebrity and aura.

''We have this great gift, but what are you going to do with it? That's the question I pose to both our players and to our organization, and it could be posed to our league and our sport. Everybody's watching, what are you going to do with it?

''It's up to us to make sure that when people are tuning in, they're going to get an exciting product, that the broadcasts are of a high quality, and that when the season is over, people are saying, 'God, that was exciting on the field, there were incredible stories, it was fun to watch,' and more people want to come back and find out what's going to happen the following year.''

Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello snubbing Becks after he signed his MLS deal, then reinstating him triggered headlines around the world. Beckham's contract terms ($250 million total if marketing, sponsorship, and revenue-sharing benchmarks are hit, but ''only'' $27.5 million in base salary over five years) was a major story, as were the insurance policies bought by himself and AEG that were revealed when a minor knee injury suffered while playing for Real sidelined him for a month.

When he arrives sometime in late June or early July, it will be all Becks, all the time.

SUPER IDEA. Since the USA stunned Mexico in the 1991 Gold Cup semifinals, those national teams have staged tough, sometimes bitter battles, and there has been forged an intense rivalry that rivets fans on both sides of the border.

Much more sporadic and far less passionate have been meetings at the club level. MLS and MFL teams meet regularly in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, but one league or the other is often out of season and thus is lessened their value as true tests of competitive balance.

Cometh the SuperLiga. In Group A are Guadalajara, Pachuca, FC Dallas and Los Angeles. Group B consists of Club America, Morelia, D.C. United, and Houston. After round-robin play with all games staged in the U.S., the top two teams in each group advance to the semis, and those winners meet for the title Aug. 29.

MFL teams will be in preseason this summer for the inaugural competition, yet a pot of prize money of $1 million for the winning team, a potent lineup of four teams from each league, and blanket coverage on Univision puts bragging rights and pride right on the line.

''This is really a natural step for our league and our teams,'' says MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis. ''The rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico has really grown into something special, and this gives teams in both leagues a chance to play competitive games against each other with a not insignificant amount of prize money at stake.''

MLS officials are hopeful this tournament will eventually enable their teams to qualify for the Libertadores Cup, the famed South American club championship in which Mexican clubs participate as guests. Those slots are determined in part by the Interliga tournament, held every January in the United States and promoted by Soccer United Marketing, which was formed in 2002 to acquire and promote non-MLS and non-U.S. Soccer events in the United States.

Interliga is a contrived competition to rake more dollars out of the Mexican-American marketplace and since the Mexican teams are guests, the Mexican federation (FMF) can use any method it chooses to decide the Libertadores Cup participants.

SuperLiga will fuel a whole new rivalry, that of clubs and of fans tied to their teams and colors for, in the case of teams in Mexico, generations and decades.

THE EIGHT-YEAR PLANS. Eleven years of paying most, if not all, the production costs, ended last year when new deals were struck with ESPN2/ABC, Univision (TeleFutura and Galavision), HdNet, and Fox Soccer Channels. Rights fees of amounts ranging from $2.5 million to $7.5 million annually were paid, though no figures were officially confirmed.

''For the first time, we have broadcast partners who are at risk, paying rights fees, and producing games at their cost,'' says commissioner Don Garber. ''They are responsible for developing an audience that'll help provide some level of financial return on their investment. We're seeing an unparalleled level of interest and enthusiasm amongst our broadcast partners.''

The big coup is on ESPN2, which will launch a series of 28 Thursday night telecasts on April 12 when New England plays the Galaxy at Home Depot Center. ''MLS PrimeTime Thursday'' will feature more cameras, more announcers and more technological gizmos as the network elevates MLS from a niche league to something greater.

All games will be produced in high-definition, nine matches will be shown in an expanded two and a half-hour broadcast window, SkyCam will be used at some games, and according to vice-president of programming Scott Guglielmino, graphic devices will reveal data such as how far from the near post a free kick will be taken.

''We want MLS to take its place alongside our other major events: Major League Baseball, NASCAR, football and basketball,'' says Guglielmino, whose first youth soccer coach in Connecticut was U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.

''We think sports fans who seek content across all our platforms are ready to sample MLS and maybe make it one of their choices along with our other major sports. We want to show it has many of the same attractions: passion, athleticism, history.''

The teams and league must still solve the problem of midweek attendances, which are normally half of those on Saturday nights. That won't look good on national television.

UNIVISION VIEW. The Spanish-language broadcaster also paid a rights fee, ending a long drought of coverage aimed at the Hispanic market.

Games will air Sunday afternoons (mostly on TeleFutura), and the league will also be featured regularly on Univision's weekend sports show, ''Republica Deportiva,'' whose host, Fernando Fiore, has enthusiastically followed the ''Sueno MLS'' promotion instituted by Chivas USA by which one young player will be signed to a contract with either the first team or the under-19 squad.

Univision Sports is headed by David Downs, who several years ago was a strong backer of soccer and MLS during a stint at ABC Sports. ''He was a college player and he's been a believer for many years,'' says Garber. ''It's taken a long time to get back on their radar and now we've got eight years of a very promising future. Beyond his position with Univision, he's just a fan of American soccer.

''Think about what that says about the game today, that you have an Anglo guy running sports at Univision, whose primary content is soccer.''

D.C. DEAL. The four-time league champion went for the biggest sale price in league history, $33 million, to a consortium headed by businessmen Victor MacFarlane and Will Chang, and former Duke basketball players Christian Laettner and Brian Davis.

The change from AEG ownership occurred only in early January, but already the players have sensed a different feel. ''Well, we had Mr. Chang, one of our owners down in Honduras,'' said defender Bobby Boswell of the team's quarterfinal match with Olimpia in February. ''I feel like with him being there, he's taken pride in what he's invested in. He cares about it.''

Being named MLS Defender of the Year wasn't the only honor bestowed upon Boswell last season. He was featured in a Cosmopolitan magazine photo profile and Chang knew about that, too.

''Like he was joking around, calling me 'Mr. Cosmo,''' says Boswell. ''That little stuff lets you know he knows the team. I don't want to say it makes you want to play harder, but at the same time it does make you more of a unit, and I think the tighter you are as a unit the better you are as a team.''

Real estate moguls like Chang and MacFarlane cause some fans and observers to question their commitment to the league and the sport. It's a concern voiced in several MLS cities, that multi-millionaires with no real feel for the game are joining the league to ramrod projects and developments through bureaucratic and governmental red tape, sometimes with public funding.

Yet sports stadiums have anchored renovations of blighted areas in dozens of American cities. In nearby Baltimore, the Inner Harbor area was rundown until Camden Yards arose to house the baseball Orioles. D.C. United officials envision the same transformation of Poplar Point, just east of the Anacostia River, with a 24,000-capacity stadium as the centerpiece.

''To those people, I would say just two words: MCI Center,'' says team president Kevin Payne of the arena that houses the NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals at 7th Street and F Street NW in the nation's capital. It's been renamed the Verizon Center since its opening in 1997.

''Before it was built, that area had 30-year-old trees growing out of burned-out buildings that had been abandoned after the Martin Luther King riots. And it's not insignificant that we'll be building our stadium in an area that has one of the highest African-American populations in the country.''

MacFarlane, whose soccer-playing son attended the IMG Academies in Florida, and Davis are African-American.

WIZARDRY. New ownership took over the Wizards late last summer. Cerner Corporation executives Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig head the group, OnGoal LLC, and are joined by several other local businessmen, including Robb Heineman, who runs a private equity firm.

Put up for sale in December 2004, by Hunt Sports Group, the Wizards were last in average league attendance (11,083) last season, and rumors of a move ran rampant. A training facility is being built and three Kansas cities are in the running as sites on which to build a stadium.

Illig and Cerner worked with FIFA to develop programs and software to identify and categorize soccer injuries. Heineman had been working for years behind the scenes to get a stadium built.

''This was a situation where the sun, moon and the stars aligned,'' says Garber. ''Years ago, this is something we would have lost. We knew we needed to sell the team and if we didn't sell it, we'd have had to move it. Years ago, we would not have found OnGoal. Today, the league is in a position where the ball is kind of dropping to our feet more than it has in the past.''

NORTHERN EXPOSURE.Before playing its first MLS game, before its players had their first training session at BMO Field, the first Canadian entry into America's soccer league had set a record.

As season-ticket sales approached the 14,000 mark, Toronto FC announced it would stop selling them. That's a first, and as much a function of the MLS philosophy of driving up demand by limiting ticket inventory as the Beckham Buzz.

Still, the club had sold about 5,500 tickets by the time the Beckham deal was announced in mid-January. Operator-investor Maple Leafs Sports & Enterprises also runs the NHL Maple Leafs and NBA Raptors, and partnered with the Canadian Soccer Association and MLS to build BMO (bee-moh) Field at a projected cost of $62.5 million and a capacity of 20,000.

''We have people from the press and TV all reporting during preseason,'' said Coach Mo Johnston during a March trip to Florida. ''Every time we have a press conference, it's packed. I never had that in the United States. We're getting that in Toronto, and it's tremendous. It's a good feeling.''

Four outdoor pro teams in Toronto failed during the NPSL-USA-NASL years, although the ethnically named Toronto Metros-Croatia won the 1976 league title.

The major downside is FieldTurf, one of the artificial surfaces that has received FIFA approval and was chosen by team ownership in preference to grass that would take a beating in the harsh Canadian climate.

COLORADO DREAMING. The team that averaged just over 12,000 fans in the massive Invesco Field at Mile High last season is hoping for at least a few sellouts at the 18,000-capacity Dick's Sporting Goods Park that opens April 7 with a visit from D.C. United.

The All-Star Game against Glasgow Celtic and the Aug. 26 match against Beckham and the Galaxy are potential sellouts, and club officials had high hopes for the opener and July 4 fireworks show. Colorado is the fifth team to move into its own stadium. (Toronto will be the sixth when it hosts its home opener three weeks later.)

The small capacity and allure of Beckham resulted in single-game tickets for the Aug. 26 game to sell out in less than 90 minutes. The club initiated a ''Becks Flex'' package by which fans can get tickets to the Beckham game as well as other matches.

A new color scheme reminiscent of English clubs West Ham, Aston Villa and Burnley has been adopted and a partnership with Arsenal formed. A nickname change to Arsenal was debated but dropped.

''It's exciting this year, the new colors, the stadium, it's a big buzz about the team,'' said midfielder Kyle Beckerman a few weeks before the opener.

(This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

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