MLS: Still not sturdy enough to wish for another team’s demise

I often like to visit the visiting fans’ section at RFK Stadium. For one thing, it gets me out of the press sauna and out in the stands where the breezes offer some relief.

We're not superior -- RFK management just put us in the upper deck. Like the Open Cup replica?

It’s especially interesting when you have fervent fans who travel a great distance to see the recent expansion teams. They often offer insights on their teams’ successes and needs that you won’t get elsewhere. Tonight’s conversation with a Seattle supporter was no exception. Among the ground covered:

– If Adrian Hanauer were to stand today for re-election under the much-hyped promise to let fans retain or push out the GM, he’d have little trouble keeping his job. The Sounders aren’t matching last year’s results, but the good run last year didn’t give everyone unrealistic expectations.

– Freddie Ljungberg served the Sounders well in their first year, and there’s a certain amount of pride that the team’s medical staff fixed him up. But if it’s time for him to go elsewhere, so be it. The younger players could use more playing time, and the team can splurge on an even bigger designated player.

– Coach Sigi Schmid might be sticking with his old favorites (Peter Vagenas leaped to mind) a little too much.

– Players and fans need to get over their dislike of FieldTurf. World Cup qualifiers should be played at Qwest Field.

– The Seattle atmosphere is an awesome manifestation of civic pride.

And with that, he looked down (literally — visiting fans are in the upper deck) upon an unfilled lower bowl at RFK Stadium. He seemed surprised to learn that United fans, not too long ago, had filled that lower bowl on a regular basis. (Weeknights in traffic-choked, workaholic D.C. will always be tough, though.)

Yes, I worked in a plug for my book to fill in any gaps in MLS history knowledge.

One suggestion of his threw me a little. Rather than expand to new cities, he said, MLS should just move teams that aren’t drawing well.

Coincidentally, when I left and waited for ages to get through D.C.’s decrepit Metro system (possibly a factor in United’s attendance drop?), I saw a Tweet from a Red Bulls loyalist reveling in United’s defeat and laughing that the team may soon move to Baltimore. (He told me later he was kidding, though he wonders how long they can stay in equally decrepit RFK Stadium.)

If you’re a Seattle fan, should you be hoping that teams at the bottom of the MLS attendance ladder move to new cities?

If you’re a Red Bulls fan, should you be rooting for D.C. United to move to Baltimore?

Going back a ways — if you’re a Los Angeles fan, should you have cheered when the San Jose Earthquakes picked up and moved to Houston?

Out of respect to the good fans here, let me say this as delicately and politely as possible:

No. You should not be rooting and cheering for these teams to move.

This is a hopefully respectable blog from an allegedly professional journalist, not a post in BigSoccer’s rivalries forum, so I’ll explain why:

MLS is doing well. Really. Investors wouldn’t be putting down tens of millions of dollars if it wasn’t. Expansion teams wouldn’t be selling out if it wasn’t. Thierry Henry may still have signed with New York — Lothar Matthaeus did, after all — but his signing is still another vote of confidence in the league from the player and the organization that will issue his paychecks.

Yet the league’s progress can still be undercut. This isn’t 2001, when the league was in legitimate danger of folding. But all the things MLS fans want — better quality of play, better facilities, at least an occasional win in the CONCACAF Champions League — are far less likely to come about if MLS gives up the stability on which it was built and nurtured.

MLS also has no guarantee that a return to a jilted market will be successful. San Jose, the only test case so far, is making slow progress. Tampa Bay and Miami are long gone, leaving D.C. United as the southernmost team on the Atlantic coast.

That lack of a national footprint is costly because MLS’s advantage over the Premier League, La Liga, Mexican games and other TV competition is in having live, meaningful games. Even in the HD era at your favorite pub, the TV atmosphere can’t compete with the live atmosphere. And the more people see players in the flesh, the closer the bond.

So MLS already is going without that advantage from the Carolinas down through Georgia (for geographically impaired, that includes Atlanta) to Florida. Fans don’t see MLS teams. D.C. United and Manchester United are just teams on TV for a large chunk of the country.

And we can’t forget the traditionalist — or “Eurosnob” if you’re feeling ornery — is someone who screams bloody murder when an English club moves a couple of miles. Shuffling teams to different cities would make it that much harder for MLS to continue its work winning over these fans.

(No, I’m not getting into promotion/relegation here, since it’s established among anyone who reasonably follows the sport that this country isn’t ready for it in terms of facilities and investment money.)

Besides, any club that has been in this league more than a couple of years has had good times and bad. New York is hardly a fan base that should crow about stadium progress, being the home of the “60- to 90-day” pledge. Plenty of teams have had ebbs and flows in attendance.

Through MLS history, D.C. United has done a lot of things absolutely right. The early championship teams were built on an attractive style with players from South and Central America alongside similarly skilled Americans. The front office encourages its supporters groups without forgoing the youth market. The Academy system is strong, producing two outstanding prospects currently on the senior roster.

So if attendance can sag at D.C. United, are you sure it can’t happen to your club?

6 thoughts on “MLS: Still not sturdy enough to wish for another team’s demise

  1. Read the post, and couldn’t agree anymore with you. As a DCU fan, my guess for lower attendances could me the economy downturn, but also the poor record the United have displayed this season.

  2. I think that moving Chivas USA would be an interesting experiment. Of course, I run a fan blog for the Galaxy, but I think that they are now in their 5th year of spectacularly crapuscular attendance, they have yet to establish much of a team identity outside of being Chivas, Jr., and their team on the field is going through one of the most painful rebuildings I’ve ever seen.

    I wonder if maybe they might do better in someplace like San Diego. With a move they can legitimately re-brand, and they can tap into the savvy futbol fan base in SD. Their on-field identity will still be in flux and they won’t have a ready-made SSS. On the other hand, this would give Veraga the chance to have his own SSS in his own territory.

    And maybe it will stop one of the Chivas USA fan groups from skipping CUSA games in favor of a friendlies featuring CD Guadelajara.

    In Oakland.

  3. @NathanHJ — if you’re going to move Chivas, don’t use attendance as a reason. For the past two years, they’ve had 5-6 teams worse than them. While they’re not the Galaxy, I expect they’re doing fine.

    Now, if you want MLS to have a larger footprint, and San Diego or Riverside can lure them, then fine. But don’t use the attendance argument. They are far from craptacular. Reserve that term for FCD.

  4. I was accused of being “sentimental” about all this on Twitter, where a couple of people insisted on denying me the page views by discussing this in 140-character blasts instead. (I kid, I kid.) But as far as Chivas USA goes, sentimentality might be the only argument to keep them in LA … ******IF ****** there’s a viable stadium option elsewhere.

    If they moved down the road to San Diego, that’s far less of a loss for the league than pushing D.C. United up to Baltimore or moving Dallas.

    But the Goats are doing OK in LA, so it’s not a big issue.

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