By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard
The 2013 MLS season came to a close on Saturday as Sporting KC hoisted their second MLS Cup in franchise history with a penalty shootout win over Real Salt Lake. It was the coldest MLS Cup ever played and the culmination of a fantastic rebranding by Sporting KC. Unfortunately a lot of people may not have been watching because the league is still not part of the fabric of North American sports culture.
An article in the Wall Street Journal this past week pointed out that despite Sporting KC being in and hosting the 2013 MLS Cup, there was not a lot of media coverage and most fans in the area would be watching the Missouri Tigers in the SEC title game which was on at the same time. Whether this still held water come game time remains to be seen but the lack of coverage outside of the soccer community speaks for itself.
So what is MLS to do?
A lot of soccer purists, and to some degree the league, wants to switch to the FIFA calendar which would put the season between August and May. Now outside of North America this works. In North America that is suicide.
The NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, College Football & Basketball all play during this time. The current league schedule ranges from March to December which in some people’s minds is still ludacris but it gives the league a fighting chance during to grab eyeballs during the summer months.
If MLS did go to the FIFA calendar the playoffs would presumably fall into April & May. The same time as the NBA and NHL playoffs not to mention the Masters, NFL Draft, Kentucky Derby and the start of the Major League Baseball season. So the consensus seems to be that there is no right answer. it’s a tough battle either way.
MLS also has to address the TV ratings issue. For as much support as you see at stadiums including the incredible turnout in Kansas City with the below freezing temperatures the ratings are not there as ESPN analyst and former league MVP Taylor Twellman has pointed out many times.
MLS cannot go head to head nationally with the NFL or major College Football games like the SEC Championship. The MLS Cup this year, when the smoke clears, would have been better served being played on Friday evening and here’s why:
-High School football would be winding down.
-The college football game or games would not be as anticipated as say the Big Ten or SEC title game on a Saturday
-The NBA & NHL are still early in the regular season.
The fact’s are that the MLS is not front and center in the North American sports consciousness. That could change over time but they league, the owners and the pundits cannot get wrapped up in their soccer silo and think that the rest of North America will come along for the ride.
Now a look back at our predictions made back at the start of the season:
5. New Coaches: There are 5 new head coaches roaming the sidelines in MLS this season and that now makes 12 former MLS players now managing clubs. Two of the biggest debuts square off in week one. Mike Petke of the New York Red Bulls and Caleb Porter for the Portland Timbers. Both teams have high expectations, a rabid fan base and a longing for MLS post season glory. Porter and Petke lived up to and exceeded expectations. While neither of them won the MLS Cup, Portland was the top team in the West and New York the top team in the East and winners of the Supporters Shield.
4. The Donovan Odyssey: US Soccer poster boy Landon Donovan has taken a leave of absence from soccer but is returning to the the 2-time defending MLS Cup Champions LA Galaxy at the end of March. Will he be the same player on and off the field? Can he lead, along with Robbie Keane, the Galaxy to a 3rd straight MLS Cup? Yes and no, but they did make the playoffs.
3. Can Toronto FC Make The Playoffs?: Only the Red Bulls have gone through more coaching changes than TFC. However, the Red Bulls have been in MLS for all 18 years (formerly known as the MetroStars) while TFC kicks off it’s 7th MLS season on Saturday. They have never made the playoffs and after another off season of sweeping changes it is left to 1st time coach Ryan Nelsen to get this team into the MLS playoffs for the 1st time. Nope & they did make major changes in the front office…again.
2. Running With The Red Bulls: The New York Red Bulls have arguably the most dangerous player in MLS in Thierry Henry. They’ve shaken up the coaching staff and the team but is it enough to get them their 1st MLS Cup? Maybe. If new signee Juninho can be half of what he was and the back-line and pull together then they may just be the team the beat. It’s a lot of ‘if’s’ but in the sports saturated New York market the Red Bulls have to win. Not just for the team but for the league. They won the MLS Supporters Shield. Their first major trophy in their history.
1. No Beckham? No Problem: The loss of one of the world’s sports and entertainment icons shouldn’t slow down MLS or the LA Galaxy. The Galaxy will get Donovan back after a few games and they still have the man who lead them all the way to the MLS Cup glory in Robbie Keane. The league on the other hand is entering it’s 18th season and is bringing in more and more top talent from around the world. There is only one David Beckham but the level of play, energy and popularity of the sport are growing and with all due respect to Becks, he probably couldn’t have taken the league any further. Who? Oh the guy with the discounted rate for a new franchise in Miami that will fail miserably…yeah we’re good but we appreciate all you do.