Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Futsal is fun! But getting a league started … Ooof!
We hear so much lately about two emerging soccer leagues. Pay attention here, because there are important lessons – and American soccer can never, ever afford to dismiss an important lesson. (Somewhere, Freddy Adu is nodding his head in assured agreement.)
(There is even a bonus to this lesson. This also offers an important reminder about Major League Soccer and its accomplishments in the face of highly stacked odds.)
One of these emerging soccer leagues isn’t exactly a soccer league. Rather, it is soccer’s close cousin futsal, the 5-a-side indoor version played on a court, with a slightly heavier ball. It’s a more technical game and a great teacher for its parent sport. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has gotten involved, which has given the fledgling Professional Futsal League a needed shot of PR adrenalin.
It really is a brilliant marketing move; a bunch of radio and TV guys who wouldn’t know a futsal ball from a coconut (not that they should) are suddenly talking about the 5-a-side game because it gives them a chance to interact with Cuban, among the current U.S. sports pacesetters. Cuban’s interest, certainly tied to the fact that longtime Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson is co-owner of the league, provides the operation with some valuable cachet and opens potential sponsor doors.
The PFL is unlikely to subtract any money, marketing opportunities, fans or TV slots from Major League Soccer, so it’s not “competition,” per se. Honestly, there’s plenty of competition already out there for dollars and attention in soccer here – or haven’t you noticed the array of games available for viewing each weekend from Mexico, England, Germany, etc.? There’s enough interest in the sport to go around.
So good luck to ‘em! More soccer, more fun, I say. That stated … it’ll be a tough haul. I tell people all the time: It is SO HARD to begin a professional sports league. Any professional sports league. Can we talk about the failed WUSA (spectacular overreach on that one). None of the lower tier U.S. soccer leagues have ever been pictures of stability. Everyone who knows anything of soccer’s history in States knows about the old NASL.
But it’s not just soccer. Football is king around here, but the XFL came and went, as did the USFL. There are plenty more. The point is, the economics of professional sports are tough, tough stuff. Establishing genuine history is a tough go. Playing as a tenant in someone else’s building, surviving without big TV money, gaining attention without an ample supply of big name stars – these are all high hurdles in the race to survival. So, good luck to the PFL; they’ll certainly need it.
The Chinese Super League is the other league of the moment. We talked briefly about it two weeks ago (Item No. 3 here). And now, sure enough, it seems to have snatched one of our own!
Keep reading …
2. Discussing the Chinese league and elements of “value”
Two MLS clubs suffered difficult losses over the weekend: Obafemi Martins has apparently cashed out to play in China, and; some of the Chicago Fire’s very heart and soul was surgically sliced away when homegrown hero Harry Shipp, shockingly, was traded to Montreal.
So, which was the bigger loss? Careful here, because it may not be as clear cut as it seems. The answer is all wrapped up in the vagaries of “value,” and in the long-term vs. short-term elements of building a club.
These two weren’t similar player in accomplishment and ability. Martins, a Nigerian international, was wonderfully productive in three MLS seasons: 40 goals and 23 assists in 72 MLS matches. He may be the best player to wear rave green since the club joined MLS.
Shipp’s resume with the Fire was nothing close to that. Heck, the 24-year-old from the Chicago ‘burbs was just two years removed from his college days at Notre Dame. But his value was less tangible.
See, more and more, MLS teams have actual identities, and players like Shipp are helping to form them. No, Chicago doesn’t have much of an identity thanks to front office that’s been all over the place in its selection of coaches and high profile players through the years. Shipp, at very least, gave the organization some kind of community anchor, which helped soften the blow of the frustrating lack of identity elsewhere.
We can argue about the value of Shipp’s talent and his production, although that argument would be all tangled up in issues like his usage (mostly outside last year rather than his more natural, central comfort zone) and playing style (not much of one, really, under former coach Frank Yallop). But we can hardly argue over his emotional ties to the club, which clearly went both ways. That kind of pure, complete player-fan connection cannot be underestimated.
Martins’ value was on the field as an ideal complement to Clint Dempsey, more of a “banger” than his native Texas teammate but also able to combine in some wonderfully inventive “street style” ways. On the other hand, somehow, you never quite got the feeling he was “all-in” for Seattle Sounders FC. He was so talented that it probably didn’t matter – until the day it did matter, at least.
Yes, Martins’ loss is the bigger one here – but not by as much as you think.
If you’re talking about the larger issues of loyalty, club identity and forming those lasting, hard-to-value bonds with the community … well, losing a beloved presence like Shipp is simply impossible to quantify.
3. Beckham taking the Qatari bucks, and what it tells us
If you are a member of the unofficial MLS expansion planning committee – and let’s face it, pretty much everyone who bleeds an MLS color has an opinion on expansion – pay attention to what is happening in Miami.
The story broke last week that David Beckham’s would-be expansion team in Miami is close to getting some serious financial backing out of Qatar. Qatar Sports Investment, with which Beckham has history and ongoing business ties, would become a co-owner.
So why would Beckham, whose personal value is estimated at a hefty $650 million, even need a majority partner? Especially as he already has several co-owners. And especially when he bought into MLS at that discounted, $25 million price?
Well, “Ding, Ding, Ding!” There’s the lesson.
Getting into the MLS game is a rich, rich, rich man’s game.
Stadiums in MLS start at $100 million for something fairly bare bones; that was the cost for newly opened Avaya Stadium. Safe to say, Brand Beckham would wrinkle its regal nose with anything “bare bones.” Plus, Avaya was built on inexpensive land across from the San Jose airport. Safe to say that every urban site Beckham’s group has explored on their long and winding road to stadium construction comes at substantially higher costs.
So, take the stadium construction costs, then start adding the significant outlay for a practice facility, player salaries, front office salaries, coaches, etc., and you can see that $650 million starts looking a little puny. Plus, how much of that “value” is actually liquid? Impossible to say unless you are one of Beckham’s accountants, but probably not $300-400 million of it.
MLS ownership isn’t for the rich. Rather, it’s for the ridiculously rich, the men and women out there who have so much dough they barely know what to do with it. Stan Kroenke, Paul Allen, Philip Anschutz, Robert Kraft … you know, that kind of rich.
Or you go the LAFC route, and you gather up enough rich guys and gals to field a full roster. Either way, keep it in mind when talking about expansion possibilities. Job one: skip the “rich” list and find someone on the “rich, rich, rich” list.
4. A two-way win from Dallas, Vancouver
Dallas comes out a smidge ahead because they traded a player that they, essentially, no longer had. (Perez was out of contract and out of the FCD picture, but Dallas retained his MLS rights.) Rosales was always a quality man on the field, adept and dangerous as a winger or central playmaker, when he could stay on the field. He was injury prone in his days at Seattle, Chivas USA and Vancouver. Now 34, he’s not likely to be any less brittle.
Then again, he doesn’t need to be. Rather, he’ll provide a quality back-up to fellow Argentine playmaker Mauro Diaz. Between three competitions, Dallas will plow through 40-45 matches this year. You’d think they would be thrilled to get 30 or so starts from Diaz (he made 33 starts in 2014 and 2015 combined) and then have Rosales start 10-12 times. Plus (and this is potentially a huge plus) the mercurial, shy Diaz gets some additional tutelage from a stable mentor and older, fellow countryman.
Perez, who turns 35 in less than a month, went from May to November of 2015 without a goal. Yes, he did a lot in clearing defensive set pieces and defending from the front in the run of play, but when a striker doesn’t strike, it takes a big bite from his bottom line. Still, Perez is well-liked by teammates and his signature competitive spirit was never diminished. In a substitute’s role, the longtime Panamanian scoring hero can easily squeeze one more year from his distinguished career.
5. The Little Five
5a. Going back to Shipp: doesn’t it seem like there’s still some hard-to-kill resistance in trusting Americans to those critical central midfield positions? (Remember, he was pushed out wide in deference to Scot Shaun Maloney, who lasted in MLS about as long as a really good pastrami sandwich.) This aversion is being gradually chipped away. Just look around MLS in 2015: Dax McCarty at New York, Victor Ulloa and Kellyn Acosta in Dallas, Perry Kitchen at D.C. United, Will Trapp in Columbus, Benny Feilhaber in Kansas City as well as U.S. internationals like Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley are a few of the examples. Still, it always feels like American players have to do a little more to win those central spots.
5b. One last, quick word on the Shipp trade: Fans are likely to be in a forgiving mood with the Fire’s new deciders, relatively new general manager Nelson Rodriguez and newer still head coach Veljko Paunovic. But they have really walked out on the limb here, and if they can’t pull a quick turnaround on the Ws and Ls (see: the Red Bulls magic act in 2015) the fuse of public discontent is likely to be perilously short. It’s a bold call from Paunovic, who admitted that shipping Shipp was a wrenching decision. He can afford to be wrong here and there … just not on this one.
5c. Man, current MLS managers just cannot catch a break! The list of qualified and highly desirable candidates just keeps growing. Not only is Jason Kreis out there, waiting for his next opportunity, now this: Guillermo Barros Schelotto has left Palermo due to some oddball administrative hangup.
5d. I cannot understand any blowback or irritation against “celebrity owners” in MLS like Will Ferrell. How can attention for MLS (in places where they might not usually talk about MLS) possibly be a bad thing? That is precisely how you build greater cultural relevance – and how you broaden the critical circle of interest.
5e. Listen to Everton manager Roberto Martinez, speaking about Tim Howard, who has lost his longtime hold on the starting spot at Goodison Park: “We will have to take a bit of time to consider his best moments and what he has done for this club. We should appreciate that and give him that warmth between now and the end of the season. I think it’s important that Tim doesn’t feel that all his good work has been forgotten.” Does that sound like Howard will be at Everton past this summer?
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for World Soccer Talk 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.