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SOCCER

Not to stick a (Space) needle in MLS' balloon, but is it sound?

First-year success in Seattle, site of Sunday's MLS Cup between the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake, is encouraging for Commissioner Don Garber and his league. But beneath surface there are troubling signs.

November 21, 2009|By Grahame L. Jones
  • Seattle's iconic Space Needle features the MLS Cup logo.
Seattle's iconic Space Needle features the MLS Cup logo. (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)

Reporting from Seattle — The MLS Cup logo gleams from up high, freshly painted atop the Space Needle, along with the logos of the Galaxy and Real Salt Lake.

It's a sign that the 14-year-old league's championship game has finally arrived in the Northwest; it will be played Sunday at Qwest Field between the aforementioned teams.

It's also a sign that the "dog and pony shows" have hit town. Call it hokey. Call it a sales pitch. It's here.

On Wednesday, for instance, when the M/V Tacoma lurched up to Pier 52, the ferry had on board former UCLA and Galaxy coach and current Seattle Sounders Coach Sigi Schmid, as well as former UCLA and U.S. national team winger and current Sounders technical director Chris Henderson.

Wouldn't you know it, they were bringing the sterling silver Philip F. Anschutz championship trophy to Seattle -- not the way they would have preferred, of course, which would have been to win it.

"MLS made a great decision in expanding to our region," said King County executive Dow Constantine, the obligatory politician on hand. "Here's a place where darn near every kid grows up playing soccer."

Then, on Thursday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber participated in an online chat on the Seattle Times website, telling the world that all was well with MLS and would be even better in the foreseeable future.

"This season will forever be known as one of the key moments in the history of soccer in America," Garber said during the day.

Finally, on Friday afternoon, Galaxy forward Alan Gordon and Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Chris Seitz were cajoled into Seattle's virtually unavoidable photo op -- tossing dead fish around at Pike Place Market.

It's all about buzz and image. And in Seattle, MLS had the soccer success story of the year, perhaps of the decade. So why not celebrate?

Beneath the surface, of course, and not mentioned too loudly on a championship weekend, are a number of niggling little issues and a few not-so-little ones.

MLS attendance, for example, was down 2% in 2009 to an average of 16,037, even though the Sounders averaged a league-high 30,897, even though Sunday's title game is a sellout, and even though Toronto FC has sold out every game in its three-year history.

The reality check comes with the knowledge that the New England Revolution drew a paltry 7,416 for a home playoff game against the Chicago Fire, or that the defending league champion Columbus Crew drew only 10,109 for its home playoff game against Real Salt Lake.

Then there is that old bugaboo, the MLS Players Union, long a thorn in the side of those team owners who prefer that their employees just do the work and accept what comes to them.

The league's collective bargaining agreement with the union expires on Jan. 31. The union wants a number of things, not the least of which is guaranteed contracts for its players.

Talk of a strike causes Garber to bristle. "Any discussion about a strike or a work stoppage at this point is totally premature," the commissioner said Monday during his "state of the league" teleconference from MLS headquarters in New York. Garber admitted, however, that negotiations with the union would likely be "difficult."

As difficult, in fact, as the San Jose Earthquakes, the Houston Dynamo and the Kansas City Wizards -- all former MLS champions -- are finding it to build their own stadiums.

As difficult, in fact, as getting television ratings for MLS regular-season games to hit a respectable level. The playoffs, when the games mattered more, did so, with the Galaxy-Houston finale at the Home Depot Center gaining a 1.4 rating on ESPN2, four times the league's usual number.

"The fact that we could attract 1.7 million people to an MLS game [on TV] is remarkable and a statement as to where MLS is today," Garber told Sports Illustrated this week. "There are soccer fans out there, and if you give them a great matchup and promote it well and schedule it right, people will come out and watch this game."

Image is everything.

Which is precisely the point that midfielder Freddie Ljungberg was making the other day. Ljungberg, who is to the Sounders what David Beckham is to the Galaxy, was upset by the appalling condition of the threadbare field for the Sounders' playoff game at Houston's Robertson Stadium.

It's another of those niggling issues for MLS, but as the former Swedish international pointed out, they have to be resolved.

"It's a show. It's a theater," Ljungberg said in a column he writes for ESPN.

"If the league wants to elevate itself to the next level, you have to give players the opportunity to play good football. In my opinion, the pitch in Houston wasn't playable. . . . My friends in Europe ask how I can play with American football lines on the pitch. Small things like that can mean a lot in terms of building respect outside of America."

But for all the faults, the future looks brighter for MLS than at any time in the past. Next year, the New York Red Bulls open their stadium in Harrison, N.J., and those who have seen it say it puts Carson's "cathedral of soccer," the Home Depot Center, into the shade.

Also in 2010, the Philadelphia Union, new stadium and all, brings the league to 16 teams, with Portland and Vancouver set to make it 18 in 2011 and Montreal on deck after that.

So if Seattle's rain departs by kickoff on Sunday evening, the silver lining Garber is forever seeing in the clouds might not be imagined. It might be real.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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