Saturday, September 27, 2008

Is MLS the ultimate answer?

No, it's 42...

The Globe and Mail's Ben Knight had a very interesting post [On Soccer] the other day on how Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact have gone in drastically different directions since their draw in the final match of the Nutrilite Canadian Championships, which sent Montreal through to the CONCACAF Champions League. As Knight points out, Montreal's gone on to jump from 10th to 3rd in the USL standings (although they trail Seattle 2-1 after one game in the first round of the playoffs, a two-game total-goals series). They've also done very well in the Champions League: many, including Duane, expected they would crash and burn in the group stage (a very reasonable prediction at the time), but they're currently perched atop their group after a draw with Mexican powerhouse side Atalante and a win over Trinidad's Joe Public FC (the same team that embarrassed the New England Revolution of MLS by an aggregate score of 6-1 over two games). Joe Public isn't much of a minnow, either: they also happen to be owned [] by FIFA vice-president Jack Warner.*

*Aside: Does this not raise conflict of interest questions to anyone else? I'd certainly be concerned if Gary Bettman or Bill Daly ran an NHL franchise. Keep in mind that Warner's hugely influential in CONCACAF, so it's not like they're a long way removed from the decisions he makes or the impact he has.

For Toronto FC, though, the matches since that fateful July day have been extremely disappointing. They've only earned five points from nine matches, with two draws and one solitary win against six losses. As Knight writes, "The playoffs are gone, the season-long roster rebuild is a bust, and the league's most fanatical fans are looking at their season-ticket renewal forms, many with doubt and sadness in their otherwise lusty, giddy hearts." He then uses the teams' contrasting fortunes, combined with a quote from Randy Phillips' interview with Saputo in the Montreal Gazette, to suggest that Montreal perhaps is only interested in MLS on their terms.

Here's the full relevant quote from Saputo's interview:
Phillips: "Is the future of the franchise necessarily in Major League Soccer?"

Saputo: "There may be other options out there and we have to explore all the different ones. Right now, we're fine where we are. There is the aspect of MLS that's looming and we're going to take a look at that. Does it mean we're going to go into it at all costs? Not necessarily, but the soccer landscape is going to change over the next couple of years and we have to be smart and financially responsible about the decisions we make."

That is a fascinating quote at this point, given how many markets are actively battling for one of the few MLS expansion slots. Any suggestion that Montreal isn't going all-out is something new, and that might hurt them in a drive for one of the two slots in 2011.

There are reasons for Saputo to be cautious, though. MLS isn't looking quite as fantastic as it used to, especially when you take into account the dismal record of its clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League and the spending restrictions cranked so tight that Toronto FC can only spend [Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press via The Globe and Mail, August 19, 2008] $500,000 of the $3 million they got for Maurice Edu on player acquisitions, while the New York Red Bulls aren't even allowed [Ben Knight, On Soccer, August 29, 2008] to buy a USL striker for $200,000. At the same time, after the initial frenzy surrounding Beckham and the other designated players, interest in the league seems to be returning to normal levels, which aren't bad, but also aren't overly in favour of shelling out $40 million for the privilege of buying a franchise.

Moreover, Montreal would have to shell out a lot of dough to get their stadium up to MLS levels and then plenty more on player salaries, so $40 million isn't the entire cost here. When you've got a successful team that's drawing considerable amounts of fans already and gaining continent-wide exposure with their Champions League success, MLS perhaps becomes less imperative. The other thing to consider is that Saputo would have to go up against some great ownership bids in an attempt to gain one of the two slots for 2011, including Steve Nash and Greg Kerfoot in Vancouver, the New York Mets in their push for a second New York team, FC Barcelona's attempt to put a team in Miami and even Eugene Melnyk's surprisingly impressive Ottawa bid. Most of those owners have less options: it's MLS or bust for them, whereas Saputo appears to have a very successful fallback plan. Perhaps his strategy is to take the USL franchise in hand over the MLS ambitions in the bush.

However, that plan bears risks of its own. The USL is extremely viable and producing high-quality soccer at the moment, but who's to say how long that will last? As the number of MLS clubs increases, so will the poaching of the best USL players, decreasing the quality of that league's on-field product. Additionally, many of the strongest USL franchises are already on their way out (Seattle) or hoping to make the jump to MLS (Vancouver, Portland). If you lose your marquee franchises, your league suffers.

Furthermore, there's a certain advantage to being first. Look at the national coverage TFC gets compared to the Impact or the Vancouver Whitecaps. The small amount of attention paid to the Impact at the moment will undoubtedly diminish further if Vancouver and Ottawa get MLS franchises and Montreal remains in the USL: they'll be seen as the minor-league team and will be largely overlooked. The condescension towards the USL is bad enough in this country with only one Canadian MLS franchise: imagine what it would be like with three.

If expansion works out well for MLS and the league captures increasing ratings and exposure, you can bet that the franchise fees will only go up. In this way, if Saputo decides to stay put, it's not necessarily a safe move. He's gambling that the MLS will regress or stay around the same level and that the USL will continue to be viable, which may be as big of a risk as going for it now and shelling out the necessary cash. Staying put is perhaps less dangerous in the short term, but that could come back to haunt the Impact.


Mike said...

You had me at 42 (love the Hitchhikers series!).

Good write-up, I think it is interesting to see how both respective leagues go over the next few years with the new expansion. However while I understand your points, I personally wouldn't stay put in the USL were the option there to move up to the big show

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Yeah, I think you're right on that one. MLS is likely the better long-term move, as I detailed at the end of the post, especially if a bunch of the good USL franchises leave. It's important to keep in mind that viable (and good!) soccer can exist outside of MLS, though, and that might provide MLS with enough incentive to reform their league rules in an attempt to attract to USL franchises.