Sunday, December 7, 2008

A little vindication for American soccer . . .

I'm gonna take off my political hat here and talk sports. Admittedly, I hadn't heard much about Ivan Gazidis until this past week, when the news broke* that Major League Soccer's deputy commissioner was taking an executive position with Arsenal of London - one of the world's most celebrated sports franchises. But my experiences over the past four years or so as an emerging soccer fan have made me well-acquainted with Gazidis' success.
Gazidis' Arsenal appointment speaks volumes for MLS

" . . . Ivan Gazidis [is] the low-key, publicity-averse and very powerful deputy commissioner . . . Since 1994 — before MLS even opened the gates — the South African-born Gazidis has been behind the curtain. He has seen the American league go from a teetering fiscal wreck to a legitimate fifth major sport, and has overseen a dramatic increase in the quality of play.

But in January, Gazidis will be gone. In a move that just five years ago would have been unthinkable, an American soccer executive will be taking over the reins at one of the most storied clubs in the world — Arsenal of London . . .

In 1999, Gazidis was thrust into the spotlight after a scandal involving now U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and a player named Tab Ramos. The ensuing political fallout among ownership and players rocked the soccer community. First came Gulati's exit from MLS. Shortly after, then-commissioner Doug Logan followed his former second-in-command out the door.

At the time, MLS was also involved in a rancorous lawsuit with its players, and was bleeding money. Its core investors would be called upon twice in the following two years to save the league, with its darkest moment coming in January of 2002 with the Miami and Tampa franchises folding.

Six years later, while [Current Commisioner] Garber and Gazidis alike acknowledge that the current global economy will present grave challenges, each man points to the other's work in changing the world's perception of the American league. MLS is now here to stay. Gazidis says much of that was due to MLS' unwavering focus on the bottom line — something, he adds, European leagues and clubs will soon have to do as well.

'Here in the USA, we're our biggest critics,' said Gazidis. 'But in the football world community, there is a huge regard around the world and a tremendous thirst to learn from MLS and to adopt some of [our] best practices.'"
I'll admit right here and now that I am not some expert on soccer, how the game is best strategized, its history on the world stage, etc. Although I enjoyed the game as a player in several AYSO leagues when I was a kid, I'm something of a newbie as an adult fan. I lost contact with soccer for about two decades, but then was re-introduced and re-interested when I started watching Chicago Fire games four or five years ago.

I will say this though: people who scoff at soccer as boring can eat a dick. It's a beautiful and often brutal game. And when its played well, soccer is tremendously fun to watch. An as international sport with a unique heritage that makes it popular with around 4/5ths of the globe, soccer is very different from any other popular American sport, and with America's long history of exceptionalism . . . and incidentally . . . of being terrible at soccer, and wondering why they call it football . . . the game hasn't exactly thrived in the US. It's no secret that several professional soccer leagues in the USofA have folded due to a lack of fan interest, and a lack of solid planning. And even today's most die-hard soccer fan today wouldn't yet claim that soccer is the fifth major American club sport - in the same category as Baseball, Football, Basketball and Hockey.

But soccer is in a very lonely second-tier for American club sports. There are not many pro sports that occupy the same pseudo-major status that MLS enjoys in North America. If they keep building and growing - the league will be up to 18 teams by 2010, and having soccer-specific stadiums built is HUGE - it's not hard to imagine soccer becoming a fifth, or perhaps replacing hockey as the fourth major club sport in North America.

I remember my first Fire game at Soldier Field. The Fire played the Rapids and lost 2-1. Although I loved watching the game, the overall impact was muted because Soldier Field, with its 60,000 seats or whatever, is not the right venue for American soccer. Once I started going to games at the Fire's new stadium, Toyota Park, the game changed for me. It's a much better venue for soccer, and now the Fire packs it's 20,000 to near-capacity for many of their home games.

The people at the MLS are smart, and they're getting it done, and building . . . literally. They're getting soccer stadiums built all across the US. Toyota Park is just one example. Meanwhile, the league has established itself as viable, expanded from the original 10 to plans for 18, and the quality of play has improved dramatically. Gazidis' and his colleagues' competence at building the game, and its audience in America has been clear. No honest and knowledgeable soccer fan will tell you that the MLS isn't looking up these days. These guys have laid the groundwork for a legitimate major pro sport, right here in America. In Chicago, we get to routinely watch midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco - one of the pre-eminent attacking midfielders in the world - put on a Fire uniform every week - from April to November.

*Look, I'm linking to Fox! If only they stuck to sports.

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