Saturday, June 16, 2012

How MLS is conquering the world dressed in orange

Yeah, that headline is a tad hyperbolic. But it's fun sometimes, yeah?

For the appetizer tonight I'll reproduce here an exclusive that runs in my newspaper Sunday morning. It's a bit basic, but remember, this is a large group of soccer-illiterate Americans I'm ministering to here. You've got to bring them along slowly sometimes.

I'll be back up later with some more discerning thoughts from the game for thinking fans. T'was another derby classic deep in the heart'a Texas.

The beard strikes.
HOUSTON — Every mighty blaze can trace its origin to the strike of a lowly spark. In the new century, no entity has lived that maxim any more accurately than Major League Soccer.

As countless World Cup cycles came and went, when the U.S. Men's National Team flailed about unsuccessfully in World Cup qualifying, things looked bleak for the game of soccer in America. There was no league here and interest waned into the red after Pele left the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League folded in the early 80s.

When MLS was founded in 1996, things didn't exactly go from bad to great overnight. The struggle the league encountered is that nobody in this social media-crazy world of hyper-analysis has ever seen a major league in a major sport grow from infancy, essentially created from nothing. MLS' overall revenue stream, which doesn't compare with behemoths like the NFL and MLB, has been picked over by the American public like a rotting armadillo carcass. The league's smaller stadiums are sniped apart with venom. No matter that MLS is the same age as Midway High's current junior class.

In the intervening 16 years since the league lifted off, things have changed. Stadiums are fuller than ever before. MLS set a league-wide record for attendance in 2011 and gate sales are already up 10 percent this year.

To witness the growing thing myself, as I often do, I traveled Saturday to the FC Dallas-Houston Dynamo game Saturday at Houston's brand new BBVA Compass Stadium. This was the only meeting between the two bitter Texas rivals this year, and while El Capitan, the canon awarded to the winners, couldn't sound due to city regulations, its shadow loomed large over the contest.

Houston came out 2-1 winners over FCD, and the game came down to a thrilling 76th minute winner from midfielder Adam Moffat, a Scot who speaks with a charming brogue. What caught my eye more than anything was the attendance figure: 22,039. It was the fifth sellout in five games at the new stadium, and this one was broadcast nationally on ESPN2.

"You hope people are watching," Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear said. "It's been a pretty healthy rivalry over the years, not only regular season but in the playoffs. There have been some Texans that have played in Brek Shea and Stuart Holden to name a few. I think Texas is a good place for young soccer players to come up and be professionals. If people want to come and watch the game live here or turn on the television and it inspires them to go out and play another half an hour a day to make themselves better, then that's wonderful."

The evidence of a legitimately exciting soccer infrastructure was everywhere Saturday, milling about the tailgate areas outside and jammed into the orange creamsicle seats inside en masse. The traveling FC Dallas' supporters group streamed in about 90 minutes before the game, crammed back into a top corner with their red and white hooped shirts and flags and set up shop loudly.

But the real show was staged by the fans in orange. They showed up in the thousands, and you could've heard their chants from across the lot into the neighboring Minute Maid Park. The Texian Army packed into the seats behind the south end zone, and a black flag with white Spanish lettering properly relayed their prevailing sentiment: "Somos pocos, pero locos." We are few, but we are crazy.

Indeed, minutes before the opening kick, a Houston fan lit an orange smoke flare as the massive orange fan banner 20 rows wide and high came barreling down. It was a literal sea of orange, smoke billowing out from underneath the flag as drums thumped out a rhythmic beat.

I had to pinch myself. This was not South America. This was Houston.

I can remember days when MLS was more idea than reality, when empty seats glared back at any television crew brave enough to weather the bad TV share to broadcast a game. It isn't surprising that in a country that values four sports above the world's game — football, baseball, basketball and hockey, in that order — the public would give a brand new American league that opened its doors in the mid-90s an icy welcome. After all, as Americans, we expect the best. We have no reason to compromise on this, considering we have it in all four of our major sports leagues. MLS has never been this and likely never will be. Accepting this will be a hard sell for on-the-fence Americans.

To explain how far the league has come in a relatively short amount of time, allow me to use Houston's new stadium as exhibit A.

BBVA Compass Stadium is a venue with some of the wrapping paper still taped onto its gleaming exterior, having opened to the public officially with its first game on May 12 this year. It moved the Dynamo away from the woefully unequipped Robertson Stadium and added yet another soccer specific stadium to the league's booming ledger.

There are now only four teams without soccer specific stadiums in MLS, which added its 19th team in Montreal this season. DC United, San Jose, Seattle and New England all play in repurposed stadiums, though Seattle averages nearly 40,000 per game. Times are changing.

Whether or not soccer ever truly catches fire in America through MLS is a debate for another day. But it's no longer a spark either, and that feels pretty good.

- Will Parchman

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