Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Most Astonishing Month in US Soccer History.

Since you are reading this, I'll assume you are not media challenged, and have regular access to news sources. Ergo, it seems safe to assume you may have seen a rash of publicity about various soccer contests, or perhaps you are among the hundreds of thousands of spectators who attended international or national team games in the US this month, or pehaps you are among the millions in this country who witnessed these contests on television.

Most of this soccer enthusiasm is a result of two tournaments happening almost simultaneously around the country -- The CONCACAF Gold Cup, a regional title of little significance (not to be confused with CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying), and the World Football Challenge (WFC).

CONCACAF is an acronym for the region of North and Central America nations as designated by soccer's international governing body (FIFA). The World Football Challenge is an inflated title given to a "friendly"tournament among four prominent foreign teams touring the US as part of their preseason schedules.

As a tune-up to the WFC, Chelsea FC played a friendly on July 18 against the Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion team Seattle Sounders in front of more than 65,000 spectators. In addition, Chelsea FC who won the WFC played four matches before a combined attendance of 275,000 people ( an average of 68,700).

When playing each other, the remaining WFC participants: Club America (Mexico), AC Milan and Inter Milan (both of Italy) drew impressive numbers for their matches.

The Gold Cup showcased 12 teams playing in pool play through four groups with the winners advancing to a "knock out" round. The "knock out" round featured teams from Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, and the USA. Only Costa Rica used a team comprised of its best players. The US and Mexico excluded most of their best players from their rosters and fielded teams comprised of players with limited national team experience. Essentially, they competed with players trying to earn an opportunity to make the team.

Despite using largely unknown players, the semi-final games played as a double-header in Chicago, drew impressive crowds. To be clear, the reported attendance at game time for the US v. Honduras was 20,000. The second game of the evening between Costa Rica and Mexico had an announced crowd of over 55,000. While far from "near sellout" of Soldier Field as announced by the promoters, this was an impressive turnout driven largely by the huge Mexican population in Chicago and the Midwest. Note that the first game, with the host nation, drew less than half the evenings attendance.

The Gold Cup Championship game was played at Giants Stadium and sold out with over 82,000 spectators. Again, Mexico's participation was a key factor in this turnout. The outcome of the game, a 5-0 humbling of the US by Mexico, two teams usually well matched, is an indication of how lightly the US took this competition.

In the two tournaments, with four world famous club teams, playing the first games of their preseason training schedules, and a number of North and Central America nations playing less than their best players, drew very impressive numbers.

So what does this mean for soccer in this country? Hard to say.

This past week, MLS announced its attendance is down about 7% from last year, and this includes the spectacular numbers from the previously mentioned expansion team, Seattle Sounders who are averaging over 30,000 spectators per game. Take the Sounders out of the equation and MLS reported attendance is down double digits. This is especially troubling when you factor in the numerous media reports over time that MLS tends to inflate the attendance figures it reports.

MLS blames much of its decline on the economy. If that's true, some equal measure of the success of the two tournaments might also be attributable to the economy in that fewer people are taking vacations and attending these tournaments was a form of "staycations."

I suspect the tremendous numbers in attendance associated with these two tournaments is due largely to reputations of the international clubs and national teams who participated and is a trend toward visiting teams of fame, and will not translate into increased attendance for US leagues.

As an example, a week before the Seattle v. Chelsea game, the Sounders played Houston in a MLS league game that drew more than 32,000 people (about Seattle's season average). However, three days after the Chelsea game, Seattle played the same Houston team again in a U.S. Open Cup game that drew fewer than 5000 spectators.

The fledgling Women's Professional Soccer League (WPS) announces crowds somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 spectators per match and as the season progresses, the numbers are getting worse, not better. WPS did a good job of sprinkling many of the best women players in the world and the US among its teams. It also put together a solid business plan, and works hard at forming relationships in the community. However, the caliber of play still leaves a great deal to be desired. They may be some of the best women players in the world, but they are not yet the best teams in the world.

What this says to me is, with the exception of a few superstars like David Beckham, the soccer paying public makes its decisions based on the reputation of the team, an opportunity to see foreign national team, and the anticipated caliber of play. As I was the first to predict in a national print publication, seeing David Beckham was a novelty that wore off after one or two times, and did not translate into improved attendance for anyone when he wasn't scheduled to appear.

With the proliferation of national and international competitions coming to this country, and the ever increasing television coverage of games from the overseas professional leagues, the US spectator is becoming more knowledgeable about the game, and more discerning. This could be a double edge sword for leagues in this country. By comparison, the US professional game in general still falls far short in terms of skill, and caliber of play of that of the best men's team in the world. Given the chance to occasionally see two world-class teams play is something Americans will pay to see, but that doesn't mean they will pay to see just anyone play.

Yes, Americans will pay to see the top six teams of England's Premiere League play from time to time, but who wants to see teams at the bottom of that table, or some second division team? If my instincts are correct, the floodgates are about to open as promoters of every stripe begin enticing foreign teams of varying skill and reputation to play in the US. The diluting of product will likely result in the abrupt end of what has started as a very promising trend. But trends do not make habits.

It is the rare opportunity and the high caliber of play that combine to contribute to the outstanding attendance at Gold Cup and WFC games. Sustaining that precise balance is the key to continued success, but even then, I do not see it translating into packed stadiums for US leagues. In those rare cases when powerhouse teams like those in the WFC, and others such as Barcelona FC, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, et al, are involved, the crowds will come out. In other words, don't confuse passion for great soccer with passion for any soccer.