Thursday, April 12, 2007

America The Beautiful?

Last night, as you may have noticed, I offered a certain degree of criticism of the current state of European football. You may have read it and thought, "Well, that's all very well, Chimpy, but what's your alternative? Hmm? Cricket?". Well, no. I'm not saying that we should give up on the European game. There is plenty of interest to be had across the continent, from the plight of Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, to the rapidly plummeting Fulham in the Premiership and the battle between Sevilla and Barcelona for La Liga. However, I have worried for some time that I don't know nearly enough about the league that could, in a few years' time, be challenging the Premiership as one of the most lucrative leagues in the world - Major League Soccer.

For the benefit of our American readers, I should point out that this is being written for the Brits amongst us, so apologies if it sounds like I'm teaching you to suck eggs. However, I know from first hand experience that we over here know shockingly little about the state of the game on the other side of the pond, so we need to begin at the very beginning.

The Roots: MLS came about as part of the package that allowed the USA to host the 1994 World Cup. Without a national league since the NASL imploded in the early 1980s, it was founded on the exact opposite principles of it's briefly successful but ultimately ill-starred predecessor. The League would be run as franchises, with the League owning all clubs. There would be an agreed budget cap that all teams would run to, and a college draft system (one of the fundamentals of the American sports system) that was run, by and large, equally. After a shaky start, the League has gained in popularity steadily over the last ten years or so, and was given a massive boost by the American performance at the 2002 World Cup. This close season saw a relaxation on the clubs' rigid wage structures, allowing the clubs to break their salary caps on one player. David Beckham was, of course, the highest profile player to pitch up there, but there have been other big signings, and the accent seems to have been placed upon bringing in experienced professional players. The league, however, has maintained a firm grip over the running of the franchises, in the hope of preventing a wage-inspired financial meltdown.

How Does It Work? Well, it's not like the European leagues. America has a different sporting culture into which football has to fit and is, of course, geographically a different beast to any European country (except, I guess, Russia). The league is split into thirteen teams in two conferences (Western and Eastern) - six in the west and seven in the east. It was six in each until this year, by the way, when Toronto FC were invited to join (with the full permission of the Canadian Soccer Association). The teams are as follows. In the Western Conference, you've got LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo. In the Eastern Conference are Toronto FC, Chicago Fire, Colombus Crew, DC United, Kansas City Wizards, New England Revolution and Red Bull New York. More on them later tonight and tomorrow.

What's The Season Structure? Each team plays everyone in both conferences twice, making up twenty-four matches. They then play every one in their own conference once more, meaning that teams in the west have played twenty-nine matches and the teams in the east have played thirty. Finally, the western teams play one more match against their local rivals to bring themselves up to thirty matches. Still with me? Good. The competition now turns into an eight-team knock-out tournament, with the top two teams from each conference, and the four remaining highest points scorers from either conference. The quarter-finals are played over two legs, and the semi-finals and the final are one-offs. Just to confuse matters even more, the quarter-finals are called Conference Semi-Finals, the semi-finals are called Conference Finals, and the final is called the MLS Cup. There are other nuances to it all, but my brain is hurting already.

Are The Match Rules Different To Anywhere Else? Well, they used to be, but not so much any more. They used to count down the clock with the match stopping the next time the ball went out of play once it went to zero, the infamous thirty-five yard shootouts if matches were drawn and a goalkeeper-only fourth substitute, but all of these have been removed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, gimmicks have not been the key to the league's success.

Does Anyone Actually Watch It? They certainly do. Average league crowds started at about 17,000 but dipped to just over 10,000 by the turn of the decade. However, they rose again after the 2002 World Cup and were back up to over 15,000 by the end of last season. They're expected to rise again this season. Crowds for the MLS Cup match have fluctuated wildly according to who's in the final, 61,000 saw the 2002 final between LA Galaxy and New England Revolution, and the average is a healthy enough 36,000. The broadcast rights are spread over several channels - ESPN/ABC, Univision (Spanish language), Fox Soccer and HDNet. The recently signed deal is worth $20m dollars per year for eight years. The season started last weekend, and finishes in November. Having had a quick look at the websites for Channel 4, Five and Sky Sports, I can't see anything about it being shown in the UK, but this may change once David Beckham heads to California next month.

Where Can I Find Out More? With the home of the internet still being the USA, it's hardly surprising to report that there are hundreds of websites and blogs devoted it to it. This blog is very good, though it does work from the premise that you already understand what on earth is going on, and We Call It Soccer is another well written blog. Follow the links from them and you should find more information than you could ever possibly need.

Later tonight, we'll have a look at the teams in the Eastern Conference. How rare!


colin said...

Five has been showing games for ages. Not live, though.

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