The 'Other' Football....

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Red Bull New York? No Bull Here.....

By Alan Clark, Saturday, March 18th, 2006.

So, I can't help but feeling I've just been hit in the face.

But in a good way.

Like a penny dropping, a lightbulb illuminating. An epiphany.

Someone gets it.

As much as I have never been a fan of the Metros, never really been a fan of New York [I blame the Yankees and their army of plastic fans, just reminded me of Man Utd at home]. I can't help but love Red Bull New York, and thus the New York Red Bulls.

For as much as the league, and soccer fans in general, owe to Uncle Phil and Lamar, I can't help but feel like we've just found another gear in MLS. Flattering to deceive or is this the real deal? I can only hope and wait. Time, as always will tell.

So, now that I've wiped the drool away from my mouth and I can concentrate on typing, let's just briefly recap the recent events.

It all starts with a rumor, Red Bull, the energy drink supremo, have an interest in a team. An expansion? No, the consensus is they're going to buy someone and hit the ground running.


Wow, they bought a team. The NY/NJ Metrostars - one of the leagues most guilty under-achievers, in the largest market to boot. Bold. Brave. But ringing of similarities with Chivas last year, Red Bull owing already another team - Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.

The terms of the deal were sketchy, but as the hours and days passed, it turned out to be a blockbuster. Not only had they bought the Metros, they'd bought into the new Harrison stadium project, and ponied up for the naming rights - Red Bull Arena. Wow, I say again. These folk don't mess around.

The name change, I'm sure, will bother some. Others, mainly outside of the NY/NJ fanbase, will argue that the team needed an image change. I'm not a fan of that myself. Teams can turn around their fortunes. Man Utd languished in relative mediocrity for about 25 years before dominating in the EPL. Teams like Wimbledon ascended from non-league to winning the FA Cup. The pain of the last 10 years will make any future successes that much sweeter.

As it turns out, the name did change. At that point fans could have been did Red Bull care? You BET they did.

Announced Thursday, RBNY is offering free transportation, free tickets and an exclusive tailgate party for fans to travel to their inaugural game under the NY Red Bulls moniker. So, did you catch that? Free transportation and free tickets. Way to make a statement Red Bull. Personally, I believe this is one of the most awesome acts in the history of MLS. Don't take it lightly, this wont be a cheap exercise. What a statement, what a signal of intent. I hope the Mets fans (until we knew what to call them) appreciate it, and take it with both hands. Someone clearly forgot to tell Red Bull that MLS is a penny pinching, salary-cap driven tax write-off for most of the owners.

I did wonder? Will fans wear their Metrostars shirts? No replicas will even be on sale for a while, such was the speed at the takeover. No one will even have seen their uniform before they take the field at RFK. Just a side thought, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they gave out freebies there too (round neck t-shirts complete with logos). I'm hoping the shirts they use are akin to their and silver quarters, much like Blackburn Rovers of the EPL. I hope they're not like the Austrian team's colors, very basic and, actually, not at all dissimilar to the Metros road kit. Anyways, I digress....

Red Bull's efforts weren't restricted to the fans; Mo and friends were treated to a dressing room overhaul. Out: The sterile 'office' themed space they had used, as second class tenants, for the last 10 years. In: A complete refurb, with flat screens, X-Boxs et al. Way to go Red Bull.

So, it still remains to be seen what the effect on the squad will be. Any shortcomings this year, I think it can be said, will not be the fault of the new ownership. With money, experienced owners, a new stadium breaking ground on August 15th and a decent group of both playing and non-playing might actually be time for the MetroBulls to earn their self-proclaimed 'Superclub' tag. If they can, it should serve to raise the bar in MLS, to the benefit of all who follow and love The Beautiful Game in this country.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

MLS Teams: What's In A Name? we have a Problem?

Written By : Alan Clark, Wednesday June 8, 2005. Updated 1/28/06.

What's In a Name?

As a Brit I grew up surrounded by the `greatest game on earth', it's traditions, it's rivalries and it's passion. I lived in Scotland, tasting the heat of the Auld Firm, and in the NorthWest of England, during the region's soccer glory days of Everton, Liverpool and then Manchester United.

With one notable exception - Milton Keynes Dons - the 2004 reincarnation of the 1988 FA Cup winning Wimbledon FC, relocation is not something that happens in soccer. As a consequence, there are not many times when a team has changed name, nor have their been new names created from new teams. The story with MK Dons is that Wimbledon did not fold, but in the absence of a permanent home and dwindling numbers through the turnstiles, the Board decided to relocate the team to Milton Keynes - the largest city in England that was not home to a professional football team already. MK was apparently second choice, Dublin, Ireland, was the original target but the League's ruling body dismissed such a radical relocation. But I digress..

The point is that in England the naming process is very different - most names have been around for in excess of a hundred years. Outside of America there is also a key difference - most clubs have a name, and a nickname - let's take Manchester United FC for example (and only because they are the most popular worldwide), their nickname is `The Red Devils'.

In America, the approach is different; teams nicknames are usually one-in-the-same as the team name; Rochester Raging Rhinos; Kansas City Wizards; San Jose Earthquakes. And then there are the exceptions; FC Dallas; Northern Virginia FC (NOVA FC); DC United.

Personally, I've always thought that to adopt a nickname in the official name is a step away from tradition - football tradition; my traditions. I often hear raging debate on the boards of Big Soccer, amongst other sources, as to what is an appropriate name; about America's soccer identity; respecting worldwide traditions and so on. I think it sounds somewhat tacky, cheap.and inherently `minor league'.

The question is...what is the right answer? Is there even one? I have been reminded on many an occasion that I am in America now, not in England (stopping a small step away from telling me to return there if I don't like it).

With MLS having ushered in two new expansion clubs in 2005, and with both relocation and further expansion talk burning like wild fire, names for the potential new locations are rampant. Everyone has an opinion and it's this diversity that made me sit down and write this.

On the radar over the next 2-3 years are potentially: Toronto, San Antonio, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Houston, St Louis, Miami (?!), Vancouver, Montreal, Seattle, New York City and so on.

So, should these potential new franchises follow history or continue the Americanized trend? A brand is the most important thing for a team, the name is it's identity. And let's face it, MLS doesn't have a good track record. Since the 1996 inaugural season, MLS' owner/operators have renamed three teams - 25% of the original franchises (and even ignoring contraction) The Burn, Clash, and Wiz are all now [thankfully] consigned to the history books.

Of course, the primary target of an MLS team is not a European nor South American fan (or at least not those based abroad), but to it's core, namely the American consumer. As such, should the brand not reflect this?

2005's new entries were not inspiring; CD Chivas USA - barely tolerable but at least there is an obvious reference to the parent club in Guadalajara; and Real Salt Lake which is, well, frankly a seemingly random Spanish reference in Utah. Not much logic there. And in the absence of a meaningful relationship between RSL and *insert legitimate'REAL Real, then this seems like a rather cheap gimmick, trying to be passed off as a tip of the hat. That said, the RSL fans seem to be buying into it.even if no one else is.

Possibly the most disturbing rumor at present must be the potential purchase, relocation and renaming of the SJ Earthquakes (already on their 2nd name) by Club America of Mexico. Yes, you guessed it - Club America USA has been touted and I hope and pray (and I'm an atheist!) that this never, but never, sees the light of day.

With so many names to choose from, not just from England - though it would make sense to pick a name that makes sense in this country's primary language, namely English - surely the next generation of franchises can hit the mark without selling their souls.

*Addendum (1/26/06):
Fresh on the back of this week's Houston '1836' annoucement of the new team name for the former SJ Earthquakes franchise, there's been plenty of dissention in the camp about the name and why a 'europoser' name was picked - again - in MLS. Infact, I've already alluded elsewhere that actually, it's less of a copy of Europe and more an established American norm.
In Europe, the number usually represents the year the team was formed. So, this isn't the case with Houston, being the year Houston itself was formed and not the team.

On the other hand, in America, the numbers are usually something significant to the city or region the team is based in - Phaldelphia 76ers, or San Francisco 49ers. So this is consistent with the Houston naming.

Slagging it off is just a knee-jerk reaction, but it's not as bad as it seems, and certainly not in the FC Dallas or ReAL Salt Lake league as blatant rip-offs. Thankfully, it's also not in the Burn, Wiz or Clash's league either.

All in all, I think it's a reasonable name, with Thirty Sixers, or just Sixers as their nickname works for me.

*Addendum (3/15/06):
So, the name 1836 went the way of the Clash, Burn, Wiz etc... Personally, I thought it deserved better.

I even wrote to Oliver Luck in an attempt to have the PC minority not win over what was a sensible and well-thought out name for the new team. I mentioned that parallels could be found both in other sports, and in MLS itself - the Philadelphia 76ers and the New England Revolution - both of which, if certain 'squeeky wheels' should be believed, would mean that those teams are offensive to me and my British brethern. Naturally, this is nonsense, but it goes to prove that there are double standards everywhere.

On the flip side, I concede that alienating, if that's what it was, a large target demographic straight off the bat would not be considered good business. For that, I can see a glimmer of reasoning. For those that would drag this through the PC gutter I wish you adieu.

PS. Dynamo Houston would have sounded so much better. If that makes me a 'eurosnob' to some, so bei it; I am English after all.

MLS Supporter's Shield - Untold Potential

Written By : Alan Clark, Wednesday September 28, 2005

The MLS Supporter's Shield. It's something of an enigma in American's a break from the traditional, in an American sense, and a tip of the cap to the 'footballing' traditions of the rest of the world. The Supporter's Shield is awarded to the MLS team with the best regular season record, regardless of conference, essentially as if there were a single table format.

Inaugurated a couple of years after the commencement of MLS after the fans demanded a trophy in lieu of the regular season champ - think of it as a compromise for soccer traditionalists - whilst the MLS Cup, a playoff format tournament, remains the defacto championship of Division 1 Pro Soccer in the United States.

Now, ten years in, and with two rounds of expansion, one of contraction, and a move away from many of the gimmicks first associated with MLS (though KC still insist on playing music during games), many fans and pundits alike have started to look for a solution to the problem of lackluster regular season games. The MLS fan has had their appetite whetted by continental tournaments - recently DC were the first MLS team to compete in a CONMEBOL tournament...and the pursuit of a Copa Liberatadores place remains one of MLS's highest priorities. Add in the CONCACAF Champions Cup and with so many teams qualifying for the playoffs (8, out of 12 in 2005 - up from 8 of 10 in 2004), and without the motivating factor of relegation, the late summer months, and early fall can often be a stale representation of the 'great game'. Add in numerous international call-ups, and oppressive heat and the gameplay is the obvious loser. Well, and the fan who is paying to watch it.

So what can be done to help motivate teams to push hard, year long? It's obvious that seeding placement isn't working. The teams who are fighting for their playoff lives have incentive enough, so that leaves the top teams...many of which are in cruise control once August comes round. How can we motivate those teams, assured of a playoff spot, to go for the proverbial jugular each and every game in the closing weeks of the season? How? By making the Supporter's Shield actually mean something.

Right now, the Supporter's Shield has no real prestige. This is probably in no small part because it was something of an after thought, but it has no monetary, nor competition benefit. It is bragging rights alone, and with the current culture of MLS, this doesn't amount to much. In fact, last year's Supporter's Shield winning Coach, Greg Andruilis, was fired a couple of months ago. Not much of a reward is it?

My proposition would change this, to make the Supporter's Shield warrant respect from all the teams. To make it a prized trophy, sought after by players, fans and GM's alike. In the absence of the monetary compensation, we need to look to an alternative means of motivation.

I believe that the solution would be to award the Supporter's Shield winner the place in the Copa Sudamericana. It is a prestigious tournament, although relatively young, and offers a chance to brand both the winning club and MLS abroad - a big responsibility. Under our present system, the winner of MLS Cup takes home the trophy, and earns a place in both the Copa Sudamericana and the CONCACAF Champion's Cup (which in itself offers the chance of a place in the World Club Championships). Surely this is excessive and some of the spoils should be spread around? We already devalue the US Open Cup by not rewarding it's winner with a place in a continental tournament (and this is a topic all by itself), let us not pass up the opportunity to spice up the regular season and reward those loyal fans who endure depleted rosters and the blazing sun to cheer their team towards a meaningful reward.

The Copa Sudamericana is very much flavor of the month, DC gave a reasonable account of itself this year and I think all the teams can see the benefit to participating in such a tournament. The CONCACAF Champion's Cup does not carry the weight, prestige not financial spoils of its more illustrious European cousin. CONMEBOL tournaments are the key to establishing MLS club sides in this region.

This change would be simple to implement and without cost. As long as it was announced before the 2006 season, there is no reason why this couldn't go 'live' next year. All the teams would have equal chance of winning, and all would be motivated by the fact that they know one single team would not reap all the benefits. I think this is especially important now the Champion's Cup has reduced it's format and now only 2 MLS teams are represented, as opposed to the 4 previous.

MLS has proven it can adapt and change over the past ten years, it's time to ring in the next step of it's evolution.

Soccer: What Do MLS, Bex and the NY Cosmos Have in Common....?

Written By : Alan Clark, Tuesday 5/31/05.

So, in a media frenzy, David Beckham had `arrived'. Not for the first time in his career, having already faced the British, Asian and Spanish paparazzi more times than taking the field, as arguably the world's most recognizable sports personality, the Beckham hype machine finally hit the ground running, Stateside.

The planet's most famous footballer stood before press in NY ahead and after his American playing debut for the English national team. The Captain had assisted on the game winning (hattrick) Michael Owen goal, as his team rode out a comfortable 3-2 victory over Colombia at Giants Stadium.

The questions rear their heads, including the inevitable.. `Will you play in MLS'?

Again the answers flatter to deceive, say nothing at all. Will-he/Wont-he?

Here is my take on the Beckham to MLS rumors-cum-hype-cum-fantasy, which seem to plague popular discussion boards and spark many a heated debate.

David Beckham, at 30, with 2 years left on a contract worth $8m a year (and total earnings in the ballpark of $30m+ a season) with world soccer giants Real Madrid, is not going to join MLS tomorrow. In all likelihood, MLS is 4-5 years in Mr Posh Spice's future. That said, I don't think it'd a stretch to see soccer's highest paid and highest profile player turning out in MLS in the future. Given the relative infancy of MLS and a seemingly insurmountable salary cap of just $2m a year - for the whole team - David Beckham seems hopelessly priced out of the reach of MLS.

However, there's two possibilities that could see `Bex' adorned in the colors of the LA Galaxy, Metrostars or Chicago Fire. The most simplistic link is the relationship between DB and Adidas, the primary sponsor of MLS (in a $150m 10 year deal). You must understand, David Beckham is a commercial machine; After his move from English Powerhouse Manchester United to Real Madrid (for circa $41m), it was speculated that he would repay his transfer fee within 6 months through commercial opportunities, such as shirt sales, particularly to the seemingly insatiable Far East markets. His vast branding in Asia is seen as gold mine to the front offices of his employer. The man is not only one of the world's top footballers, he has pin-up looks and is married to a former Spice Girl (Posh Spice, Victoria Adams). As the Captain of England, he and Victoria represent more than the consummate celebrity couple - he is almost considered royalty in the British Isles.

So, America would provide not one but two un-tapped markets. Soccer, the great participation sport here in the US, has not yet hit full flight as a professional spectator sport - and let's face it, there's lots of competition for fans from not just the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, but also NASCAR, Tennis, PGA and the ranks of collegiate sports. It's also untapped as a David Beckham market. Having won over the UK, Europe and Asia - the US remains the one last challenge in DB's commercial conquest of the planet.

So Adidas could step up and guarantee commercial endorsements in lieu of the money he would not make playing in MLS. In return, Adidas would have his imaging rights, and could extort the maximum for the Beck-buck. It would be a gamble, and assumes his success both on and off the field, and likely an `A' market team, but for a powerhouse such as Adidas, who have already seen the power of the Beckham brand, this could be an easy decision.

So, the US and Beckham seem destined to meet and fall in love. Soccer, and MLS in particular as the US Men's (and Women's) National team's do garner some interest, seems to need someone with the charisma, profile and outright talent of a David Beckham to help move it to the next level. In the seventies, the NASL had Pele as the icon of the league. Now Beckham may not be a match for Pele on the pitch, but as a marketing tool he is light years ahead and in commercial America, money is everything. In reality, David Beckham isn't even the most talented player on the `Galacticos', yet, outside of footballing circles, the average American would struggle to recognize Zinedane Zidane or Ronaldo, regardless of how good they are on the ball.

Beckham, it seems, to also be planting roots here - his first son, now 6, is named Brooklyn - and has used the English team's current tour to launch both a new (Adidas) product line and open a new soccer academy. Perhaps he is planning a corporate takeover, it would be ironic if in the fallout of Malcolm Glazer's unpopular assault and ultimate victory on Manchester United, David Beckham - an English institution and former United star - was to make his own counter-strike on the USA.

The second option would be for Beckham to take his interest to another level. Namely, ownership.

Who could write a better script than to have David Beckham sail into New York, revive the NY Cosmos brand and lead America's famous old team to MLS glory? New York and Beckham seem a perfect match. Beckham certainly has the wealth to pursue this alone, though a consortium may provide better financial stability. Recent stories have Andrew Murstein interested in both an MLS franchise and Cosmos trademarks. With the inevitable expansion preparations and delays, 2008 or 2009 is not out the question. David, do you have a window in January 2009? Could Beckham use his own image to push MLS to another level? In the days of NASL, the Cosmos were head and shoulders above the other teams, with huge crowds and famous players they were a diamond in the rough, and ultimately their huge success played a large part in the downfall of the entire league. Franchises struggled to keep up with the Jones's/Cosmos and folded as a consequence. MLS has a different financial model - a single entity structure - to help it grow at a more steady rate and to try and ensure that history does not repeat itself.

The Single Entity system has it's draw backs, though it's days seem numbered as more and more of the MLS teams move into Soccer Specific Stadiums (SSS) and for the first time in 10 years the league has a real shot at hitting the black. Recent ventures into expansion (in Salt Lake and Los Angeles) have seen a change in direction from MLS. Chivas USA, a spin-off from CD Guadalajara in Mexico, was an attempt to win over many of the Hispanic soccer fans in the country, and at the same time provided MLS with it's first Derby - between the incumbent Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA.

David Beckham could be the next evolution of soccer in the states. Be it as a player, owner - or both - the USA is wide open, and as a fan of the game, I hope he steps up and bends it into the top corner, as only Beckham can.