In the same week that a Major League Soccer club president proclaimed that some MLS games are simply too boring to watch, attendance figures for 2009 revealed an alarming drop.
So the question becomes this: Are the two items related?
Are fewer fans going to watch MLS games because the quality of play has been found wanting, or is the drop merely a reflection of the economic downturn?
Attendance was down by more than 20% in Los Angeles, New York and Boston, and by almost as much in Washington, where Kevin Payne, D.C. United's president and chief executive, was slapped with a $5,000 fine by the league for speaking his mind.
Payne, the brother of Galaxy president of business operations Tom Payne, told the Washington Post that the style of some MLS teams, who play not to lose rather than playing to win, is not helping the league.
"There are a lot of games in our league that I can't watch," he said. "The problem in our league isn't who is or isn't in the playoffs; it's that not enough people want to watch our league yet, and we have to convince them that our league is worth watching."
The D.C. United boss overstepped his mark when he named specific teams as being guilty of playing sleep-inducing soccer, something that incurred the wrath of the league office, brought about the fine and also caused Payne to apologize.
But the fact remains that he is correct. There are games in MLS that are unwatchable, far too many of them. And when the click of a television remote can bring the passion and drama of international soccer into the living room, why trudge to an MLS stadium to watch lesser fare?
In fact, were it not for the expansion Seattle Sounders and the MLS-record average of 30,897 fans they attracted to Qwest Field, average attendance leaguewide would have plummeted by 9% rather than by only 2.6%.
With the Philadelphia Union making its debut next season and already selling tickets at a decent clip, and with the economic recovery seemingly taking hold, MLS could turn things around in 2010, but only if it also keeps a closer eye on the product on the field.
Take the cue from Seattle. Its playoff opener against the Houston Dynamo on Thursday night might have ended 0-0, but there was enough on-field incident and commitment from both teams to keep the rollicking crowd of 35,807 on its feet and yelling.
Seattle and Houston had the best defensive records in the league in 2009, but the teams both played to win, providing a game that captivated fans who were there as well as those watching from afar.
That's the formula to follow.
Saving the day
Saturday marked a watershed day for Brad Friedel.
The former UCLA and Columbus Crew goalkeeper made his 200th consecutive English Premier League start for Aston Villa.
It is a a Premier League record. The old mark of 167 consecutive starts was set by England national team goalkeeper David James.
Friedel, 38, soared over that plateau last November and has now extended the string to an almost unapproachable figure.
"I can't see the record ever being broken -- not in my lifetime, anyway," Aston Villa Coach Martin O'Neill told reporters in Birmingham, England, before Friedel on Saturday helped Villa earn a 1-1 tie with Everton and its own American goalkeeper, Tim Howard.
"Brad Friedel has been an excellent goalkeeper for a long, long time now," O'Neill said. "I don't think you can play 200 consecutive games and not be good. He has been very influential at the club and on Brad Guzan."
Friedel, the hero of the U.S. run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, has played for half a dozen clubs, including Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers, but Guzan, 25, could turn out to be a two-club man.
The former Chivas USA 'keeper is Friedel's understudy at Villa and Howard's No. 2 on the U.S. national team. With Friedel still in top form, Guzan rarely gets a chance, but last week he did and grabbed it in astonishing style.
Aston Villa defeated Sunderland on penalty kicks to advance to the English League Cup quarterfinals. Guzan not only kept Sunderland off the scoreboard for 120 minutes but saved a penalty kick by Trinidad and Tobago international striker Kenwyne Jones in regulation and then saved three penalty kicks in the shootout.
Sunderland Coach Steve Bruce was stunned. "Their goalkeeper's had one of them nights he's going to remember for the rest of his life," Bruce told the Guardian newspaper.
O'Neill was equally effusive.
"He was excellent," he said. "His was a fabulous, fantastic performance. He's got everything, and he's as brave as they come. Friedel has been terrific for us, but Guzan was immense tonight.
"I can't remember the last time a 'keeper saved four penalties, but, by the end, I was almost expecting him to save them."
To give credit where credit is due, it was former Chivas and current U.S. national team goalkeeping coach Zak Abdel who honed Guzan into the player he is and is going to be.
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*--* Team 2009 Avg. 2008 Avg. Difference Seattle Sounders 30,897 -- -- Galaxy 20,416 26,009 -21.5% Toronto FC 20,344 20,120 +1.1% Houston Dynamo 17,047 16,939 +0.6% Real Salt Lake 16,375 16,179 +1.2% D.C. United 16,088 19,835 -18.9% Chivas USA 15,092 15,114 -0.1% Chicago Fire 14,689 17,034 -13.8% Columbus Crew 14,447 14,622 -1.2% San Jose Earthquakes 14,114 13,713 +2.9% New England Revolution 13,732 17,580 -21.9% New York Red Bulls 12,491 15,928 -21.6% FC Dallas 12,441 13,024 -4.5% Colorado Rapids 12,331 13,659 -9.7% Kansas City Wizards 10,053 10,686 -5.9% League 16,037 16,460 -2.6% *--*