New England Soccer Today

Hello, Neumann

Photo credit: Kari Heistad/capturedimages.biz

Welcome back to the latest installment of “Hello Neumann,” where former Revolution midfielder Steve Neumann joins us to offer his perspective on the state of American soccer and MLS.

In this edition, Steve talks about the MLS expansion race, which has taken a number of twists and turns in recent months.

NESoccerToday: From what you’ve seen and heard, what is the general attitude of the players when it comes to expansion? I’ve seen a lot of different opinions expressed from the players’ perspective about the situation.

Steve: From conversations I’ve had, the general sentiment is that expansion is a good indicator of the growth of MLS. Higher expansion fees and team valuations mean more capital to spread around with some of that (hopefully) going to the players.

One concern is that the more MLS expands, the more diluted the quality on the field becomes. I think it’s clear, though, that the additions of high caliber players such as Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro and Romain Alessandrini have lifted the overall standard of the player pool in MLS. The league is slowly but surely becoming a league of choice not just for international players in the primes of their careers, but also domestic rising stars who are willing to pass up contracts with European teams to play in MLS (i.e. Jordan Morris). It’s a very unique characteristic for the sport of soccer, unlike basketball or football, to have a global talent pool. So, as long as top class players are still being enticed by the option of playing in MLS, I think the on-field product will continue to be elevated, regardless of how many teams enter the league.

Attracting foreign talent does come with a downside for domestic players though. As seen in recent years, MLS rosters consist less and less of American born players. Domestic talent will continue to get squeezed out of roster spots as more experienced and accomplished foreign talent enters the fold. The MLS leadership must be very cognizant of not just expanding the number of teams and the commercial value of each team, but also investing heavily in the development of young players within our country. There is certainly a massive volume of youth soccer players in America, and as the sport continues to grow in this country, our youth players must also improve uniformly.

There’s been a lot of debate about the “right” number of MLS clubs. What do you think is the ideal number?

Steve: After this round of expansion, the number of teams in MLS will balloon to 26 (possibly 27 if Beckham can make Miami happen). Following this expansion, I don’t think MLS should rush into further expansion. I’m not saying they shouldn’t ever consider it, just not in the short-term.

Although expanding too fast should always be a concern, I don’t foresee a problem (given the rate of growth continues at the current pace) with another increase to 30 teams somewhere down the road. At the end of the day, if new ownership groups continue to be willing to pay $150M+ to enter MLS, it will be hard for Don Garber to cap the teams anytime soon. Something else to consider is that our country covers a lot of real estate, and adding teams in untapped geographical areas will reduce the amount of travel teams must make for each game and allow different cities and regions to adopt a preference for soccer that they otherwise wouldn’t – forcing soccer into the national conversation.

It seems like the Miami expansion bid remains somewhat murky. What do you think needs to happen to get the Miami bid back on track?

Steve: It all comes down to the stadium. David Beckham and the rest of his ownership group have been ready for quite some time to enter the league but have not been able to secure a site to build a stadium on. Unfortunately, getting city approval to build a stadium is no easy matter (as seen in New England and more recently in St. Louis). As much as I’d love to see David Beckham lead an MLS organization, without a stadium plan secured, I feel time is starting to run out for a Miami MLS team.

Which market do you think is the most ripe for expansion right now?

Steve: With the perennial frontrunner, St. Louis, now all but eliminated from consideration, the MLS expansion race is once again wide open. A few bids that stand out for me are San Diego, Phoenix, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Petersburg/Tampa – all for different reasons.

The San Diego bid has gotten a lot of buzz in the media, for good reason, given their plans to build a privately financed stadium along with a $2.5 billion “SoccerCity” redevelopment project which includes residential units, housing, office space and more. In addition, MLS will surely want to fill the void left by the NFL’s San Diego Chargers relocation to Los Angeles. If San Diego can get their SoccerCity plans approved by the city, I think San Diego will be proudly supporting an MLS club in the near future.

The Phoenix bid has recently garnered a lot of support and attention. The one knock on this bid is that Phoenix isn’t a city that has been known to have a traditional soccer following. But I think that concern is alleviated by the addition of Didier Drogba to their USL team (and ownership group) which has turned some heads in many MLS circles. It’s also worth mentioning the Phoenix bid boasts a strong ownership group that includes famous musicians Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy) and Diplo (DJ), an approved privately-financed stadium plan (air conditioned), and the second-largest TV market of the bid cities. I think Phoenix is well positioned to earn an MLS bid when Don Garber announces his decision later this year.

Detroit is the largest TV market of any of the bid cities and is located in the coveted Midwest region that MLS has wanted to expand its footprint in for years. But most importantly, for me, the bid is led by an ownership group consisting of Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers owner) and Tom Gores (Detroit Pistons owner). When those two come knocking on the doors of MLS, you most certainly want to open up.

FC Cincinnati drew over 23,000 fans to their home opener. For reference, that’s a USL team that needed to remove the tarp from some of the seating at Nippert Stadium to accommodate more fans for their game against St. Louis a couple weekends ago. This devoted fan base is certainly ready for a jump to MLS, and I think FC Cincinnati deserves to make that jump right along with them.

The St. Petersburg/Tampa bid checks most of the boxes that MLS is looking for. This bid contains a privately-financed stadium in a prime waterfront location, a committed ownership group led by real estate developer Bill Edwards and the largest Designated Market Area (DMA) of any of the bid cities. One concern is that this region is already occupied by the incredibly successful Orlando City MLS team, but a Tampa vs. Orlando rivalry would undoubtedly be a fun one to watch develop.

Finally, Sacramento and San Antonio both have very advanced stadium plans, so they should both be in the running come decision time.

As it stands, the race is pretty wide open. If I had to pick, I’d say San Diego, Phoenix, Detroit and Cincinnati (pending stadium approvals). A lot can still happen before Garber makes his final decisions, but I think there is a lot for neutral MLS fans to get excited about for this round of expansion.

Expansion typically brings new soccer stadiums into the league. Do you think the league is mounting more pressure on clubs that don’t play in soccer-specific stadiums (like NYCFC and the Revs) to get their stadium situations squared away?

Steve: I would hope that the league is getting to a point when having a soccer-specific stadium is a requirement for teams in the league. There is nothing more off-putting to the casual (or avid) soccer fan than seeing football lines (or a baseball diamond) on a soccer field.

One thing that makes the atmosphere at soccer games so unique is the intimacy that soccer stadiums provide. Believe me, I know from experience that 20,000 fans all standing together in a fully packed soccer stadium doesn’t just make for a better gameday atmosphere, but it is also more aesthetically pleasing for TV viewers. I would think that all the New England soccer fans would agree that although they love the Patriots and the Kraft family for their many years of NFL success, a soccer stadium for the Revs is long overdue.

Also, just the idea of having a league that has all of its teams playing in soccer specific stadiums will go a long way in shedding the ‘little brother’ label that MLS has in comparison to the so-called ‘top four sports leagues’ in America. I know getting stadium sites approved and financed is easier said than done, but man do I look forward to the day of a football-stadium-free MLS.

3 Comments

  1. MLS in MIAMI (@Miami_MLS)

    April 26, 2017 at 8:57 am

    MLS in Miami will happen. The fans are 100 % behind this project.

    • Steve Neumann

      April 26, 2017 at 9:07 am

      I hope you’re right. I’d like to see it happen.

  2. Ed

    April 26, 2017 at 10:18 am

    Great info. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *