MLS should cash in on World Cup popularity
PIGGY BACK. Those two words should be all over smart boards and dry-erase easels at Major League Soccer headquarters in New York.
Those two words should be all over smart boards and dry-erase easels at Major League Soccer headquarters in New York.
It's a design that the league followed in 1995, "piggy-backing" the success of World Cup 1994 in the United States. Flash forward 15 years, and it's a term that can be used again, with this World Cup in South Africa arguably the most publicized and most hyped ever in America.
With every pulse-pounding moment captured in uninterrupted high-definition quality on the ESPN family of networks and Univision, there is little argument that the buzz for soccer in this country is higher than it's ever been.
Our region has been inundated since the arrival of the CONCACAF Gold Cup last summer. Since then, the region has hosted numerous soccer events and has welcomed the latest installment of an MLS franchise, the Union.
And while the Union is off to a slow start, the buzz is at an apex with Sunday's opening of PPL Park, the $122 million soccer-specific stadium on the waterfront in Chester. Tickets for Sunday's first match against Seattle Sounders FC have been sold out for 2 weeks and sections of the 18,500-seat palace are completely sold out for the rest of the season. The opening couldn't have happened at a more perfect time for a team that still has more than half of the games remaining on its 30-game schedule. The Union is undefeated at home (1-0-1, at Lincoln Financial Field) and a slew of upcoming matches at PPL Park may be just the thing to break out of the expansion funk.
The success of the World Cup - specifically the success of U.S. national team in the World Cup - has fueled the frenzied fire that Union execs, such as CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz, hope won't burn out.
MLS and the Union begin Phase 2 of the season this weekend following a 2-week respite for the games in South Africa.
"Talk about good timing," Sakiewicz said. "The excitement of the World Cup and this U.S. team has exploded in this country and we [as owners] are trying to take advantage of people's awareness. Philadelphia has always been a strong market for soccer in this country and I think with the events that have taken place over the last year or so [in Philadelphia], in addition to what we are trying to provide our fans here in the region, prove just that."
MLS has continually provided coverage of the World Cup on its website to keep the buzz going. But underlying questions do remain.
How will the league fare while two of its biggest stars in Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle, both of the Los Angeles Galaxy, are spearheading an improbable World Cup run?
What are the provisions to keep fan excitement at a premium?
Here at home, despite the team's shortcomings, it appears the Union has figured out the right way to pique interest, but has the league?
With the impact the World Cup has made in America in just a few short weeks, if the MLS can piggy back this fever pitch, it just might find a nice chunk in its piggy bank.
Let's give an honest grade of the Philadelphia Union. After careful review of each position over the span of 10 games, taking into account the eight-game road swing, a demanding coach and the fact that this is an expansion team, here's what I have gathered thus far.
Fans have yet to see the prowess in New England import Brad Knighton and UCLA rookie Brian Perk, but in Chris Seitz, we're hearing a lot of everything but seeing a lot of nothing. Seitz, 25, has a 2.10 goals against average in just 10 games and has yet to notch a shutout. In his defense (no pun intended), Seitz has the build, athleticism and tenacity to be a top goalkeeper in MLS. The question is does he have the confidence, and how long into the season do you wait to find that out?
The back line of Christian Arrieta, Danny Califf, Michael Orozco Fiscal and Jordan Harvey has got to get better in this part of the season. The quartet has missed assignments, caused reckless fouls and has made it tough for Seitz to not look mediocre. With stints in Los Angeles, San Jose and for Danish club FC Midtjylland, Califf has provided leadership and has seen tons of good soccer; he knows that his and his line's performance are not going to get it done. Same goes for Orozco Fiscal. While he is young, he has heaps of experience at high-level competitions, which is what got him a look from U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley in February. Those two have to be instrumental at keeping the opposition at bay and keeping the ball away from Seitz' 18.
The one bright spot in manager Peter Nowak's starting 11 is a solid midfield core. We have witnessed the emergence of utility man Shea Salinas, and the pairing of Fred and 18-year-old phenom Roger Torres has provided scoring chances in all 10 games. Fred likes to attack, but has looked better suited as a holding midfielder. Torres' vision and touch is dangerous both in the run of play and on set pieces alike. And, on occasion, Stefani Miglioranzi and Andrew Jacobson have complemented the middle quite effectively.
Alejandro Moreno's grit, Sebastien LeToux' scoring touch and rookie Danny Mwanga's ability to be in the right place at the right time recently have made the Union attack corps very exciting to watch, especially toward the stretch heading into the World Cup break. Youngster Jack McInerney, 17, has been a welcomed surprise as his soccer awareness and maturity are well beyond his age. In February, after scoring the clincher in a 5-0 preseason win for the Union over the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, Jack Mac quipped, "I score goals. That's why they brought me here, that's my job and that's what I do."
Total grade: C+
Odds and endlines
The Union bested Reading A.C., its developmental squad, 2-0, Wednesday night in Exeter . . . Tickets for the July 21 match against Manchester United at Lincoln Financial Field aren't sold out . . . Fans interested in seeing the World Cup in Philly can text PhillyBid to 22442, which will automatically sign a petition that has already amassed more than 25,000 signatures.
Shots on goal
Seattle Sounders FC (4-6-3) at Union (2-7-1)
When: Sunday, 5 p.m.
Where: PPL Park, Chester
On the web: Streaming webcast on MLSSoccer.com
For kicks: In the second of two home openers, the Union will take on Seattle, the team it played to open the 2010 Major League Soccer season . . . Seattle forward Nate Jaqua has been removed from the disabled list and could start up top with forward Freddie Ljungberg. Jaqua, a 9-year MLS veteran, missed the season opener with a tear in his lower abdomen . . . Swiss forward Blaise Nkufo will join the Sounders following the World Cup . . . The Union will hold a lighting ceremony in front of the PPL EnergyPlus gate on the northwest side of the stadium at 2 p.m. tomorrow. Some notables scheduled to attend are Union CEO and operating partner Nick Sakiewicz and PPL EnergyPlus senior vice president Gene Alessadrini.
INJURY REPORT (as of Tuesday)
Questionable for the Union: Stefani Miglioranzi, MF (R foot contusion); Shavar Thomas, DF (illness)
Seattle: No injuries to report
HE SAID IT
"Obviously with all the events we have had in the last year the soccer world recognizes Philly. If only Philly recognized soccer." - Anonymous
Who scored the first goal in Major League Soccer history and who was it against?
A. Cobi Jones against Tampa Bay
B. Eric Wynalda against D.C. United
C. Roy Wegerle against San Jose
By Jamie Clary, author of "The First American Soccer Trivia Book," available at: www.soccerprofessor.com. Send search engine-free answer to: email@example.com. First to respond with the correct answer will receive a copy of Clary's book.