As fans of the New York Red Bulls hurled expletives and anger at their team's corporate overlords this past weekend, fans throughout MLS sat back and applauded.
In the Northeast, however, there may have been something more. Sympathy. Nodding of heads. Agreement. A sense of, "We totally get it, and though we're not at that point yet, we might eventually have to do the same thing with our club."
Because right now, the state of the professional sport in the Northeast is pretty weak compared to what it could and should be. And that owes itself more to off-field flaws than anything else.
The recent dysfunction of the New York clubs prompts this observation. NYC FC's signing of Mix Diskerud may silence some of the critics, but the club still feels like Manchester City's minor league affiliate, something that should annoy any New York soccer fan. Red Bull's firing of Mike Petke laid clear just how out of touch the former Metrostars' corporate overlords are with the fan base.
But it isn't just New York.
Professional soccer in the northeastern U.S. has fallen behind
Professional soccer in the Northeast has been lagging behind the rest of the league for some time.
The last two teams in the league playing in mostly empty American football stadiums? New England and D.C. United.
The most out-of-touch owners in the league? Red Bull, New England, and possibly NYC FC.
Want a dysfunctional wild card? We offer Philadelphia.
Each case differs slightly.
On the field, it's a mix. Things change season to season in a league that creates parity through its player acquisition rules and salary cap. New England, D.C. and the Red Bulls all had good seasons on the field, for example.
Off the field, you can see the clear trends showing the poor health of these franchises, financially and otherwise. They still don't fill their stadiums. Fans still have negative views toward ownership. And so on.
D.C. United: Yes, D.C. United just (finally) got approval for construction of a new stadium and produced a worst-to-first turnaround in 2014. But that stadium isn't built yet. The stands are still entirely too empty.
New England: Team owner Robert Kraft has demonstrated no credible moves toward building a soccer stadium for his club, and the stadium atmosphere in Foxborough continues to be one of the league's worst.
NYC FC: City could be a historic failure or massive success. Nobody knows. But we know they need different uniforms (light blue with Yankee pinstripes, guys; it's not that hard!) and an actual soccer stadium, that's for sure.
New York Red Bulls: This team needs new owners who acquire the right to rename the team the New York Cosmos. Red Bull has proved incapable of taking the next step to make this club more relevant.
Philadelphia: Two months after team chairman Jay Sugarman emerged from Dick Cheney's underground bunker to outline a vision that sparked some optimism, the Union still have 1.5 assistant coaches (on paper at least), no dedicated general manager, and a part-time consulting contract with the guy they probably would have hired as manager if they could afford him (Rene Meulensteen). On the bright side, everyone likes Jim Curtin.
What explains the trend?
When we evaluate Major League Soccer's progress, rarely do we look at the health of the league within broader regions or groups. Even with "Cascadia," most focus on the Seattle-Portland rivalry and phenomenon.
Instead, we tend to look at the league as a whole, or we focus on individual clubs. The Los Angeles Galaxy superclub, for example. Toronto FC and its big-spending futility. The Seattle phenomenon. Portland and Kansas City and their small market successes. Or just the concepts of MLS 2.0 or even MLS 3.0.
So let's try a different approach. Look at the region.
Why is the professional sport's health in the Northeast so poor?
There are various factors, notably the challenge of cracking a crowded pro sports marketplace. But on the whole, it comes down to ownership, their view of MLS and their investments, and their priorities.
You can demonstrate the Northeast trend best by looking at contrasts with other regions and groupings of clubs around MLS.
Contrast: Pacific Northwest
Start with the Pacific Northwest. Some may point to their long histories of professional soccer in the region as being significant. It helped, but as a smaller factor.
More significant is the nature of the Cascadia markets and owners themselves.
Each city is generally regarded as culturally liberal, opening them up more to a professional league other than the traditional big four (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL).
Portland and Vancouver each have only one team represented in the big four, and the Sounders arrived immediately after the NBA's Supersonics moved to Oklahoma and while the NFL's Seahawks and MLB's Mariners were mired in miserable stretches spanning several seasons. The competition for the professional sports dollar is less.
The Cascadia team owners are among the most engaged in MLS, and they have capitalized on their cities' potential by putting out good products.
Contrast: Successful small market clubs
Now move on to the successful small market clubs in Kansas City, Salt Lake and Portland. (Yes, Portland overlaps.)
All three clubs have become successes due to engaged ownership, smart marketing, first class facilities, and positive club cultures in which high standards and clear visions were established in the ownership suite, enacted by successful coaches, and locked into place by quality players who created continuity by not shuffling between teams.
Players like Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio and others stayed in Salt Lake for a reason: It was a quality organization. (It's losing its luster under new owner Dell Loy Hansen, but the dip in quality under a new owner only proves the point of how important ownership is.) Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, and Roger Espinoza prove the point in Kansas City. Portland is getting there.
Contrast: The gold standard in Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Galaxy are the best club in MLS because they possess all the same traits as the successful small market teams - and they're in Los Angeles. If not for the fact that they were the league's top club off the field just a bit too soon, their stadium might be in downtown Los Angeles instead of Carson, and the gap between them and the rest of the league would be larger.
The Northeast clubs lack all this
The clubs in the Northeast have none of these traits, however.
Their ownership groups are remarkably disengaged, and their fans know it, hate it, and reflect it by disengaging from the clubs sooner than they might if they maintained hope that ownership was up to par in a competitive environment.
The teams lack continuity on the field. None of them has a sizable nucleus of players that can reasonably be traced back more than two years. (New England may be getting there though.)
They compete in crowded sports markets where fans can easily check out and spend their time and money on teams in the other four major sports.
The stadium situations faced by New England, D.C., and now NYC FC are part of the problem, but the other two northeastern clubs show that's not the only problem.
Just when the Red Bulls started to overcome their corporate identity and name by forging a successful identity under Mike Petke that felt more like working class New York/north New Jersey and less like foreign billionaires' playthings, Red Bull went and tore out the heart of the club by firing Petke. Now they're back to dysfunctional square one.
Despite the Union's own gem of a stadium, they keep teasing their fans that they're about to become something special - typical Philly sports, right? - before finding some strange off-the-field means of mucking it up.
Three of the four northeastern clubs (that have played a game) are MLS 1.0 clubs, and they have problems that linger from the league's earliest era. The fourth club, Philadelphia, entered the league under the presumption that they were entering a type of league that no longer has the same expectations it once did. Seattle (and Toronto, to an extent) changed the game, but they did it after the ball was already rolling on the Union's expansion effort.
Solutions: Start off the field
The solutions to the region's professional soccer malaise begin off the field, and most of them are fairly self-evident.
Stadiums: New England, D.C. and NYC FC need soccer-specific stadiums housing 25,000 to 30,000 fans. Without that, they will not create the great stadium atmospheres found in Kansas City, Portland and elsewhere.
Engaged ownership: Owners need to act and look like they care about their teams and their fans. It's not enough to care privately, as the Union's Jay Sugarman appears to have done. It's also not enough to merely act like you care, like the Krafts have done unconvincingly for years. You must prove it to your fans.
Continuity: These teams must retain talent once they find it. Los Angeles, Kansas City and Salt Lake have demonstrated how much this matters for the quality of play but also for the connection fans have with players. Kansas City paid what was necessary to retain Zusi and Besler, and it demonstrated to the soccer world just how serious a club they were. Bruce Arena and AEG do it and over and over again. Salt Lake showed before those two did how important it was to build and retain a nucleus.
It's not easy to crack a crowded sports marketplace, and the northeastern clubs aren't the only ones struggling to do it. Dallas, Chicago and Colorado have similar challenges.
But only in the Northeast is it a region-wide malaise. These clubs should be the foundation of the league. Instead, they're the negative counterpoint to Cascadia.
Get more coverage of Major League Soccer and the Philadelphia soccer scene at The Philly Soccer Page.