Being a Sounders fan, it's easy to be lulled into the belief that soccer in general, and MLS in particular, are about the hottest thing in American sports.
We see posters all over town. It seems like every other business has a schedule posted in its window. There are many bars in town where you can simply assume soccer will be playing on the big screen. You can actually feel the excitement as the World Cup looms ever closer on the horizon. Oh, and our soccer team regularly draws crowds that MLB teams would salivate over.
So, you could be excused for assuming all is well in the world of Major League Soccer.
Unfortunately, Week 1 attendance paints a slightly different picture.
2010 average MLS attendance (Week 1, eight games): 17,921
2009 average MLS attendance (Week 1, seven games): 17,095
Yes, average MLS attendance was up. But with the Sounders opening up about 4,000 extra seats and the New York Red Bull (24,572) nearly doubling their average attendance of a year ago (12,491), this was almost a foregone conclusion. Looking behind the numbers a little, we find at least two causes for concern.
- Columbus drew just over 13,500 against their biggest rival (Toronto) in the first game of what many believe could be a championship season.
- Dallas once again brought up the rear with just over 8,000 despite playing against their in-state rivals (Houston).
These teams have at least two things in common: Soccer specific stadiums and being owned by Hunt Sports Group.
Just a week into the season, you can bet MLS officials are at least a little bit worried. Soccer specific stadiums are planned in San Jose, Houston and Kansas City, but are still at precarious stages of development. Numbers like these could scare off politicians who are probably still less-than-convinced that soccer stadiums are the best use of public resources. (I don't think Portland and Vancouver have the same concerns.)
As has been said many times before, this is about as important a year in MLS's development as any since its inaugural season. The league simply can't afford to have situations like these cast a gray cloud.
I realize the Hunt family is one of the pioneers of American soccer, but something is obviously wrong. (And I'm far from the only person to notice, as Match Fit USA and Daily Soccer Fix, among others have written about FC Dallas' struggles at the gate.)
Moving either team is not a viable option if MLS ever hopes to get those stadiums built for the Earthquakes, Dynamo and Wizards. You can say the same thing regarding talk of consolidation.
It would seem this would be the perfect time for MLS to make good on its pledge to phase out dual ownership. With expansion teams fetching prices approaching $50 million, you have to imagine someone out there would be willing to take one of the two teams off the Hunts' hands.
I know this must seem like a world away for Sounders fans. I can assure you, though, this is certainly our problem as well. If MLS is to ever become a world-class league -- and by extension the Sounders are to become a world-class club -- we can't afford to let situations like this linger.
With labor peace assured for at least five years, new stadiums opening, new clubs getting ready to play and World Cup bringing increased attention to the sport, MLS needs to address problems like this in clear and decisive ways. Figuring out what's wrong with Dallas -- and to a lesser degree Columbus -- should be near top of that list.