A Tale of Two Expansion Cities

The 2017 MLS season is up and running and as expected, the two expansion teams are dominating league headlines, yet the two sides are off to vastly different starts.  On one hand, Atlanta United FC has opened its inaugural season with tremendous success both on and off the pitch, but on the other hand, Minnesota United FC is experiencing the growing pains of transitioning from the NASL to a major league level.

From the start it looks like Atlanta United has struck gold by acquiring Josef Martinez from Torino, Italy who already has the first hat trick in club history as well as providing exciting celebrations for the fans.  The opening loss to the NY Red Bulls drew a sell-out crowd of 55,297 to Bobby Dodd Stadium and the club reportedly sold out tickets for its second straight match against Chicago as well, a 4-0 victory.  With two wins in its first three games, and reason to believe more wins are coming, fans of Atlanta United have every reason to be happy.

On the flip side, Minnesota United FC seems to have struck nothing but coal with its current lineup.  While a promising start is not expected for any expansion side, starting off the season with 5-1 and 6-1 losses arguably fall below the already low expectations needed to be considered an inaugural season success.  The home opener of 35,043 was the largest crowd for a soccer game in Minnesota since May 1984, and the snow in the forecast made for an interesting optic on television.  However the result left a lot to be desired from the expansion side that is sadly showing why it finished in 8th place out of 12 teams in the minor league NASL last season.

Intriguingly, Minnesota has acquired a much bigger brand name as a shirt sponsor in Target, and the public opinion of the team’s new logo and kits has been extremely positive overall.  While financial details were not disclosed for the deals, Atlanta’s shirt sponsor American Family Insurance is nothing to sneeze at either.  In addition, the red and black striped jerseys are a kit combination that has not been used in MLS for years.

As it is only Week 4 of MLS action, it is still early to speculate which team will finish its inaugural season with more success, but for now, give the advantage to Atlanta.

REFERENCES

https://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2017/03/16/wiebe-too-early-minnesota-united-panic-team-taking-long-view

https://www.atlutd.com/post/2017/03/17/atlanta-united-sells-out-second-straight-home-match

http://www.foxsports.com/soccer/story/atlanta-united-first-gam-crowd-sell-out-030317

http://mlsmultiplex.com/2017/03/13/minnesota-united-fc-vs-atlanta-united-fc-three-key-takeaways/

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MLS to St. Louis?

USATSI_7274155Many consider it to be the historic soccer capital of America.  What some still consider the greatest game ever played by the U.S Men’s National Team, 5 of the 11 starting players on the 1950 FIFA World Cup team that stunned powerhouse England were from St. Louis.  Since that time, some of the greatest players in U.S. soccer history have either hailed from St. Louis are played college soccer in St. Louis such as Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan, Brian McBride, and Tim Ream.  When the U.S. Open Cup was in its infant stages, St. Louis teams generated the most success, starting with a team named Ben Millers winning the championship in 1920.  This city clearly has a rich soccer history.  But can it sustain an MLS team?

Since the news of the Rams moving to Los Angeles, and the NFL abandoning St. Louis a second time (see the Arizona Cardinals)  the MLS has declared a renewed interest in bringing an expansion franchise to the area.  Last week, Commissioner Don Garber met with St. Louis Sports Commission Chairman Dave Peacock to continue a dialogue. The two of them had reportedly met ten years ago to have the same conversation, but as we can see, there is currently no Major League Soccer team in St. Louis.

St. Louis has had many iterations of professional soccer in the past.  Besides the semi-pro teams that emerged victorious in the early years of the U.S. Open Cup during the ’20s and ’30s, perhaps the most prominent team was the St. Louis Stars of NASL fan during the ’70s.  Ironically, that team moved to LA too. There was also an indoor soccer team called the St. Louis Steamers that averaged almost 12,000 fans per game for the better part of the ’80s. While none of these franchises had a happy ending, the departure of an NFL team leaves a gaping hole to be filled in the sports landscape of the city.

As many news outlets have been reiterating, there are usually three factors for bringing an MLS team to a city.  1) An already present fanbase  2) A viable ownership group  3) A viable (preferably downtown) stadium site with easy access for fans.  One of the reasons that talks to bring a team to St. Louis in the past may have stalled could have been the issue of a viable stadium site.  But now that the Rams have flown away to the West Coast,  a beautiful, riverfront stadium site suddenly appears within grasp.  The MLS appears to be so interested in this site, that the St.Louis Dispatch has even reported that the league has begun gathering potential owners.  Other markets have already expressed their vehement interest in a franchise such as Sacramento, San Antonio, and San Diego, but if the MLS is truly planning to expand to 28 teams by 2020, perhaps all these markets can make their way into the fold.

Short of a definite answer, it appears MLS is coming to St. Louis within the next five years.  The NFL leaving AGAIN is the perfect opportunity for MLS to capitalize on a market that only has baseball to watch in the summer and hockey in the winter months.  The fanbase appears to already be in place, with 43,000 fans seeing a USMNT World Cup Qualifier in Busch Stadium, a minor league team starting play last year in the USL, and if the site deal can be closed soon (not like the catastrophe that happened with NYCFC in Flushing) this deal to move into the 21st largest media market in America is too good to pass up.

 

REFERENCES

http://www.espnfc.us/major-league-soccer/story/2801606/mls-very-focused-on-expanding-to-st-louis-don-garber

http://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2014/05/30/building-soccer-pyramid-success-finally-cards-historic-st-louis

http://saintlouisfc.com/history

 

The Rise of Los Angeles FC

bowl(FORMATTED)At the end of the 2014 Major League Soccer season, the flickering flame of CD Chivas USA was extinguished.  The sister club of Mexican giants CD Chivas Guadalajara, and the clear second team in Los Angeles to the Galaxy was a failed experiment that was finally coming to an end.  In its first two seasons of operation, Chivas managed to draw a respectably high crowd of 20,000 fans that came to see a respectable team.  However, in its penultimate season of operation, Chivas only managed a dismal average attendance of 8,000 fans per game.

What went so horribly wrong for Chivas USA? The combination of the Vergara family buying out the franchise in 2012 and major staff shakeups are possible conclusions.  On top of that, a talented team would have difficulty in the shadows of MLS juggernaut LA Galaxy that over the years have boasted Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard, and David Beckham even without sharing the same stadium.  But none of that matters now.  In the wake of Chivas USA’s death, MLS has created a new franchise to spark a renaissance of Los Angeles soccer.  And it’s official, the club now has a name: LAFC.  I can already see the jokes that one could conjure from this moniker (i.e. FC Laughs) but the initial buzz around the team has been promising.

The club doesn’t officially begin play until 2017, but a few key pillars to their success have already been created.  For starters, the club already has a planned downtown stadium proposal (with released renderings) that could create a geographical divide in the city with Galaxy fans.  In addition, the team has made no secret of its goal to target millennials, as soccer is finding its fanbase in America.  According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, millennials are 16% more interested in soccer than any other U.S. demographic.  The team has also already reached out to former supporters groups of Chivas USA, and rumors are already swirling about Cristiano Ronaldo transferring to the team in its inaugural season.

The Los Angeles market already has two baseball teams, two basketball teams, two hockey teams, one soccer team, and will possibly see one or two football teams relocate to the area in the near future.  Even so, this is likely the last expansion sports franchise that the city will see for a very long time, an advantage for MLS considering the potential buzz around the first season that one can see now with NYCFC or Orlando City.  All things considered, LAFC is off to a great start.

REFERENCES

http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2014/10/28/6875547/chivas-usa-contracted-la2-launch

http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2015/09/25/lafc-unveil-latest-stadium-renderings-ahead-supporters-workshop-saturday

http://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/la-sp-la-football-club-20150915-story.html

Aggressive Expansion

Ned-Grabavoy-NYCFC-Orlando-City-USA-TODAY-SportsThere have been recent reports that tomorrow night’s inaugural Major League Soccer game for expansion side Orlando City SC against the other MLS expansion franchise, New York City FC, will be a sellout crowd of over 62,000 fans at the Florida Citrus Bowl. As of March 6, Orlando City reported over 13,000 season tickets had been sold for its first season while NYCFC reported over 14,000 season tickets sold for its inaugural season at Yankee Stadium. The successful marketing for both teams that haven’t even played a competitive game yet but have achieved tremendous success in ticket sales, has raised questions about where the league will expand next, and exactly how far the successful expansion push should go before it stops.

Since 2005, MLS has expanded from 10 teams to 20 teams, with plans for 4 more franchises by 2020.  In that same time frame, the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL combined have produced just one expansion team, the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) during the 2004-2005 season. Intriguingly, the MLS has managed to benefit from the expansion thanks to increased average attendance numbers in each market, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

While expansion teams, and even relocated teams often find financial success in their first season in a new home due to initial excitement surrounding the team, this excitement tends to wane as the team is no longer generating buzz as the new sensation in its respective market. Other concerns with rapid expansion for MLS could be the dilution of the talent pool, and the history of the league’s predecessor, the North American Soccer League.  The NASL lasted 17 seasons, and was the only other major American soccer league to exceed 20 franchises, but the experiment only lasted three seasons as the league folded shortly after.

So far, expansion has benefited soccer’s image in America as the sport has spread its reach across the country.  However, time will tell if the league has already reached its mature size, or if it can effectively reach the same size and scope of the other major sports leagues in America.

REFERENCES

Sellout Crowd Expected For Orlando City’s Inaugural Match With NYCFC

http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2015/03/02/In-Depth/Expansion.aspx

http://espn.go.com/sports/soccer/news/_/id/7299575/major-league-soccer-mls-bigger-necessarily-better