March 21, 2009
MLS getting expansion right
There is an old saying, “What goes around comes around.” That is true of a lot of things, especially, it seems, in soccer expansion.
Within the next couple of years, we will see three great franchises in the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers, reunited.
It’s no coincidence that MLS has selected these three markets for expansion teams. Seattle is already a success, having sold more than 20,000 season tickets before making a debut at sold out Qwest Field in front of some 38,000 fans.
MLS has really gotten it right. Everything from the selection of the cities to keeping the traditional names. It wasn’t always that way.
In the early days of the league, there was this somewhat myopic vision that anything associated with the North American Soccer League was bad. Anything, of course, except Lamar Hunt’s money.
It seems the then-fledgling league’s founders felt the NASL was a failure because it folded in 1984. But, while the NASL ultimately did not survive, one can hardly call it a failure. The league planted the seeds for the explosion of the game at the grassroots, created the base that allowed the U.S. to bid on and eventually host the World Cup, and also spurred some great soccer rivalries. Where the league failed was in over- expanding and not having a realistic business model.
But, the league certainly had its success stories. Even before the New York Cosmos signed Pele in 1975, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and San Jose -- all expansion teams in 1974 -- started drawing good crowds right out of the box. That was the Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps and Earthquakes.
Those NASL franchises created soccer markets. Portland, for instance, was often referred to as Soccer City USA, and holds the distinction of playing host to one of the most memorable championship events in American soccer history. Memorable because it is where the great Pele won his final championship, carried out on his teammates’ shoulders following a Cosmos win over the Sounders. Civic Stadium was filled to the rafters. Lots of Sounders fans drove down, several hundred Cosmos fans flew in, and all the soccer crazies in Portland bought a ticket.
That stadium (Now PGE Park) will be renovated for the new Timbers.
They will kick off in 2011 along with the Whitecaps, who will play in BC Place, which is being renovated for next year’s Winter Olympics. A set of three great regional derbies will be created.
MLS missed the boat the first time around with franchise names, passing over the Earthquakes in favor of the Clash before seeing the error of its ways. In Florida, the storied Rowdies and Strikers names were laid to rest in favor of the more modern sounding Mutiny and Fusion. Those franchises were then laid to rest.
Now I am not suggesting D.C. United be renamed the Diplomats or the New England Revolution be re-christened the Tea Men, but I would not argue with calling the Philadelphia team the Atoms or, if St. Louis is admitted, reviving the Stars.
See, the old names were not so bad after all.