MLS: A First Impression

The Inside FileCorrespondent ISeptember 8, 2009



Six months ago, the USA buckled when confronted with a position they probably never thought they would be in—two goals up at half-time against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.

"Soccer" was given a rare piece of the limelight that day, but it has since returned to the back pages of the few newspapers and Internet blogs that bother covering it.

While the transfers and the start of domestic leagues dominated much of August in Europe, it was a less than enthralling month in US football.

Steven Cohen ended his involvement in the radio show World Soccer Daily due to protests and loss of advertisers over his Hillsborough comments. And David Beckham's two-footed lunge earned him a two-game rest, narrowing his games played to games watched ratio—still want to play in the MLS David?.

Then on the last weekend before the US Open Cup final—America’s oldest club competition—two games at Giants stadium illustrated the popularity divide between domestic and foreign sports in the USA.

On Saturday, the New York Jets and Giants battled it out for preseason bragging rights in front of a crowd nearing the 78,741 capacity. A classic, that went down to the final minutes.

Less than twenty four hours later, 10,323 fans trickled into the stadium to watch New York Red Bulls beat Columbus Crew 1-0 in Major League Soccer. The Red Bulls ensured they would not set a new record for fewest points in a season—currently at 14, set by Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2001, with the victory that took them to 16.

“Oh, it’s your first MLS game,” remarked a New York Post writer. “It’s going to be quite an experience,” he added with a slight chuckle. It wasn’t exactly a glamour tie—top against bottom—but an introduction to American "soccer" nonetheless.

Three Irish tourists and a Red Bulls "101" fan—the diehard NY fans situated in section 101—were lonely passengers on the first bus from a train station bound for Giants stadium two hours before kickoff.

NFL games and concerts are serviced by trains that go to Giants stadium while football begins to show its second class status in a sports crazed country.

A disheartening “which turn off do I take” from the bus driver didn’t exactly inspire confidence before dropping its cargo off at a ditch adjacent to the stadium car park.

The typical tailgating—where supporters drink beer and grill food around the "tailgate" or open boot of cars or trucks close to the stadium—associated with most American sports gives an insight into the strange world of football support in the US.

Young kids played football tennis, five-a-side games and skills competitions in mostly MLS jerseys, while adults sat in deck chairs, soaked up the sun, ate bbq food, and drank light beer.

When asked about their star player, Juan Pablo Angel, some of the supporters simply shrugged.

“I don’t pay much attention to the roster,” stated the 101 fan from the bus in an England shirt. “I only come to watch the games.”

A fellow 101 fan, Sergei from Russia, and a group sporting Metrostars' jerseys—New York’s original MLS team—restored some pride, indicating that some supporters at least are tuned into happenings on the pitch. Sergei mentions a high proportion of their songs are sung in Spanish representing the diverse support the Red Bulls enjoy.

The 101 fans aside supporters struggle to mention names of players at their own club. The names of Landon Donovan, Freddy Adu, Clint Dempsey, and David Beckham are thrown around, none of whom play for New York and only two of whom still play in the MLS. Most have grown up playing the sport, have been exposed to it by ESPN, and just want to belong to a club.

When the game kicked off, whatever atmosphere in the ground seemed drowned out by the sheer size of the stadium, as supporters in section 101 stood, sang, and cheered from start to finish.

Not being the worst team in MLS history aside, there wasn’t much to cheer about amid the wayward finishing, poor control, and balls being lumped forward that would make Bolton look like Barcelona. At least there was a goal for those who paid the admission fee, which goes a small way towards renting the stadium.

The cost of having an extravagant stadium that is never sold out is roughly $200,000 a game for the Red Bulls. They have made a loss every year since their inception, and plan to move into the $200 million Red Bull Arena next year.

Last year, Forbes announced that three MLS clubs were profitable (LA Galaxy, Dallas, and Toronto) and that once teams moved to soccer-specific stadiums, they will become profitable because of sponsorship deals, non football events, and food and drink sales.

Although operating at a loss, the current MLS teams are not going to go the same way as the North American Soccer League teams. Erratic spending led to the collapse of the league in 1984. The New York Cosmos bought in Pelé, Johan Neeskens, and Franz Beckenbauer.

Then, when teams who couldn’t match the Cosmos' attendances or afford to buy power spent money on the likes of Johan Cruyff, Eusébio, Big Sam Allardyce, and Bruce Grobbelaar, the league collapsed.

On the pitch so far this year, New York Red Bulls' performances mirrored their finances off it. A run of 13 games without a win saw former Manchester City coach under Kevin Keegan, Juan Carlos Osorio, leave the club.

In came Richie Williams who, thanks to a scuffed Dane Richards goal, recorded his second win of his tenure, and in doing so, reached the all important 16-point mark.

At the postmatch press conference, Williams seemed slightly embarrassed when congratulated on not having the worst record in MLS history.

“Are we past that mark now? It's good, it's good, thank you. Of course, you don't want to be remembered as the worst team in MLS history,” said Williams.

The Cup final last week brought the prospect of a bigger spectacle. And with the buildup likened to that of an Arsenal vs. Manchester United game, maybe first impressions are misleading and maybe there is still hope for football in this country.

*article also appeared at




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