It didn’t look good when Major League Soccer recently axed two teams. It looks even worse when you realize five teams that’s half the league are funded by one guy, billionaire Phil Anschutz. And Anschutz may not be finished yet because MLS is still looking for investors to operate teams in Dallas and San Jose.
Still, it’s easy for people to throw stones at the six-year old league and all its oddities without understanding the struggles it has gone through.
“People on the outside have the luxury of talking about what might, or, could be,” said Kevin Payne, managing director of the soccer division at Anschutz Entertainment. “I have to deal with what is. … It’s my responsibility to help those teams operate as best they can.”
Payne, former general manager of D.C. United, is now one of the most powerful men in MLS, overseeing United, the Chicago Fire, Los Angeles Galaxy, New York/New Jersey MetroStars and Colorado Rapids. But Payne says he will not be calling general managers and telling them what players they should pick.
“I will try and develop business practices,” Payne said. “If the Rapids are doing something that works, I will try and export that to everybody else. I may be working on global strategic opportunities that can benefit all five teams.”
MLS is a single-entity league, a sort of semi-socialist idea designed to create parity. All the players are signed by the league, and there is a $1.7 salary cap per team. Each club is run by an investor operator who has total authority over its operations.
Payne is quick to note that each club will retain its independence.
“The teams have always operated in a very arms-length fashion,” he said. “The teams are fierce rivals. The MetroStars and D.C. United do not like each other. … These are very competitive people.”
This season clubs will be able to keep a greater share of their local revenue, which Payne believes will make the league “a much more attractive business opportunity for investors” down the road.
In the recent restructuring of MLS, many players and front office workers lost their jobs. Veteran players like John Harkes and Eric Wynalda are suddenly without a team. But Payne says the changes will benefit the league in the future.
“I believe that in a few years once we get some of the stadium deals up and running that are in the works right now in places like New York, Dallas and D.C. we will see a lot of entrepreneurs in emerging markets become interested,” Payne said. “We want to be here in 25 years. We don’t want to be like those dot-coms that keep crashing.”
Meanwhile, Harkes, 34, who played with the Columbus Crew last season, might be on his way to the MetroStars if the New Jersey-based team fails to sign English defender Des Walker. There are reports that Harkes earned about $150,000 last season, but he may have to play for just $55,000 this year if he wants a job in MLS.
Gold Cup The U.S. team hasn’t exactly been overpowering in the opening round of the CONCACAF Gold Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., but you can’t argue with two victories.
The Americans beat South Korea 2-1 on DaMarcus Beasley’s dramatic injury-time goal last Saturday and downed Cuba 1-0 on Brian McBride’s penalty kick two days later.
“Obviously, we didn’t do well with our chances, but our mission was to advance and to evaluate players, and we did,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.
The U.S. team takes on El Salvador tomorrow in the quarterfinals at the Rose Bowl following Mexico’s game against guest team South Korea. Meanwhile, there already have been some surprising upsets.
Haiti beat World Cup-bound Ecuador 2-0 and Martinique downed Trinidad and Tobago 1-0. Haiti will play Costa Rica in the quarterfinals today, and Martinique faces Canada.
In other news, Mexico and Holland will join the U.S., along with another team, at the U.S. Cup scheduled for mid-May. The Americans will play Holland on May 19 at an East Coast venue, which could be RFK Stadium.
Women’s soccer It’s hard to believe, but the U.S. women’s team has gone two games without scoring a goal at the Four Nations Cup in China. The Americans lost 1-0 to Norway on Wednesday and played a scoreless tie with Germany yesterday. China beat Germany 2-1, with the Washington Freedom’s new acquisition, Pu Wei, scoring one of China’s goals.
Quote of the week United coach Ray Hudson on the local fans: “They know their game. You can’t con them. This is not North Carolina or some mom and pop outfit. These are hardened fans; knowledgeable championship fans. So you’ve got to sharpen your knives in front of them. And we will.”