Follow Up: MLS To Austin Gets Real – McKalla Place Proposal

It is shaping up to be a real Texas showdown: the MLS and Precourt Sports taking on some factions of the residents in Austin who do not want a soccer stadium or team in their city. The original piece here on Frank’s Forum focused more on the mechanics around relocating a team, in this case, the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer (MLS) would move to Austin.

The capital city of Texas is an attractive destination for MLS because of the growing numbers of young professionals and young families, two key demographics for the league. The relocation to Austin is not without controversy, as the Crew are an original MLS franchise; causing factions in Ohio to attempt to keep the team, and factions in Texas who do not want a soccer team .

The stadium is the centerpiece for any MLS team, so the potential relocation to Austin hinges on the location and terms of that central component to the operation of a franchise. The executives at MLS league offices in New York and Precourt Sports have been working with officials in Austin for about nine months now on a stadium site.

The two sites that are on the table, so to speak, right now are the Circuit of the Americas or COTA site and the McKalla Place site. The two sites are very different and present various positives and negatives regarding being selected as the site of a soccer specific stadium.

The Circuit of the Americas is a racetrack just outside of downtown Austin which already has infrastructure in place such as adequate parking and space for a stadium. The soccer stadium would help keep the overall operation of the site busier, it would become essentially a year- round cycle of activity between the racetrack events and the MLS season

The entertainment and other options are somewhat limited at the COTA site. The site is reported to have a pastoral feel to it. The reports in local news out of Austin is that Anthony Precourt (operator of PSV which is the operator of the Crew franchise) has no interest in the COTA site even though some within the Austin political structure favored that location.

The more detailed reporting and some excellent journalism on this topic was done by The Austin Statesman so definitely check out their site as well.

The McKalla Place site is essentially the largest piece of city owned land remaining in the greater Austin city limits. It is located in North Austin but within the downtown core, which is preferable to MLS for a stadium site. That location has entertainment, dining, and hotel options nearby. It is not completely ideal, but it is the best location available within the downtown limits.

However, McKalla Place does not have any infrastructure at all, it is basically an open set of lots. It would need lighting, parking, and utilities to be installed from the ground up. The residents who oppose the soccer stadium have been ramping up the pressure and formulating alternate plans to the City Council.

These alternate plans have no stadium development in them and focus on other needs that the city has such as affordable housing, green space, retail space, a hotel, and buildings to support arts as well as music.

The political side to this scenario is that the city is divided over the land use and the vote will be very close. The Mayor of Austin is in favor of the MLS team coming to town and playing at McKalla Place. The council needs 6 of the 11 members to vote straight up or down on the proposal for the land to be used for a soccer stadium.

Those representing the North Austin district on the council are not in favor of the stadium construction. They are adding amendments to the measure that the Mayor, according to local news sources, has called “poison pill” amendments to try to derail the soccer stadium. The meeting Thursday night postponed the vote until August 15th.

The other proposals for the land have not gained much traction. In my experience covering sports business matters of this type, when a proposal has moved this far and the competing proposals have not been mentioned, it is pretty certain that a stadium is going to get approved in one way or another.

The bigger items around the actual reality if a stadium is voted onto the site are a bit murky. The plans for the site show a mass transit station hub there which is estimated to have a cost around $12 to $15 million. One of those amendments seeks to attach the cost of the transit station to have PSV be responsible for it.

The lease terms for the stadium and how much PSV will pay to rent the facility are on the original terms sheet. The rental fee that PSV will pay is in the range of $400 to $500,000 per year. The city officials put a significantly difficult clause in to block the team from relocating and leaving Austin in the future.

The dissenting members of the council are seeking amendments to the term sheet to double the rent the team would pay to around $900,000 per year and seeks other financial commitments from PSV. The meeting last week contained now debate on those amendments and made no changes to the original terms sheet.

The stark reality here is that Anthony Precourt is a billionaire “operator” of a franchise seeking a sweetheart lease deal without any willingness to commit other money toward infrastructure or mass transit improvements. He is going to end up looking bad in the court of public opinion and perception, but that is probably viewed by both he and MLS as collateral damage in getting the deal that they desire from Austin.

The impact of the vote on August 15th is going to resonate in two cities: it will shape the future of Austin and bring uncertainty to Columbus. The Ohio capital will certainly struggle to find a full-time tenant for that soccer stadium that they are still paying off debt on, and will most likely become a bargaining chip for other cities looking to leverage their current market into a better stadium deal.

In my view, I can understand some of the sentiment in Austin with the residents who are opposed to the soccer club relocating to their city. It will certainly impact the neighborhood in which McKalla Place sits in North Austin, in a way that can be perceived as negative: traffic, environmental impact, noise, and congestion on game dates.

Conversely, the clubs that constitute MLS conduct so much charitable and community service work. These types of efforts would benefit Austin greatly in the years to come, should they become a franchise host city within the league. It may be a “money grab” by Precourt, but I always look at the silver lining in how many jobs it will create and how many people will have positive changes to their lives through sports.

The vote on Wednesday will clarify a very complicated situation and set the course for two cities in the weeks and months ahead. Stay tuned.

(Some background information courtesy of The Austin Statesman, Fox 7 Austin, & Austin Business Journal)

Miami MLS Saga: Freedom Park Proposal

The five plus years saga that has been David Beckham’s quest to find a site suitable for a soccer stadium for his planned Miami MLS expansion bid has certainly been unbelievable at points.

The former soccer mega-star and his partners received permission recently to have the latest attempt (site number six for those counting), a development known as Miami Freedom Park, included on the November ballot as a city-wide referendum question. The voters will decide whether or not Freedom Park is a positive project for Miami to undertake.

The land that the proposed Freedom Park sits on is currently a public golf course. The opposition of the planned proposal for the stadium and other retail/hotel/office space construction will be those who want to save the golf course and those who want open space. The other consideration will be traffic impact because the land sits next to Miami International Airport.

Beckham has seen the other attempts to build a soccer stadium for his planned new club come apart for all sorts of reasons. The Port of Miami site received almost instant backlash from the cruise industry due to traffic concerns on weekends when they embark and disembark the most ships.

The site next to Marlins Park failed for a variety of reasons, and the Overtown proposal seemed like it was moving forward (see my earlier article on it) but that proposal relied on a parcel of land that was owned by the county. The sale of that land dragged on for a protracted amount of time until it was finally approved.

However, Beckham brought in new partners, the Mas brothers, and they did not want to move forward with the Overtown site. That area of Miami is notable for violent crime and they may have had concerns over putting a stadium and retail development in that neighborhood.

The issue with the golf course site that is now being dubbed Miami Freedom Park is that, according to reports in the Miami Herald the site has environmental contamination. The land at one time was the site of a large trash incinerator nicknamed by Miami locals as “Old Smoky”.

The disruption of the ground to build a 25,000 seat soccer stadium, a 750 hotel rooms, 600,000 square feet of retail space, and 400,000 square feet of office space is going to require a massive environmental cleanup of the site. The cost of getting the land properly remediated is going to be a tremendous outlay of money. The question of who pays for that is going to be central to this site plan.

MLS has longed wished to return to the Miami market because they see it as a missed opportunity from the failure of the Miami Fusion franchise early in the history of the league. The Fusion played in Fort Lauderdale, far from the downtown area of Miami, and removed from any direct public transportation access.

Miami had tremendous TV ratings both for Spanish language and English telecasts of the World Cup from Russia which took place this summer. MLS has given Beckham a deadline of October 2019 to be the latest point for his group to break ground on a stadium. The league strongly prefers the expansion bids to include a soccer specific stadium because it allows for maximized control of the revenue streams generated compared to renting a facility used by an NFL or MLB team.

The league gave Beckham a sweet clause in his player contract to own an expansion franchise in his retirement by only having to pay a fraction of the expansion fee that other teams have been required to pay upon entry into MLS.

The speculation is that Freedom Park could provide some outstanding enhancements to that neighborhood of Miami that would also benefit the whole city and region by having an MLS team back in South Florida.

The detractors think that the project is too ambitious, and others want to save the golf course. It is being rumored that a golf course, range, and training center are being added to the newest Freedom Park renderings, potentially as a compromise as residents will decide at the polls.

Beckham deserves some credit for sticking with the Miami opportunity for over five years. His bid was not tied to any specific geographical area. He could have pursued a new bid in San Diego, Tampa, or another area where MLS is seeking to potentially add a franchise. He stuck with Miami despite numerous setbacks and uncooperative political and community support at points.

The counterpoint there would be that Beckham stayed with Miami because the market has the most potential financial upside. The demographics of the city coupled with the size of the TV market and the weather all combine to make that an attractive site for a future expansion franchise.

Freedom Park, as the name suggests will ironically have its destiny determined by a democratic voting mechanism known as the referendum. The people will decide whether or not the site should remain a golf course and green space, or whether it will become the site of the next MLS franchise.

In either case, the remaining issue at hand is that Beckham, the Mas brothers, and his other investment partners are running out of time to get this Miami team up and running. It may result in five years of futility for Beckham, and it will leave MLS with no choice but to go in another direction as they look to expand the league.

MLS Expansion: Cincinnati Named 26th Franchise With An Assist From The Uncertain Future of Crew SC

The domestic soccer world learned on Tuesday that Cincinnati has been granted admission into MLS (Major League Soccer) as the 26th franchise in the top circuit in North America. The “race to 28” which is the expansion plan by the league to get to 28 franchises by the year 2020, has long been detailed here on Frank’s Forum.

The Cincinnati club will begin play in 2019 and will fill a void in that area of the map for MLS as they look to expand their reach into new markets for soccer. The bid was successful based on a variety of factors: they have an established fan base as the current USL team there has shattered attendance records averaging over 24,000 fans per game and frequently selling over 30,000 tickets to home matches, they have a stable investment group of local business leaders, and they have plans for a new stadium with government support.

However, in my view, the Cincinnati bid for expansion was fast-tracked because of the uncertainty surrounding a current MLS franchise (an original franchise no less) the Columbus Crew SC. Some fans of MLS may already be aware, but for those who are unaware, the situation in Columbus is this: the franchise operator Anthony Precourt wants to move the team to Austin, TX and they are in the middle of a lawsuit in Ohio with a group that aims to keep the team from relocating.

The desire to relocate to Austin was not pulled out of the ether, the impetus for the move was due to a common theme in pro sports in America: a dispute over a new stadium. The Crew play in the first soccer specific stadium to be built in MLS in Columbus, which was a key component of their bid back in the mid-1990s to get one of the original bids for franchise ahead of Cleveland, which had no plan for a dedicated stadium for a soccer team.

However, that facility in Columbus is now viewed as outdated compared to other state of the art facilities that have been constructed by other MLS franchises in the two decades since the Crew SC were born into the league. The plan hatched by Mr. Precourt was to use Austin as leverage against Columbus and see which city gave him the best deal on a new stadium; which is a move that has been used by other owners in other sports for years.

Columbus officials felt that the residents would not approve any measure allocating public funds (tax revenue) towards the construction of a new soccer facility for the team. They countered with a plan to renovate the existing stadium to make some enhancements that would benefit both the players and the fans.

Mr. Precourt balked at the renovation, and according to reliable news outlets, began privately ratcheting up his negotiations with Austin public officials stating that he intends to move the team to the Texas capital city. This brought about the court action which has taken several twists and turns in the past few months. It also angered the investment groups bidding for expansion teams in other markets because they were seen to be ahead of Austin in the running for a spot and saw this maneuver as Austin trying to “cut the line” and gain a team without going through the full expansion process.

In my perspective, the circumstances surrounding Crew SC provided the conditions for Cincinnati to gain an expansion bid ahead of other cities because MLS was looking at the prospect of having no franchise presence in Ohio. The population demographics and the geographic location of Ohio makes it a critical market for any professional league from a business standpoint.

The Cincinnati entry into MLS next year “covers their bases” if Precourt moves Crew SC to Texas. The bid for Cincinnati had a leg up on other bids because they do not have to wait for a stadium to be built – they are going to play in their current home, Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati for a few years. This enables the club to join and begin play seamlessly in 2019 because they are not rebranding the USL club colors.

This is to take nothing away from the investment group in Cincinnati or the Mayor or other public officials there who put together a very organized bid compared to other cities who have struggled (Sacramento, Detroit, and St. Louis jump to mind). The plan for the West End stadium is very bold and innovative and will seek to achieve what so many other MLS stadiums have been commissioned to do in the past: turn around a blighted neighborhood of a major American city.

The league now will have a presence in Ohio regardless of what happens in Columbus which will appease the major national sponsors and the league’s TV partners: ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision. FC Cincinnati will have a natural rival with the new Nashville expansion team which will be joining MLS soon as well, so if Columbus does lose the Crew, the regional rivalry can be easily ramped up with Nashville.

The demographics for Cincinnati and Austin are similar, both are attracting young professionals starting their careers or under 35 years old: MLS targets this demographic and covets it. The officials in Austin have big plans for a stadium there for soccer and they would have built-in rivals with FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo both playing in the Lone Star State currently for MLS.

The court action has damaged the business for Crew SC this season, with bad weather and fan apathy playing a part in dwindling home crowds for the matches held there so far this season. I was watching past games via the ESPN+ app which has the streaming rights to all the MLS games, and the home match I saw with Crew SC had camera angles showing an nearly empty stadium.

The court proceeding has played out very publicly in Ohio throughout the media. The latest tactic by the group in Columbus was to attempt a court injunction using the “Modell rule” which was adopted after Art Modell moved the Baltimore Colts NFL franchise in the middle of the night to Indianapolis. The rule seeks to prevent a current team owner from relocating a team without first providing another group in the team’s current local area from putting together a competing proposal to purchase the team.

The counterpoint argument by Mr. Precourt’s attorneys was very smart. I have written in the past that MLS is a single entity model structure which means that MLS owns all of the teams and the local groups are “operators” of the franchises. The legal argument was that MLS was the owner of Crew FC, not Precourt Sports Group, and MLS owns many teams in many states, so as operator of a franchise Mr. Precourt was essentially just following orders.

In the end the court will decide and that ruling could be appealed to a federal court because it is considered interstate commerce and a bunch of other legal jargon being thrown around will serve as a distraction. It will serve as a distraction from the fact that MLS wants to be in Austin because they think it provides a better long- term demographics forecast in the future than Columbus. The translation: they can make more money in Austin and play in a new facility with better revenue controls than the deal they have in Columbus.

Those factors all benefitted a Cincinnati group which was a little late to the expansion table, to get a seat ahead of other entrants who have been working for many years to put all the pieces together for a successful bid. The MLS walks away a winner because the Cincinnati team will be very successful at drawing fans because they have proven that already, they potentially gain access to the untapped Austin marketplace without giving up an expansion spot to another city, which means the league will still be able to add two more teams to get to 28 franchises.

The situation in Columbus is fluid as are the developments in Detroit with the land swap deal with the site of the jail, Sacramento and their quest for a stable “operator” to join the investment group, Phoenix trying to get their act together overall, and St. Petersburg trying to convince MLS that a third Florida franchise makes long-term business sense.

The league is growing, my own view is that I hope it does not grow too large that it collapses due to over expansion, only time will tell.

MLS Soccer Expansion Update

Major League Soccer (MLS) has been in the sports news lately with more announcements regarding the expansion of the burgeoning league to new markets in North America. The league currently sits at 20 teams and plans to get to 28 as a target number at some point in the future.

The first round of expansion sites gained more clarity over the last few weeks with the league announcing that Atlanta will join as the 21st franchise and Minnesota United will join as the 22nd team in the fast-growing top league in America. Both teams will begin play in 2017, which was the long rumored expectation for Atlanta because they will play in the new NFL stadium downtown; but a surprise in the case of Minnesota.

The Minnesota expansion bid had been mired in a stadium land site situation that was finally resolved with the club announcing it will construct a new facility in St. Paul but that project is still in the initial phases. The team will play in 2017 (and beyond until their stadium is ready) at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. That facility just finished a stint serving as the temporary home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings while their new football stadium was being built. MLS has been targeting Minnesota and the Twin Cities market for years to fill a geographical and TV market / media market void and now achieved that goal. The new facility that will eventually open in St. Paul looks amazing.

Atlanta FC, which is owned by Arthur Blank, announced that their franchise broke the MLS season ticket record for an expansion team with sales of close to 22,000 season ticket plans since the announcement. The Atlanta area also represents a huge television market and a growing population that is increasingly culturally diverse and interested in the sport of soccer. That expansion decision looks like it will be a “home run” for the league and they will play at the new downtown domed stadium which will have a system that will cover over the unused seating levels, similar to the system used in MLS currently by the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Next Round

The next round of expansion will feature the rebranded LAFC and the Miami re-entry with David Beckham and his investors. Both of these bids have had some twists and turns. They are also similar in that they are both in cities where the MLS is currently (L.A.) and was previously (Miami) and they are both essentially reboots from past league miscues.

LAFC as it is currently known is the rebranded replacement for the now disbanded Chivas USA, which was a team that shared the L.A. market with the Galaxy and also shared the same stadium as the Galaxy, and none of that worked or connected with the fans.

Chivas USA was owned by the same group as a major pro team in Mexico, and those owners treated the MLS team like a minor league farm team and invested little to no money in it. The results were very bad for the league and for the on-field product and resulted in a league buy out of the Mexican group and the disbanding of the team a couple of years ago. MLS made a concurrent announcement that they were planning a new rebooted LA team to take the place of Chivas USA at a later point.

LAFC has some big name Hollywood owners and a lot of star power. The owners secured land for their own stadium near the old LA Sports Arena where the Clippers used to play their home games. They will be launching with a whole new look and will no longer share a stadium with the Galaxy. The league and those involved with the new club there look like they will get this right, after the first attempt at a second LA franchise went so completely wrong.

Miami is a whole other story, but a similar narrative. MLS was in that area with a team called the Miami Fusion back around 2000-01 and they played their games out in Fort Lauderdale. That proved to be too far from the city center and the attendance and the whole concept eventually was disbanded. The league has not returned to that city until now, and this bid has been handled very differently.

David Beckham was given a clause in his contract when he came over from Europe to join MLS and play for the LA Galaxy that allowed him to become the owner of an expansion team to play in a destination he chose for a greatly reduced entrance fee. The superstar chose Miami, and the team will play downtown and will look to correct all the issues which went wrong when the league tried and failed with the Fusion.

This Miami bid has had several stadium site selection issues and temporary stadium issues but it is all starting to take shape and looks like it will be a successful venture for the league in an important market for US soccer.

Done Deal

Once Miami and the new second LA team join the circuit that will bring MLS to 24 teams. The next bid that is all but a done deal to be approved is Sacramento. I have covered their quest for a MLS franchise in the past, and the smartest thing that they did is consolidate their bids because, at one point, the city had two groups bidding to land that coveted spot.

Those involved in the Sacramento bid moved forward with the group that operates the Sacramento Republic club, which plays in a minor league currently, but has set attendance records for that league. The city of Sacramento, which fought hard to keep their NBA team from leaving and were successful, banded together to move quickly on a stadium proposal to present to the MLS. The new stadium is planned for the area downtown around the old railroad yards.

The stadium built specifically for soccer is the key piece to any MLS expansion bid because it allows the teams and the league to enhance their profitability through control of the revenue streams. A club which would be leasing a stadium and playing as a tenant would not be financially viable over the long term.

Sacramento has gained some highly reputable investors and has impressed the MLS executives with their persistence in gaining a franchise. They are also in the position of offering a scenario where the league has a natural rivalry with the San Jose Earthquakes in the same region (also important to MLS expansion) and that the team will not compete for fans with another major league team, for the most part, because the NBA season ends in April and the MLS season gets underway in March.

The bid does lack some important aspects such as Fortune 500 companies in the area for corporate partnerships, and the media market is a medium size compared to other bidding cities. However, MLS will have added the second team in LA, the Miami franchise, Atlanta, and Minnesota which are all large media markets; by the time they would consider adding Sacramento. The Kings also enjoy the support of some pretty strong regional corporate sponsors, and the capital city of California has some attractive features because many companies of all types visit there to do a variety of business matters.

The Sacramento Republic minor league team has an established fan base which would remain loyal to the team in their transition to MLS, which is a very important aspect of any expansion bid. I have to give credit to Sacramento they worked together and made took this bid from an outsider to what experts feel is the consensus pick for the 25th franchise in MLS.

Gateway to the West

St. Louis has long been known as the “Gateway to the West” and they have a long and rich tradition for soccer in America. The city has drawn upon that deep history coupled with an opportunity that arose out of a separate situation which was initially very negative, to put together a bid for an MLS expansion team. The St. Louis bid is said to have impressed the MLS executives with decision making authority so much that reports state that their bid is on a fast track for approval.

The roots of professional soccer began in America in the early 1900s, most people do not realize the hotbed that St. Louis is for the sport in our country. The city has been host to a number of professional teams through the years for both indoor and outdoor soccer. The St. Louis Stars played in the old NASL for ten years from 1967 to 1977 before moving to California.

The St. Louis Steamers were an indoor soccer team which set attendance records, and the city is currently home to St. Louis FC which plays in the USL Pro minor league system. The city has attempted to bid for an MLS team in the past and failed, most recently when the league expanded by two teams in 2010.

St. Louis submitted a bid, but due to some issues with the stadium plan and lacking a viable ownership group, it lost out to Portland and Vancouver. MLS at that time did not like the idea of their team sharing a facility with the Rams or playing at Bush Stadium and sharing that with the Cardinals. The plan back in 2010 for a new soccer stadium had several issues.

The three keys to a successful MLS expansion bid are fan support, a stadium solution, and local ownership. The St. Louis bid is building their fan support through the USL Pro team, they have multiple local ownership groups with some prominent people from the sports and business community involved, and the stadium solution is taking shape.

The stadium plan for the St. Louis bid is probably the biggest issue they have right now overall, but as I wrote earlier, they are taking a negative situation and turning it into an opportunity. The negative situation was that St. Louis lost their NFL team, the Rams, who relocated to Los Angeles this spring. The opportunity is that the city officials and those involved with the push for an MLS franchise are planning to use the land that had been initially set aside for a potential new stadium for the Rams as a site for a soccer specific stadium.

The land is on the riverfront adjacent to the Gateway Arch, which FOX Sports, ESPN, and others have reported that concept for the stadium site appeals to MLS Commissioner Garber. The city is also in close proximity to Kansas City and Chicago to form regional rivalries with those teams, which is another appealing aspect of the bid. It is going to take a significant amount of time to get all of the key elements aligned, but St. Louis is gaining traction toward the goal of adding a MLS team now that the city lost the Rams. It is a really interesting bid.

Motor City Gains Ground

The Detroit bid for MLS expansion has gained some serious ground in the race for the final three spots if you believe that Sacramento is basically in as the 25th franchise. The league has kept close tabs on Detroit for years regarding potential expansion because it fills a void in their national footprint in that region, it is a large television market (which enhances the value of future media rights deals), it is ethnically diverse which fits for the fan base of the “global game”, and it has excellent potential for corporate partnerships compared to other cities.

The latest in the Motor City bid is they are grooming a fan base with their minor league club, they have deep pocketed business leaders (billionaires Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores) interested in getting a seat at the MLS table, and they have a plan for a new soccer stadium in the same downtown area as the new Red Wings hockey arena. This bid bears watching as it continues to gain traction.

Charging Through

The San Diego bid for an MLS franchise is in some ways similar to the St. Louis bid because it is tied to the fate of an NFL team, in this case, the Chargers. In the event that the Chargers fail to get a new football stadium deal approved for the downtown waterfront district on Election Day, then I think the parties involved on the city and county level will turn their attention to getting the MLS into San Diego.

The bid is a lower priority in compared to keeping the mega bucks potential that the NFL provides the city, which is much the same way it played out in St. Louis earlier this year. In the event that the Chargers relocate to Los Angeles, the most likely course for a soccer stadium for the MLS bid would probably be a massive rebuilding and reconversion of the old Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley to seat around 30,000 and convert the other space for alternative use.

The trend in MLS has been toward stadiums in a downtown or centralized area in an urban setting, but that cannot always be the case for every city in the league. The downtown concept gets tricky with the San Diego bid because the city does not own the land.

The Mission Valley scenario is a more viable option because the city owns the land and businessman and former San Diego Padres owner, John Moores, got the exclusive rights to bring professional soccer to the area when he signed the deal allowing the team to change hands when they moved into their new downtown baseball stadium.

San Diego could be a destination city for MLS with the great weather, the proximity to the other teams in California, the diversity of the population base, and the commitment of local ownership. The issues with the bid are that the stadium would most likely not be downtown, and it is very close to two other teams in the league in Los Angeles which could be seen as market oversaturation.

The Outsiders

These cities have bids that are, at this time, equivalent to the outsiders looking in: Phoenix, Nashville, Cincinnati, San Antonio, and Austin. These bids would stand a better chance if MLS eventually determines they have enough financially viable markets with sustainability in place to expand beyond the 28 team target to 30 teams.

The league would undeniably be interested in Phoenix because of the size of the metro area population and the role that soccer could play in that marketplace. The issue right now with their minor league team is that it plays way out in the Valley suburb of Peoria, which MLS stated will not work for their league.

The local ownership could be a problematic scenario as well as getting funding for a soccer stadium in downtown Phoenix. I think this bid has too many issues to be a serious candidate until some of these issues can be resolved. The local government does not want to pay for improvements to be made to the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks stadium, so I get the feeling they are not going to jump to publicly finance a portion of a soccer stadium.

Nashville could be a really good fit for MLS and they would run mostly opposite the NFL’s Tennessee Titans schedule, so the overlap would not be a big issue. The bid has many potential owners interested but it lacks corporate sponsors and is not a very large media market, which are detractions. The stadium site and financing plan also could bear out some major concerns. This situation would take several years before the bid could merit serious consideration.

Cincinnati is a whole other story even though it is relatively close in proximity to Nashville. The “Cinci” bid has one very big positive that the MLS brass in New York have noticed: tremendous fan support for a market of that size. They have had great turnout which is the first part of the three traits I covered earlier. The other two components: local ownership and a stadium plan are the two areas which need details to be worked out. The corporate sponsorships have better potential than other bids and some of those business leaders may step forward and head an ownership group. The government support seems good but not great in so far as the stadium and other hurdles that need to be cleared.

San Antonio has long been a rumored destination for MLS expansion with the minor league team, the Scorpions, being the best selling point for the bid. The MLS execs do not like the location of the current stadium (which would need to be expanded and renovated anyway) and reports indicate that they want a downtown site near The Alamo before they consider this city for expansion. The stadium is a huge piece of the bid for an MLS team because it is the main revenue driver.
The league was also not thrilled with the Scorpions management but they were just sold recently to the owners of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs (one of the best run franchises in all of sports). The Spurs management should be able to successfully market that team and present a pretty compelling pitch to MLS executives for expansion to that growing market.

I must state, in full disclosure, that I am a proponent of the MLS expanding to San Antonio, I think it would work really well because it is a growing population base with the right age and cultural demographics. However, I have read that the league views this as more of a long shot, especially if they favor two other bids from other markets. San Antonio could be left without a seat at the table.

Austin is the final market I will touch upon in this feature piece on MLS expansion. It is certainly an interesting market because it fits with the overall millennial/youthful targeted marketing for MLS at this point. It is also a high growth area for jobs and the team would have good corporate support. The team would be the only professional sport in the city, which the MLS looks at very favorably because they are not competing for dollars with other teams.

The team would have political support both locally and regionally, but it lacks a viable ownership group at this point in time. It would also be the smallest market in MLS if it gained entry, which will be a concern and leave some to think that San Antonio might be the more sustainable option in that region for expansion.

Austin does have a USL team currently but it would need a stadium plan for a new facility that is up to the standards of MLS. I think that is too many variables and hurdles to put together to have a viable bid for expansion even by 2020.

It is clear to me through my research and covering this topic in the past that MLS soccer is growing in popularity and has a significant number of interested cities for potential expansion. The downside to that scenario is what the league and the current owners must be wary of, and that is that rapid expansion was the main culprit for the demise of prior major professional soccer leagues in America. MLS must remain cognizant of this fact if they do not wish to meet with similar peril.

A Huge Win: New York Red Bulls defeat Real Salt Lake

The New York Red Bulls earned a huge victory on Saturday night over Real Salt Lake in front of a spirited home crowd at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. The final score was 4-3 with the game winning goal coming from Dax McCarty in “stoppage time” in the 94th minute.

 

It was the third goal of the season for McCarty, and it could not have come at a better time for the Red Bulls, who with this victory drew to within one point of first place Sporting Kansas City in the Eastern Conference of Major League Soccer.

 

A Wild Start

 

The match got off to a wild start with the Red Bulls striking first on a beautiful goal by star midfielder Tim Cahill. That put the home team up 1-0 and got the crowd energized early.

 

Then, a controversial call gave New York a penalty shot just minutes later on a play where the two players got tangled up in the penalty area. The Red Bulls converted the penalty shot and held a 2-0 lead.

 

However, just before halftime, the referee made another controversial decision inside the penalty area. This time, the foul was called on the Red Bulls, which resulted in a penalty shot for Real Salt Lake (R.S.L.).

 

On the replays, I thought the call could have easily gone the other way, because the R.S.L. player was trying to impede progress to the ball as well. In any event, Alvaro Saborio buried the penalty shot passed the Red Bulls goalie, Robles, and now it was a 2-1 score line at the half.

 

A Second Half of Wild Momentum Swings

 

The early minutes of the second half featured renewed vigor by the short-handed R.S.L. side, who were missing key players due to injuries, suspension, and U.S. National team commitments for the Gold Cup.

 

R.S.L. played like the best team in the league by stringing together precision passing with brilliant runs by their deftly skilled offensive players. They caught the Red Bulls off guard up the side touch line, and New York made a series of successive defensive mistakes which allowed R.S.L. to get the ball to Saborio.

 

Saborio drilled a shot past a diving Robles, who was playing out of position when the pass entered the penalty area, and now we had a “level” match at 2-2.

 

The Red Bulls fought back and battled the skilled R.S.L. side but had another series of lapses defensively and Alvaro Saborio netted his third goal of the match on a shot that no goalie in the world could have saved. The team from Utah had scored two goals in a 10 minute span to take the lead 3-2.

 

The collective energy was drained out of Red Bull Arena, I sat at home watching on MSG Network in complete shock. I could not believe that the Red Bulls had a two goal lead at home, and now trailed R.S.L. in this match.

 

 

 

The Comeback and the clincher

 

The Red Bulls again battled back in this match. A critical moment came in the 89th minute when the referee called yet another foul in the penalty area, this time on Real Salt Lake, which resulted in another penalty kick for New York.

 

Fabian Espindola, who in my preview on Friday I wrote was a key player for New York, drilled the penalty shot past Jeff Attinella, the R.S.L. goalkeeper, and the match was tied again 3-3. It was, in my opinion and that of other reporters, Espindola’s best game in a Red Bulls uniform.

 

Due to the high volume of fouls called in this game, the referee signaled for five minutes of stoppage time to be added on. The two sides exchanged more aggressive back and forth battles for possession of the ball, in what was a fast paced match from the opening kick until the final whistle.

 

It was a chess match between the two coaching contemporaries: Mike Petke for New York and Jason Kreis for Real Salt Lake. Both teams came well prepared and seemed able to counter the moves of the other side.

 

In the 94th minute, time running out, in what I thought was going to end as a tie, thus giving New York only one point in the standings, the Red Bulls broke through. A beautiful pass into the penalty area was driven home on a diving header by Dax McCarty into the back of the net past Attinella.

 

McCarty ran and pulled off his jersey and tossed it into the stands in elation. The home crowd was going wild, the Red Bulls won the match 4-3 in stunning fashion against the best team in MLS.

 

Looking Ahead

 

The MLS All Star Game will be held this Wednesday night (9 PM EST, ESPN2) in Kansas City. The Red Bulls will be represented by Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.

 

Then the Red Bulls will play in Kansas City against first place S.K.C. on August 3rd in a huge game for both teams. The Red Bulls continue their road swing playing at Columbus on August 10th and then returning home to face the Philadelphia Union on August 17th. The road ahead is difficult but this win should provide a great deal of confidence as the Red Bulls begin the second half push to the playoffs.

 

 

New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake : A Huge Match for Both Teams

The stakes could not get much higher for a regular season game in Major League Soccer (MLS) than Saturday night, when the New York Red Bulls host Real Salt Lake at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ at 7 PM.

 

MSG Network will have the TV coverage in the New York / NJ metro market, and believe it or not, the local ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City will be airing this match live for that market and their loyal fans.

 

Background

 

The Red Bulls enter the match in 2nd place in the Eastern Conference tied with the Montreal Impact with 32 points (www.mlssoccer.com). The last game played by New York was on July 20th which ended as a 0-0 tie in Toronto.

 

The Red Bulls have allowed 0 goals in their last two games and they trail Sporting Kansas City for first place in the East by 4 points (www.mlssoccer.com).

 

Real Salt Lake (RSL) enters this match as the top team, not only in the Western Conference, but the top team in the league with 37 points. They hold the lead in what is known as the Supporters Shield which is the name of the honor given by MLS to the team with the best overall regular season record (www.mlssoccer.com).

 

The team from Utah is a powerhouse team with a record of 11 wins 6 losses and 4 ties. The match on Saturday night will be the only regular season meeting between the two teams this season.

 

The two teams met last season in Utah in the second game of the season in March 2012, and RSL defeated the Red Bulls by a score of 2-0 (www.nbcsports.com). The all time head-to-head record for the meetings of these two teams has New York with a record of 3 wins, 5 losses, and 7 ties. The Red Bulls have won all three of those games in the series at home against RSL, the information on the records was provided by MLS archives on their website.

 

A Fan’s Perspective

 

My perspective as a fan that watches the Red Bulls frequently is one of excitement and cautious optimism for this big match. New York plays really well at home in front of their dedicated fans at the Red Bull Arena.

 

The Red Bulls are coming off a disappointing result to Toronto FC where they could not score a goal against a team which is one of the worst defensive teams in the MLS. So they need this game as a “bounce back game” or as former NFL legend and soon to be Hall of Famer, Warren Sapp, would call it a “get right game”.

 

Red Bulls head coach, Mike Petke, will have his team prepared well for this match. He knows RSL coach Jason Kreis very well as they are contemporaries having played in MLS during the same period of time, and then moved into coaching immediately after their playing days ended.

 

I have seen Real Salt Lake play a few times here and there this season, and have read the news coverage around them throughout the season. The team was my preseason pick to win the MLS Cup championship this year. My prediction looks pretty solid right now.

 

RSL is a very talented team with incredible depth. They will need it on Saturday night because, in another key reason why I like New York to win this game, RSL will be travelling east very short handed.

Beckerman, Beltran, and Rimando (their starting goalkeeper) will all miss this game because they will be playing for Team USA in the international tournament called the Gold Cup (www.nbcsports.com).

 

Then, Saunders (their backup goalie), Salcedo, Schuler, and three other role players are out for this game due to injury. Finally, Chris Wingert, who is a key player for their side, is suspended due to his total of yellow cards for rough play (www.mlssoccer.com).

 

Analysis

 

In watching Real Salt Lake play, and having played soccer myself and with my tactical knowledge of the sport; I have observed some things about their approach and strategy. They are very well organized, they play excellent defense, and can be very well disciplined.

 

They tend to stay pretty narrow through the midfield, using shorter, more precise passes to transition into the attacking third of the field. They have very talented forwards, notably Robbie Findley, Olmes Garcia, and Joao Plata. That trio is very dangerous and the Red Bulls need to be prepared defensively to combat their attack.

In the midfield, they have in my opinion, their most talented player in Javier Morales. Morales is a dynamic playmaker and passer, who can also put shots on goal with great accuracy. He is a very difficult player to defend, and the Red Bulls are going to have to determine their best man to defend him pretty early on in this game.

 

Their fullbacks also have a tendency to slide up into attack position, particularly their outside fullbacks, which can create problems for their opponents. However, I think New York has the personnel to counter this element of their attack.

 

The big wild card in this game is Jeff Attinella, he is their number 3 goalie, but because of the injuries and the players missing from the Gold Cup, he will start in goal for RSL on Saturday night. He has very limited experience, and I think the Red Bulls can capitalize on that inexperience to win this match.

 

The Red Bulls looked very tight when I saw them play against Montreal on July 13. The offense looked incredibly crisp, and defensively they played very well and had excellent structure in that game against an outstanding offensive opponent.

 

The key players for the Red Bulls are: Fabian Espindola, Tim Cahill, Thierry Henry, Dax McCarty, Jamison Olave, and their goalie Luis Robles.

 

McCarty makes that list because he may have to mark up and defend Morales. Espindola is playing against his former team, having spent many years with RSL, it will be his first game as well as Olave’s first game against their former teammates since the offseason trade which landed them both in New York.

 

Olave looked solid to me in the Montreal game, he was all over the defensive third of the field making plays on the ball. The play of Robles too was very impressive, he was very good at protecting the goal, particularly on corner kicks. He will be tested early and often by RSL in this game.

 

Tim Cahill should be able to make some plays through the midfield to transition the Red Bulls in this game, and I think Henry is determined to have a great performance against RSL, who he has always respected. If you remember, it was Henry that really engineered that trade for Espindola and Olave because he liked the RSL style of play and wanted those guys with him in New York.

 

Henry and Espindola both being “on their game” in this match could be too much for a shorthanded RSL side to handle.

 

Prediction

 

I think the Red Bulls win this match by a score of 3-1. I like that they have the home field advantage, a more talented group of 11, and RSL has an inexperienced goalkeeper. It should be a great match, which could be a championship game preview. I look forward to watching on Saturday night, and reviewing it next week. My favorite team, the Red Bulls against the best team in Real Salt Lake. This is MLS soccer at its best.