A Wrap on MLS 2013 & Where The League Goes From Here

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.

MLS CUP 2013

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.

SKC FANS

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. 

1No 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. 

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Playoffs

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

The race for the MLS Cup kicks into high gear Wednesday night when Colorado visits Seattle. The post season is exciting when it comes to any sport or league but this years MLS Cup playoffs have a lot of big questions to answer.

In the black for the Red Bulls?

The NY Red Bulls pulled in their very first trophy in franchise history with the Supporters Shield. One would believe that this would make them an odds on favorite to take home MLS Cup. It could very well happen with the team they have but this is also a club that has continued to not live up to expectations over their tenure in MLS. Until they hoist the cup above their heads there will always be doubt.

Timber!!!!!!

Portland finished the regular season with a record setting 5 losses over 34 games. Impressive stuff considering what this team looked like last season. Can Caleb Porter and his “Porter-ball” excel in the playoff format or will their legs be too tired from the long hard road which is the MLS regular season. Their first opponent could be their arch rival Seattle. Now that is TV worth watching.

3 Peat?

Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane are a higher seed then they were entering last years playoffs however they have to square off against Real Salt Lake to start off. RSL is probably the most dangerous team in the playoffs. But LA has the experience and the expectation of winning. Three peats are hard to do, even in LA, and LA has it’s work cut out for them.

Old Timers and First Timers

Montreal is an older team. Houston is a veteran club. New England is a young team. Sporting KC is a well rounded team. Montreal v Houston and NE v SKC are two of your first three games. Anyone of these teams could get hot and runaway with the Cup however each team has some big weaknesses like Montreal’s age, Houston’s lack of success against New York, New England’s youth and SKC’s ability to not be dominate at home this season.

The playoffs are here and regardless of your loyalty this should be something worth watching.

5 Things To Watch For This MLS Season

 

 

MLS 2013

 

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

A new MLS season is kicking off in North America. With any new season in any sport there are a lot of question marks. Below are our Top 5 things to look out for during this 18th MLS 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.                                                                                                  

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?

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.

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.

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.

MLS’s Bigger Problem

The LA Galaxy won their fourth MLS Cup this past weekend in what will be David Beckham’s final game with the team and possibly with MLS. While this is a very big deal, not just for the league but also for the team, the possible loss of America’s best player, Landon Donovan looms as an even bigger loss.

DONOVAN

Donovan has now won five MLS Cups. He is the all time leading goal scorer for the US National team and is the unequivocal face of American soccer. Now he may have played his last game ever at the age of 30. If Donovan decides to call it a career it will not only be a loss for the Galaxy but also for MLS, the national team and for American soccer as a whole.

Years ago Donovan turned down the part-time (but well paying work) of playing for a European club to play in MLS and in particular for the Galaxy. It was a great coup for MLS having America’s best player choose to play at home and help build the league. He hasn’t disappointed. He even has the best selling MLS jersey for an American and third most popular behind Beckham and New York’s Thierry Henry.

Donovan’s departure from soccer would be an unexpected blow to the growth of soccer in American. While there are several possible replacements none have reached his level of success and those who have come chose play overseas.

If you look at the Galaxy in particular his lost would be bigger then the loss of Beckham. While Beckham is a brand name that reaches beyond soccer, sports, and into pop culture, Donovan provides so much more on the pitch. His ability to score, set up teammates, stretch the defense makes him a player you always have to account for. The minute you don’t, well you can just look for the ball in the back of the net. 

The Galaxy, MLS and the US National team have some interesting times in front of them. They want him back but at what point do you reach out to him. Too soon and you might drive him further away. Too late and you may never be able to get him back. The timing has to be just right. We should all hope they reach him at just the right time.

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Trouble up North

Major League Soccer has been able to do something that several other major North American sports leagues have not been able to do with any success and that is break into the Canadian market. It doesn’t sound sexy and probably should be much simpler than it is however the MLS has been able to place franchises in three of the major Canadian markets (Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal). These clubs have been successful in just about all aspects of the business except for the most visibile one which is success on the pitch.

One of the reasons for the lack of success on the pitch is the amount of coaching changes these clubs have had. Toronto FC was the first Canadian club in MLS. Since coming into the league in 2007 they have had seven head coaches. Vancouver Whitecaps FC were the second club to break into the MLS. They came into the league last year and are already on their third coach and the Montreal Impact just finished their inaugural season and have already parted ways with the fairly successful rookie head coach Jesse Marsch.

That’s a total of eleven head coaches in six MLS seasons and a grand total of one playoff appearance between the three clubs.

Why can’t these clubs find a way to win? There have been several notable players to come through their ranks including Dwayne DeRosario, Maurice Edu, and Jay Demerit. All three are in great cities and all play in new facilites with great fan support.

This would lead to a look at ownership. Toronto FC is run by the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment group (MLSE) which also runs the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Neither of these franchises made the playoffs since the Raptors did it in 2008. Toronto FC has yet to make a playoff appearance in 6 seasons. While management has come out said anything short of a playoff appearance is a failure they have yet to show the leadership to get the club there.

Vancouver has an ownership consisting of NBA All Star Steve Nash. They have made the lone playoff appearance for the Canadian clubs. While they did change head coaches they did take a chance and bring their head coach, Teitur Thordarson from their USL and USSF days over to try is hand in the MLS. He failed. They have now brought in Martin Rennie who is considered to be one of the best young coaches in all of MLS.

Montreal has been run by Saputo family which brought the team over from the USL and USSF where they had a lot of success. They have parted ways with their head coach Jesse Marsch after just one season. Apparently Marsch and management could not agree on a plan forward for the club.

If any club wants to be successful in MLS they have to look at the clubs at the top. There is a certain level of stability. Three of the four remaining playoff teams have a head coach who has been there for four years or more.  The one exclusion is DC United whose head man is Ben Olsen. He played his entire MLS career with DC and has been the man in charge for about a season and a half. All of the head coaches have either won MLS Cup as a coach or as a player.

There is also confidence with these clubs. They know what it takes to win and more importantly expect to win. The Canadian clubs don’t have that confidence. For as much  support as they get and for how successful they are off the pitch, they have yet to understand what it takes to win in MLS. They need a vision, stability and faith. Once they get these three things lined up they will be able to have success on the pitch.