Monday, April 27, 2015

Major League Soccer Needs Me, but They Can’t Have Me Yet

Soccer is popular in the United States. Major League Soccer is not. This is a problem.

I am the fan that MLS needs to thrive. I watch too much sports. I spend too much money on tickets. I love watching soccer. I hate when Liverpool’s season goes to hell. I love when working from home coincides with the Champions League. I cannot be bothered with MLS because it’s an inferior product. Why watch the minors when the majors are on?

mls sucks
Soccer cannot reach its potential here without the casual fan that ignores MLS. From the 20+ million who watched the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup to the 2 million that watched last year’s Champions League final to the 1+ million that routinely watch big Premier League matches on NBC and NBCSN, we know that casual fan exists.

Major League Soccer lags way behind. In 2014, the MLS Cup did not crack 1 million viewers on ESPN, though that was better than the mere 500k the country’s biggest domestic game did in 2013. This year, a move to Fox Sports 1 has not helped – a Real Salt Lake/Toronto FC match drew only 211,000 viewers on a Sunday night.

There are hotbeds of support for MLS. If you’re reading this in Seattle or Portland, you have a different view of the league than I do in Washington, D.C., where the team plays in an old football stadium that is literally crumbling. Still, the fundamental hurdle for MLS is the stubborn insistence is overlaying American-style sporting economics on a game that is ill-suited to serve it.

I was introduced to the league’s inability to truly grow the game in 2007 when I broke the story that a group in Hartford was denied an MLS team because Bob Kraft claimed Hartford as his territory.

Let’s be clear: Hartford is/was a perfect target for MLS expansion. Rentschler Field, opened in 2003, is an excellent soccer venue. It has hosted several U.S. men’s and women’s national team games, most notably Landon Donovan’s last USMNT game. It seats 40,000. Connecticut is a soccer-mad state – my high school won state titles in both boys and girls soccer when I was there yet didn’t even have a football team. Hartford is starving for pro sports, as you know when you hear a “Let’s Go Whalers!” chant break out during UConn games.

Regardless, Kraft blocked it by using language right out of the NFL manual – “my territory.” Hartford is 90 minutes from Boston. Kraft has his soccer team playing in an NFL stadium in front of 60,000 seats every time out.

This is where MLS is stunting the growth of American soccer. The owners – many of whom also own NFL teams or other pro teams – are borrowing from a playbook they can’t run yet. The stadium fiascoes in Minneapolis, Miami and here in DC are the most prominent examples.

But it goes beyond owners attempting a cash grab by overvaluing its product. The product, quite frankly, sucks.

Steven Gerrard coming to the LA Galaxy next year continues a legacy of older European stars coming to MLS to cash easy checks. Beckham was the first, but there will be more – Cristiano Ronaldo is rumored to be on his way in 2018. Acting a senior tour for older stars is not the way to build the league.

Even when American stars return, it is done through a secret process that no one understands. Sure, it’s great that Dempsey and Jones and Bradley are in MLS but it is way better for the U.S. Men’s National Team that DeAndre Yedlin is playing for Tottenham. Why do you think J├╝rgen Klinsmann has been so adamantly opposed to national team stars playing here?

In MLS, the salaries for the rank and file are a joke. How can the media say that MLS is a legit goal for young American players when so many make the same salary – less than $50,000 – as a newspaper reporter? Newspaper reporter is the worst job in America, by the way.

The Designated Player Rule, which exists only to save owner’s money, essentially prevents from the league’s overall talent level to rise or for dynasties to emerge. America needs its power clubs. Where would MLB be without the Yankees? The NFL without the Dallas Cowboys? College football without Alabama or Notre Dame?

Let’s look at Seattle – if they are successful enough to draw twice as much as anyone else in the league, they should be able to spend twice as much. Instead, MLS has a salary cap borrowed from the NFL with a fraction of the revenue.

We have to address the league’s setup, which eschews common sense and has 60 percent of the league making the playoffs. What’s even the point of watching the regular season? I guess that helps explain why no one does.

Did you know the Montreal Impact was playing the CONCACAF Champions League final last week? Doubtful, since it was on Fox Sports 2. Did you know the U.S. Open Cup is the American equivalent of the FA Cup? Doubtful, since the latter is on Fox proper and the former is never acknowledged by MLS.

These are issues that don’t need to exist. Pay the players. Pay players in their prime big money to play here. Promote the Champions League. Promote teams fighting to qualify for the Champions League. Promote the U.S. Open Cup. Make the regular season mean something.

Much of what I just wrote has been boiled down to a single issue facing American soccer: the lack of promotion/relegation. It’s too easy to say that would fix everything but it would clearly and obviously do something to change the staid culture of club football here. The growth of soccer has led to clubs with rabid support popping up in cities like Indianapolis and Jacksonville. They deserve a chance to play top-level soccer.

Think – would the Green Bay Packers exist if the NFL was doling out franchises today? Of course not. But could you imagine an NFL without the Green Bay Packers? Of course not!

Nothing will change because MLS has convinced the soccer media that the status quo is working, though the league has never made money. This attitude permeates throughout, particularly on the issue of promotion/relegation. It leads to this tweet, which properly sums up why MLS will always be minor league:

Can’t you feel the arrogance dripping from that tweet? It is this type of “love it or leave it” attitude that hurts MLS. They expect American soccer fans to blindly support the domestic league out of an obligation. That’s not how things work in this country. You have to earn our fandom, you have to earn our money and you have to earn our appreciation.

I do watch the Premier League. And it’s a really, really big loss for American soccer because I’m not the only one. Until that changes, our domestic league will never be the major league our country
deserves.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

UConn Desperately Needs to Win Football Games in 2015

No team in college football needs to win games in 2015 as much as UConn. Without hyperbole, the entire athletic department rests in the hands of an outfit that has eked out a mere five wins in two years.

In 2004, myself, my father and four of my friends purchased UConn football season tickets. Game after game, year after year, for close to a decade. Then Randy Edsall left. Then Paul Pasqualoni took a blowtorch to the program. Now, that season ticket number has dwindled to three.

Believe that my friends are not the only people that have jumped off the UConn football ship. I have repeated over and over that Paul Pasqualoni’s hire was the worst in recent college football history. In 2010, UConn played in the Fiesta Bowl and in front of routinely sold-out home crowds. By 2014, UConn was one of the worst teams in the sport and no one showed up to the games.

Last spring, there was a wave of optimism thanks to Bob Diaco’s hire and that the program had finally been freed from Pasqualoni. But no one could have anticipated just how deeply the program had been gutted. By October, it became painfully clear that UConn lacked the talent and depth to win games – their goal appeared to try to merely compete. They didn’t compete in many games.

bob diaco 2015
This spring, there is only worrying uncertainty. To Diaco’s credit, he has moved past the
“regime change” phase of his head coaching career and the talk has focused mainly on football. That is good. The problem is that you can’t restock a football roster overnight like John Calipari can. It takes multiple recruiting classes. It takes work. It takes buy-in from players. It takes support from fans.

It takes time. UConn does not have time.

UConn is an elite athletic program in every sport except for the only sport that actually matters. Basketball, soccer, softball, baseball, even hockey – you name it and UConn is competitive at the absolute highest level. In football? From the helmets to the losses, UConn has become a national punchline.

On paper, it looks like UConn is in for another extremely long year. Their first four road games are against Missouri, BYU, UCF and Cincinnati – four teams that have been in or near the Top 25 for the past two years. UConn hasn’t sniffed the Top 25 for five years.

The worst thing about the disastrous 2014 season for UConn was the lack of any signs of life. Usually when a new coach comes in, there is at least something you can hang your hat on as a fan and say, “Yeah, next year, that’ll do.”

For UConn, their best performance of the season – by miles – came early at home against a Boise State team that would eventually win the Fiesta Bowl. The game was a one-possession game going into the fourth quarter and hope sprung eternal. That was the last time hope made an appearance at Rentschler Field last season.

By the time they face planted in a pathetic season-ending loss to SMU, everyone was gone. That’s not hyperbole – I believe the Rent was completely void of fans. My father – God bless that stubborn man – stayed to the end of multiple blowouts last year. But in the cold December rain, he couldn’t do it. He had to leave.

The current state of UConn football is so damn depressing. Not that it was ever Alabama but they made four bowl games in a row, they played in big games, they beat Notre Dame and they played on New Year’s Day. Rutgers has never played on New Year’s Day. Syracuse hasn’t in over 15 years. Pitt, Boston College and Louisville have done so only once in the past 25 years. Those schools all found lifelines in power conferences while UConn plays Temple on Thanksgiving weekend.

At this point, UConn football feels like a Sigma Chi bro entering his seventh year at school – we’re here talking about the good ol’ days while everyone got on with their lives.

This year might be a make or break season for UConn football. Let’s be realistic – if UConn continues losing, the ACC or Big Ten is never, ever calling.

For all the shade UConn fans love to throw at Rutgers, they’ve made a bowl game nine times in the past decade. I understand that making a bowl game is an incredibly low bar to hurdle in today’s environment, but UConn has missed four in a row and was eliminated from contention in mid-season for two straight years.
Here’s all that matters moving forward – UConn needs to win football games. Winning cures
everything. It’s been too long since UConn football fans experienced that.

I guarantee you, if the wins return, so will the fans. And they will bring the energy back to the Rent. And that will encourage potential recruits. And that will show the ACC and/or Big Ten that UConn is a fully functioning football program. And that will change everything.

It all starts with winning. I don’t know how it’s going to happen but Bob Diaco needs to figure out how to win six games this year.

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