Unprecedented offseason hoopla, mostly linked to the monumental David Beckham signing, has Major League Soccer positioned to accelerate into the passing lane this year.
The process started a couple of weeks ago when the early risers began preseason training. As players and coaches begin prepping, here are five things the league has right and five it has wrong moving into a telling 2007 campaign:
1. The marketing bonanza the new SuperLiga tournament can provide has been well-documented. The league benefits through TV opportunities, enhanced Latino community awareness, etc. But here's something less noted: This tournament can also sharpen MLS clubs' collective competitive spirit.
Thanks to a forgiving playoff format -- eight of 13 teams qualify -- MLS action often lacks that rapid, competitive bite. Players (indeed, whole teams) can drift and coast a bit and not be truly punished. Dangling a $1 million purse and putting league pride in the balance will certainly help MLS players locate and ignite that extra competitive gear.
2. Major League Soccer attempted once before to establish Thursday as a "destination night." It was a good idea back in 1996, but too early along the timeline to truly gain traction. Still growing on spindly roots, MLS simply couldn't support the prime-time weight. Now, the league has a second bite off the Thursday night apple -- and you better believe a certain handsome midfielder from Los Angeles will land on quite a few of those weekly ESPN2 broadcasts.
3. While the likes of David Beckham and Claudio Reyna will certainly enhance league quality, MLS also will improve organically as more coaches and GMs grow through league channels.
This year, 11 of 13 coaches will have played in MLS or will have coached before for another club. An all-time high of seven actually passed and trapped in MLS. All these guys carry a greater understanding of what works and what doesn't work, and overall quality will rise consequently.
For instance, Toronto FC boss Mo Johnston, previously an MLS player and manager, may or may not work out. But if Johnston can't get it done at BMO Field, it won't be because he doesn't understand the unique vagaries of MLS.
4. Seven teams, more than half the MLS field, have grounds of their own in 2007. The importance of the stadium initiative has certainly been documented, yet it cannot be overstated. MLS would already be as dead as a box of hammers if not for bold stadium development. Renting doesn't work. Owning does. Period.
For the first time in league history, fewer than half of MLS clubs are slave to baseball or football scheduling whims. Now a majority will reap the significant windfalls of concessions, signage and parking, instead of handing it grudgingly to a landlord who probably doesn't enjoy putting up with soccer in the first place.
5. I keep hearing how the $2 million salary cap must be increased, and I just don't buy it. The league financial model is working adequately; markets with stadiums are beginning to see profit. Yes, it would be swell if players mired along the roster bottoms could make, say, $50,000 instead of $30,000. Otherwise, the "designated player" rule has effectively increased roster value and provided sufficient forward progress within a fiscally reasonable approach.
1. Although the stadium situation at Real Salt Lake now seems resolved, for a period the franchise hung in the balance. And in the bigger picture, the true pressure point here is connected to a darker side of the Beckham circus. Along with the spectacular publicity and enhanced awareness, the brighter spotlight will also illuminate every MLS scar and blemish. To wit: mainstream media will pounce more ferociously on anything that symbolizes traditional domestic soccer instability. And nothing says it like franchise flux.
2. Along the same lines, MLS needs to better police a couple of other areas that will suffer from greater exposure. This business of misrepresenting the number of people attending matches, for instance, will stand as a slow-moving target for critics. MLS reports "tickets distributed." But nobody gets fooled here. People see the stands. So do sponsors.
Yes, baseball and colleges are often guilty of the same thing. But the reality is, for whatever reason, soccer is held to a different standard and will subsequently suffer the darker black eye.
And gamesmanship in MLS is ripe for greater exposure, too. Players telling off referees. Coaches telling off referees. Players waving imaginary cards or wasting time by kicking away balls on restarts. Now would be a splendid time for MLS to eliminate those tiresome shenanigans.
3. Celtic may make the soccer purists swoon. But this year's All-Star opponent, the old-school-cool club from Scotland, simply isn't as sexy as Chelsea or Chivas. Then again, if MLS can make All-Star weekend a Beckham sneak preview, it won't matter. It's all Becks all the time for MLS this season. Suggested league motto for the year: "Beckham heaven in '07."
4. At the league level, MLS seems to comprehend the importance of connecting with Latino audiences. Hence, SuperLiga. But some clubs, for reasons unclear, lack the confidence or the will to aggressively pursue Hispanic customers. In some cases, club officials with plenty of seats available are simply negligent in paying enough attention, still overly engaged in the perpetual uphill chase of the soccer mom.
Selling in the Latino community is all about hustle and real community involvement. It's about knowing the market, not about complex marketing strategies, and it takes a zealous commitment.
5. The league has discussed individual match bonuses for winning teams as another method to elevate competitiveness and decrease the irrelevancy factor of the average MLS encounter. Yet here comes another season with no action on this matter.
Want to see some more real scrappin', some true helter-skelter at the end of 90 minutes as Colorado and Columbus finish some random Saturday night encounter? Flash an extra $200 before a few guys making $29,000, and see if they don't all want it a little more.
And here's something even the most informed MLS fan probably doesn't know: it wouldn't be unprecedented. Leonel Alvarez, for one, pocketed $250 for each victory in Dallas back in 1996 thanks to a perk in his contract.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.