I thought the 2009 Major League Soccer season was off to a bad start. Before the first ball was kicked, the David Beckham mess between LA Galaxy and AC Milan gave American soccer haters more reason to poke fun at the league. Then the MLS scheduled their opening day of games for the same day as the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Big mistake, most sports fans are locked in on hoops on this day. All other sports fall by the wayside.
I was wrong. MLS's newest team, Seattle Sounders FC, arrived on the scene not with a whimper, but with a bang. On March 19, young Colombian Fredy Montero, 21, had two goals and an assist and the Seattle Sounders looked like a seasoned squad in their inaugural game with a convincing 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls on Thursday night to begin the 14th season of MLS. The story is not the three goals, it the 32,523 fans that packed the stadium.
What stood out most about the first home match? Sounders senior vice-president of business operations Gary Wright said this: "To me, it was the consistent buzz that never stopped. For the most part, the crowd never sat. No one sat down. "Also having seen the sport in Europe, when everyone was holding the scarves up - it was absolutely magical." Now I'm not going to compare the Sounders' crowd to Anfield or the San Siro, but when I tuned in to this match, the noise was there, the intensity was there. It felt more like Premier League than it did MLS, which is exactly what MLS wants.
If you think this was just opening day hoopla, the Sounders have put a cap on season tickets at 22,000. I can tell you this, everyone in the sports media was taken aback when they saw that season ticket sales number. It is impressive. The question is, how did the Sounders do it? Well, the first step is usually done beforehand. MLS only puts teams in cities where it knows there is a fan base. Seattle in particular was an easy pick because of the level of support the Sounders (the previous minor-league version) received over the years and the massive turnout every time Seattle hosted a major international match or a friendly featuring clubs like Real Madrid.
Salt Lake City, for instance, was a controversial pick in 2005, but the little-known fact was that the SLC area has the highest youth-participation rate in the country. MLS is not done in the Northwest. Portland also has one of the most rabid fan bases in the country. The minor-league Timbers are one of the most successful USL franchises, which translate to a successful MLS franchise. Keeping the existing Seattle-Portland rivalry intact was another factor in awarding Portland an MLS team.
Another great move was the signing of Swedish international Freddie Ljungberg. Lungberg has the name recognition, he has big club experience with Arsenal and he still has enough game left to captive the home fans. While I pat Seattle on the back for their impressive start to their new franchise, I do have concerns about MLS expansion. It could be too much and too fast. MLS isn't immune to the slowdown in the economy, for one. Another issue with expansion is the dilution of talent on MLS squads.
America is catching on to soccer, but the interest level is not yet at the point where there's a guaranteed sustainability in the league growing this fast. MLS has talked about adding two more teams sometime after 2011. I give this piece of advice, walk the ball up, don't run too fast and fall hard. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org