The High Five: Bigger MLS stadiums, All-Star roster talk, panic buttons for USMNT and more

1. Have we reached a major shift in the MLS stadium conversation?

In the hurry-scurry of abundant summer soccer news, one got away from us a little. So let’s circle back – because it’s important.

Orlando City made some heavy stadium news two weeks ago. The local headlines centered around Lions owner Flávio Augusto da Silva’s announcement of a change to private financing for his club’s downtown ground. That’s appropriate for the local newspaper, which serves the region’s taxpayers, who would no longer be on the hook here.

Secondary in the local story but still significant – and far more weighty for the rest of us beyond Central Florida – was that the plans for a 19,000-seat ground had gone the way the old 35-yard shootout. It was in the trash.

It was outdated. Already! Now da Silva and his group wanted a 25,000- to 28,000-seat downtown ground.

The story from the Orland Sentinel’s Paul Tenorio (linked above) details why OCSC management said, essentially, thanks for the offer of regional funds, but we have decided, “We got this.”

The club can afford to leave public money on the table and feel OK about it due to the terrific local support over the initial half season. With average Citrus Bowl crowds at 34,005 (second best in MLS), club officials are increasingly confident of making up the amount on the back end through total control of naming rights, concessions and oodles of other events (as opposed to a split with state or regional bodies). That bold choice, in itself, says great things about where MLS is going, and about the burgeoning financial potential of individual clubs.

And then there is the added revenue from the additional seats in the new plans, which brings us back to that second point. For years now, 20,000-seat stadiums were the MLS formula. Oh, they grew a bit in the primo markets, in L.A. and New York. But generally, 20,000 plus or minus has been the aiming point since Lamar Hunt built the country’s first major soccer stadium, his leap-of-faith effort in Columbus. Overall, a dozen MLS stadiums were built (or reconstructed) to that basic size standard.

So … is the new aiming point 25,000- to 28,000-seat facilities? Is the conversation shifting before our eyes?

And will more officials who oversee stadiums built in the 20,000-seat era start kicking the tires on expansion, the way Toronto FC just did?

The game just grows and grows, in all sorts of way. There is so much evidence of it, some of it manages to sneak past us.

2. The MLS All-Stars still to come

For now, let’s not get too hung up on some head-scratchers among the fans’ selection of MLS All-Star Game starters. Fan selections are always imperfect, which is why MLS All-Star team manager Pablo Mastroeni will play “handy man” and do some repair work with his own picks for the July 29 match outside Denver against England’s Tottenham Hotspur.

But Mastroeni is a busy guy, trying to the Colorado Rapids’ wheels on the road. So let’s help him out a bit, working as his “research and development” arm.  We won’t even invoice him for it!

The obvious names that Mastroeni will add to the list are Sebastian Giovinco and Kei Kamara. Giovinco is carrying a Toronto team that was missing its other two Designated Players, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. He is no-brainer choice as MVP at this point, and if he keeps it up, driving Toronto to its first playoff appearance, they might just rename BMO Stadium in his honor!

Kamara was starting to drift away from the pack as MLS leading scorer – until Giovinco nearly caught him with that showy hat trick Sunday at Yankee Stadium, where TFC split the points with Jason Kreis’ NYCFC in an absolute barnburner of a contest.

Kamara’s teammate and primary set-up man Columbus, Ethan Finlay, should also land on the team.

Tottenham’s defenders may be pricey and experienced, but that doesn’t mean they can match Fabian Castillo’s foot speed, so I would expect the Colombian dribbling dynamo to land on Mastroeni’s roster. 

A second goalkeeper behind fan selection Nick Rimando will be tough because there are several good choices. (Rimando, frankly, has been better in years past; but since he has, somehow, never been MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, it’s hard to begrudge this one.) DC United’s Bill Hamid would certainly be in the conversation if he had not just turned up injured. So, NYCFC’s Josh Saunders and Vancouver’s David Ousted.

3. Teams that don’t build around two solid CBs? Going nowhere fast

I keep writing how teams like NYCFC and Toronto FC do themselves no favors through such wild roster imbalance, by spending so much for attack-minded DPs when the back line personnel is so helplessly average on its best day. All the evidence you need was there in last week’s aforementioned 4-4 shootout.

Nor is New England going to get any better until it adds some central defensive depth; the club’s choice to gamble there is absolutely killing Jay Heaps’ bunch right now.

But a friend and a voice of reason reminds me: In NYCFC’s case, this is an expansion team! They cannot be, and should not be, expected to be excellent right away.  It’s a good point; NYCFC needs time to develop. And the club is trying, adding three defenders lately, including one announced Tuesday by the club.

So perhaps I just need to switch to decaf and chill a little bit on this one, where the club from the Bronx is considered, at least.

But New England (18th of 20 teams in goals against average) and Toronto (19th), you guys are still on the hook.

4. U.S. rarely wins “pretty” in CONCACAF Gold Cup

Jurgen Klinsmann and his team have reached the “money round” in CONCACAF Gold Cup. There are two ways to look at the national team’s performance in group play, which is probably best and most succinctly described as “just enough.”

While we all worry about a center back situation that continues to be unsettled, about Jozy Altidore’s underwhelming form (he’s been released back to Toronto) and about a “diamond” midfield shape that Jurgen Klinsmann seems determined to employ, this is worth remembering:

We have these same panicky conversations pretty much every Gold Cup. And we have the same Nervous Nellie concerns during pretty much every round of World Cup qualifying, too, repeatedly refusing to learn the lesson that CONCACAF matches are almost always back-alley slugfests, and that the United States just isn’t at regional giant level yet, not matter how much we all think they should be.

Specifically on the Gold Cup, let’s remember that:

– The United States barely tippy-toed past Guatemala at the Home Depot Center to open the 2007 Gold Cup. (On a Clint Dempsey goal; the guy’s been doing the serious business of rescuing his team for almost a decade now!)

– That the United States drew with unfashionable Haiti in the 2009 Gold Cup. (And needed a late, late Stu Holden goal just to do that!)

– That the United States beat teeny little Guadalupe by a 1-0 score and then actually lost (egad!) to Panama at the 2011 Gold Cup. 

So, please remove all hands from the panic button. At least for now.

But if they crash out of this weekend’s quarterfinals ….

5. The Little Five

5a. Related to the Orlando City item above: MLS average attendance has set records three of the last four years, thanks largely to the Seattle Sounders and that organization’s ongoing, exceptional crowd counts, which keep steadily ticking north. Well this year MLS average attendance is on pace to crush the old record; in this case, it’s about Orlando coming strong with that 34,000-plus average. Last year’s (record-setting) mark was 19,147 a game in MLS. Past the halfway pole this year, MLS matches average 20,993.

5b. If you look back over the last few years at the rather short list of attackers who land in the Top Five among goal scorers and assist men, the chances they soon hold an MVP in their hands is pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good. Robbie Keane, Dwayne De Rosario and Cristian Gomez are among the names to have done so. And … well … Sebastian Giovinco (now almost everyone’s mid-season choice for MVP) is second in scoring and fourth in assists. Just sayin’.

5c. Everybody would love for their home team to get a U.S. World Cup qualifier. (You do know they start this fall, right?) Beyond that, can we all agree that one should go to Sporting Park? That place was bonkers for Monday’s U.S. group play finale. Then again, it’s always bonkers for national team contests.

5d. Watching John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado struggle in tandem at times against Panama and Honduras reminded me: talented young center backs are always at their best when paired with an older, guiding hand. I always go back to how much Gregg Berhalter did alongside Omar Gonzalez to boost the emerging center back’s game. Brooks and Alvarado are both 22, now with just 21 caps combined.

5e. Sometimes I look at D.C. United and think they lead the Supporters Shield chase because they are the best grinders in MLS. And sometimes I think it’s as simple as this: they have Bill Hamid. Well, we might learn which one is closer to the truth over the next few weeks, as the terrific young shot stopper is out for a spell.


Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for World Soccer Talk and Fusion TV’s Soccergods, and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.