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Reports hit American news wires on Monday that an MLS team, the New York Red Bulls, had made a blockbuster deal and brought Barcelona star and French International Thierry Henry to American shores, trying to add to the international mystique David Beckham brings to the MLS. Today, Henry is rejecting the story and saying his primary concern is preparing for the World Cup next month. However, the initial story was fueled by Barcelona director general Joan Oliver, who said that reports of Henry coming to America “were not completely wrong.”
By all accounts Henry is a stand-up guy, particularly how he handled (no pun intended) the egregious miscall in the World Cup qualifying match with Ireland that sent France to South Africa and Ireland home. So I’m sure Henry didn’t want to bring any extra attention to his move to American next year during the build up to the World Cup. In other words, this is definitely going to happen but it won’t be announced until August. But, is it a good thing for the MLS?
It’s certainly happened before – that is – bringing in aging international superstars to play for American teams in hopes of there being a burgeoning market. It was relatively successful in the short term but ultimately failed.
In 1966, England won the World Cup and the entire English speaking world (minus America) was aflutter with excitement. Some astute businessmen in the U.S. saw an opportunity to get into a phenomenon early and make some good change. In 1967, two professional soccer leagues started in the U.S. The first was the United Soccer Association (USA) and was officially sanctioned by soccer’s governing body, FIFA. The second was the unsanctioned National Professional Soccer League (NPSL).
Although the USA was sanctioned by FIFA ,their first big mistake was importing entire rosters of foreign teams and just plopping them in an American city and giving them American names. In comparison, even though the NPSL was unsanctioned, the league had a TV contract with CBS. The only problem was that at the end of the season the TV ratings were disgusting…even by daytime weekend standards. The leaders of both leagues huddled the wagons to try to figure out a way to right the ship. Many of those folks were not soccer people (admittedly) and were more interested in the business side of things, so they decided to reduce competition and combine leagues – thus forming the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1968.
Attendance and interest grew (albeit slowly) over the next ten years but seemed to be doing much better in some places rather than others. Not to mention that during this time frame, the American sports market was enamored with American football – particularly after the merger of the AFL and the NFL in 1966. The most successful team by far during this time frame (at least from a financial point of view) was the New York Cosmos. The Cosmos basically developed the initial model of bringing in aging international superstars that the MLS is following right now. Initially, they brought in Brazilian super star Pele in 1972 and German international Franz Beckenbauer in 1977. The Cosmos brought in an average crowd of 40,000 fans per game and during their 1978 championship game at Giants Stadium the crowd totaled 73,000+. The league was no joke, at least when the Cosmos were playing.
Even still a few years earlier, other teams in the NASL showed they had legit talent. In 1968, Manchester City, the reigning English First Division champions, came to the U.S. for a tour to help gain fans in a new market, and promptly lost to the Atlanta Chiefs 3-2. Their manager tried to explain away the result, saying it was a freak occurrence and that Atlanta was garbage. As fate would have it, a game with a Mexican team got called off, so Atlanta challenged Manchester City to a rematch. Manchester City finished up their west coast tour (losing to the Oakland Clippers) and returned to Atlanta for another game which they then lost 2-1.
The point is, however, that outside New York, many of the other teams in the NASL were averaging about 5,000 fans at games and hemorrhaging money. Eventually, after a few weak attempts at bringing the league indoor, the NASL folded.
Many people speculate that because Mexico got the nod over the U.S. to host the 1986 World Cup that soccer couldn’t sustain the interest here in America. Many of the teams saw the success of the Cosmos and overpaid for international talent and when they weren’t getting the fans at the games they couldn’t stay afloat.
For starters, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the world is a much different place than it was in the 1970’s. Mass mediums of communication make it much easier to stay connected with fans and with the worldwide scene for sports. You can now be an avid fan of Real Madrid and know nothing about your home MLS team. In fact, that is often the case. More importantly soccer fans in the U.S. are much more intelligent about the game now. Even though the NASL failed – in its failure it spawned the movement of having soccer be the No. 1 youth sport in America today. More than ever, kids that grew up primarily playing soccer are getting older and have disposable income. But, don’t let the awareness of the game fool you into thinking it will be much easier to gain larger scale support. If anything, it’s going to be more difficult because the average fan can tell the difference between top flight play and mediocrity. I can turn on Fox Soccer Channel on any given weekend and see the likes of Chelsea or Bayern Munich playing the best soccer in the world. Sure, I might turn out to Gillette when Beckham comes to town, but will I come habitually? Probably not.
In my opinion the only way soccer is going to get the credit it deserves here is by producing a truly remarkable international talent. Someone where it is universally agreed that this player is an absolute stud. After all, America loves a winner right? But how does this happen? It happens at the youth level and discovering and cultivating talent from a young age. The good news is we’ve started to do that with the appointment of Claudio Reyna as Youth Technical Director. The bad news is we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.