MLS’s Growth Spurt Gets a Little Gawky

ImageIt can be hard, at times, to judge the wisdom guiding Major League Soccer’s fairly accelerated program for expansion. It could be striking while the iron’s hot on the one hand, or, on the other, running headlong into a big ol’ wall with “hubris” written all over it – and without a helmet.

I’ve enjoyed the mad dash for the most part – it certainly helped that it appears sustainable – but there’s something about the latest round that finally left me uneasy. And looking at those seats behind home plate (pictured at bottom above) in the daydream sketch of what will be at Yankee stadium gets at why. Begging for a place to play (no matter how nice), the plain awful aesthetics of that set up, feels like a step back to the bad old days. Slapping an NYFC logo under that massive gap of dead air does nothing to shrink or hide something that manifestly non-ideal.

Now, all kinds of fair criticisms and assumptions can be leveled against these concerns – especially with the New York market. I’ll side-step the speculative ones for now – e.g. NYFC is going to be FUCKING HUGER THAN THE PLANET, DUDE, SO FUCKING CHILL! – and acknowledge the practical. Getting that second team in the New York market probably did require the clumsy business of getting a (hopefully successful) franchise planted as a “fact on the ground.” That argument that this entity/club needs a real home of its own sort of follows from its existence, while also providing a built-in excuse if/ when the club fails to live up to its alleged potential.

On the other hand, picture a fan at in a seat right behind home plate at field level. What is she seeing from there? Now, sure, she’ll enjoy NYFC’s inaugural game (almost certainly against Red Bull New York), but how many games will it take before the challenge of watching distant humanoid figures sans perspective sours the experience? A couple other issues come into play, as well. While the league can hide that gap on TV, and the weird layout generally, it cannot hide the fact that one of the league’s highest-profile clubs plays on a sublease. That feeds into the general perception of MLS as a(n at best) second-tier league. That second-class crap matters, whether comparing against the Euros or even America’s bigger sports. Americans like the best: so the claim goes and it’s supported often enough.

Looking beyond the New York market – and yet sticking with it to some extent – it feels a little like, for lack of a better phrase, geographic determinism decided where the expansion clubs landed. (Though, let the record show, the same thinking supports a St. Louis bid.) The league shoe-horned in New York because hello, massive friggin’ market, but what about all those teams in the Southeast? To phrase it as a devil’s advocate, how many decisions grew from making that Miami market viable? Built-in regional rivals in Orlando and Atlanta sound like a smart thing…and I mean that; it’s probably the only idea that comes to me too. The question is, will it be enough for markets that, experience suggests, aren’t all that dopey on soccer. Or sports in general. Has the league just added not one, but three iffy markets in the sweltering Southern swamps? Everyone is dying for August to come around, surely…

I’m mostly just spit-balling. Time will tell the tale – though I do sincerely cringe. every. time. I look at that Yankees’ Stadium mock-up. And it is hard to argue with the league’s growth over the past few years: the Cascadia teams came in like wrecking balls (you’re welcome; try E-flat when you sing it), so maybe it’s worth giving them the benefit of the doubt. The handicaps (dodgy markets) and work-arounds (ducking the rule about needing a stadium plan in place) do worry me though.

As noted down below (I mean on the site, not this post), I’m a bit of a podcast whore (because, lazy and aspiring to illiteracy), so I was treated to a couple debates on this question. (NOTE: ExtraTime Radio’s podcast focused more on New York – and it suffered from a little attendant silliness (“non-New Yorkers can’t vote”); March to the Match paid more, and better, attention to potential pitfalls in Atlanta (short answer: tepid market); they also pulled out the “dilution argument” (as in, the league is stretching the player pool too far), which I don’t really buy.) Smart things are said here and there.

Some part of this fretting over expansion amounts to worrying it might rain when it’s already raining; these will be the new markets, whatever happens. Still, hope the sun comes out when all’s said and done. And all these teams have stadiums of their own…without a goddamn cricket pitch between fans and field.

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