Soccer Talk: MLS, Baltimore, & The USMNT
Baltimore Sports and Life (BSL) has kicked around a few soccer related topics with Martin Rogers – features writer, columnist, and broadcaster for USA TODAY Sports.
Our thanks to Martin for providing his thoughts on Major League Soccer, Baltimore’s prospects for MLS expansion, the US Men’s National Team, and more.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
BSL: Major League Soccer (MLS) Commissioner Don Garber has been quoted regularly as stating that he envisions the league being one of the world’s premier leagues by 2022. Even if that level is not met, I think MLS generally has to be viewed as a success. The league has not just sustained, but has grown; and the product has continued to improve. Agree, disagree?
Rogers: Definitely a success, considering where it came from. No question about it, MLS has played an important role in elevating soccer to it’s present position in the US. People don’t always notice the progress year on year, but it is steady and consistent, and when you look back nine years to when I first moved out here, the game and the league is unrecognizable from back then.
BSL: There are currently 20 MLS teams, with plans to reach 28 by the mid 2020s. Four of those eight spots are spoken for with Atlanta, Los Angeles FC, Minnesota, and Miami. Sacramento and St. Louis appear to be favorites for two more spots. Garber then lists Detroit, San Diego, San Antonio, and Cincinnati as the next leading markets.
If Baltimore wanted to push for one of these remaining spots, the following would need to be achieved:
- The expansion fee (+/- $100M?)
- A Soccer Specific Stadium (+/- $200M?)
- Evidence of enough corporate dollars to go around for the stadium suites, and disposable income for tickets..
- Evidence of sufficient interest…
What Baltimore currently / potentially has going for it:
- The proximity for regional rivalries with D.C. United, Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, New York City FC, and the New England Revolution. These games would represent easy travel for these teams, and are the regional / local rivalries currently boosting interest in the league.
- In-terms of median income, and higher education; the Baltimore Metro is one of the most affluent areas of the country.
- Under Armour is currently pursuing building a development in Baltimore (Port Covington) which if built; includes plans for a 12,000 seat stadium suitable for soccer, lacrosse, and football.
- A number of well attended friendlies…
Let’s say that:
- A prospective ownership group willing to pay the expansion fee steps forward ‘tomorrow.’
- The Port Covington project proceeds, and the SSS is built with the requisite amount of corporate boxes; and the ability to increase seating capacity like San Antonio’s Toyota Field.
If those things were accomplished, could Baltimore legitimately get into the mix for one of the remaining MLS Expansion bids?
Rogers: The short answer is yes. Anyone can get into the mix provided they have the right combination of finances, willpower and initiative. Having said that, it is more competitive than ever. The league is no longer in a position where they need to accept any owner prepared to front up with the money. Often there is huge competition within a city – three or four groups all vying for the same turf. I think Baltimore has a chance. Initially, I think the proximity to DC might be a slight impediment. MLS loves local rivalries, but that might be too close. On the flip side, it can also turn out to be a big positive IF, and only if, the potential owners could show that they were a standout choice in terms of having the backing and stadium permission and all that kind of stuff in place. And let’s face it, the league already double dips in two markets, LA and NY….
BSL: MLS teams are owned and operated by league investors, and the teams operate under a salary cap. Last year’s MLS Champion Portland Timbers are spending under $7M on salary here in 2016. The 20 English Premier League (EPL) teams in 2015-16 spent between $33M and $283M in team salaries last year. As such, it seems unfair to ask the MLS teams to be equal to their EPL counterparts. That said, if the best teams in MLS were in the EPL for the EPL’s coming 2016-17 season; do you think any of them could potentially avoid regulation? Is there still a big gap from the best of MLS and teams like Watford, Burnley, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland?
Rogers: Really, really good question. I think there is a chance that an MLS could avoid relegation, although any MLS side would certainly start the season among the favorites for the drop. I also think if you took the 9th best team in the English Championship and put them in the EPL, they would have a chance to survive. The EPL is fickle like that. Sometimes a team just clicks suddenly and rides the wave of momentum – look at Leicester. Everyone is an expert before the season starts, and most of the time the league surprises us – although more so at the bottom of the table than the top, I must admit. Overall, I’d put the top 3/4 MLS teams on a par with playoff contention Championship teams. Below that maybe 7/8 more would be mid-level Championship to struggling Championship standard. And sometimes, the bottom few teams in MLS, the ones who are cut adrift and seem to lose all hope, they are probably playing at League Two standard, even though some of them will have players who should be far above that.
BSL: In the US club soccer hierarchy, the level immediately below MLS, is the North American Soccer League (NASL). What is the level of talent in the NASL compared to the MLS? If MLS wants to compete with the best leagues in the world by 2022, is it realistic for NASL to be more of a direct competitor to MLS in the same time-frame?
Rogers: I’ll be honest, my knowledge of NASL and its standard of play is pretty patchy. It is probably unfair to expect it to compete with MLS and I’m not sure whether it should even try. MLS teams are owned by incredibly wealthy business interests who were able to sustain years of losses in the name of growing the league. Also, if you are a foreign based superstar, it is easy to see the appeal of coming to play for the Galaxy in MLS. Going to Jacksonville to play in the second tier…not so much. Perhaps NASL should really focus on bringing through young American players but again it’s tough. Unless you can pay those guys pretty decent money then college, Europe or an MLS II team is going to look attractive.
BSL: The US Men’s National Team reached the semi-finals of the 2016 Copa America Tournament. I thought the defense acquitted themselves well, and the back four of Brooks, Cameron, Yedlin, and Johnson is a strong base to move forward with. Like everyone else that follows the USMNT, I’m excited about the potential of Pulisic, Wood, Ngabe, and Zardes. It looks like Dempsey and Bradley have more left to give. Hopefully Altidore comes on again, and I remain interested in Green.
As the US points to the 2018 World Cup, what are your current general thoughts with the roster?
Rogers: I have always been optimistic about the US program, more so than most, since I moved here nine years ago. I thought they would get out of the Group of Death in 2014 and I wrote that. I’ve never understood the “haters” from within the soccer community over here who like to beat on both the national team and MLS. For the most part I think they are just insecure individuals who are trying to make themselves sound knowledgeable by saying “MLS sucks” or “USMNT sucks.” However, I’m not very high on this current national team or the job Klinsmann has done so far. Bob Bradley was fired for being unable to take the team to the next level after reaching the last 16 or the World Cup. How has Klinsmann made things better? The Copa America shows us nothing we didn’t already know – that the US is light years behind the best teams in the world but is more than capable of competing at the level below that. I feel a big opportunity has been missed. Winning the Gold Cup or at least the Concacaf Cup would have created the chance to really push up the world rankings. The importance of that is that it can get you seeded at the World Cup and give you a much easier draw. No chance of that now. Klinsmann’s job is safe until the World Cup after Copa but unless he conjures some magic in Russia his legacy will be decidedly mixed.