A new era of Seattle Sounders player development kicked off on Sunday. In the most important ways, it was a huge success. Wade Webber’s Tacoma Defiance looked dominant in their first-ever MLS Next Pro match against Real Monarchs, traditionally one of the best developmental teams in MLS.
The 4-0 scoreline made it obvious enough — Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez had a brace; Dylan Teves had a goal and an assist; Sam Adeniran closed out the scoring; and there were several other chances that came close. Another first-team loanee, Stefan Cleveland, posted the shutout as well.
In short, the Defiance looked like a team that will enjoy quite a bit of success in this new league, especially when they’ve got a host of players on loan from the first team as they did in their season-opener.
How well this serves to actually develop players — as opposed to just keeping them warm for the first team — remains to be seen, but based on the limited evidence we currently have, there should no real complaints from an on-field perspective.
Off the field, it’s a much more open question.
If, like me, you were trying to watch the game via stream you know what I’m talking about. Unlike previous seasons, Defiance games are only available through the league website. The good news is that it’s free. The bad news is that the quality of the stream reflects the price and screams “minimum viable product.”
From what I’ve been told, the league decided to forgo live camera operators and in-person announcers, instead opting to utilize panoramic cameras that are effectively edited by artificial intelligence with remote announcers operating off a video feed. The result was a choppy broadcast that felt very different from anything we’re used to seeing. Although the camera could track the ball well enough when it was around midfield, it often got lost when passes were played quickly upfield. This was most frustrating when the quick ball-movement resulted in shots that were out of frame, and the AI-camera operator even missed a couple of goals. Compounding the problem was an inability for viewers to pause or rewind the action and the complete lack of replays or on-demand viewing.
In short, it was not a product that appeared to be designed for fan consumption.
I suppose from a purely practical perspective, this makes sense. Talent evaluators have what they need, with access to the unedited panoramic video, and if talent development is the only thing MLS Next Pro is concerned about, this is a defensible position.
But ever since the launch of this new third-division league, we’ve been told that MLS considers this a product that is designed to appeal to fans and that they’re hoping to package these games into the streaming product they’re hoping to sell to broadcasters in the future.
I have been told that some of these issues are likely to be addressed in the short term. The nature of AI is that it is a learning technology and will naturally improve with time, and viewers should have some basic stream controls within weeks. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the quality will improve, even if only marginally, in the near term and they’re apparently hoping to get to the point where they can show replays and offer on-demand viewing. I’m also sensitive to the idea that the league promised to be innovative both on and off the field from the start, and some growing pains are to be expected. It’s even possible that I just happened to watch a particularly bad stream.
None of this does much to disabuse me of my initial skepticism, however. Launching a new league is not easy and elevating its relevance in the minds of fans can be even more difficult.
From the beginning, officials have been pushing back against the perception that this is just going to be a reserve league by a different name. I’m willing to believe that the quality of play will, indeed, be elevated from that poor standard. But it’s also worth considering that for all its problems, the reserve league’s streaming quality was often better than what we saw from MLS Next Pro during its inaugural weekend. While it’s tempting to chalk this up to “week 1 problems” the reality is that this league was publicly unveiled more than eight months ago and it’s a bad sign that the streaming product was ever in this state. I don’t think prospective fans are going to be completely turned off by one bad game, but the longer it takes to address these issues the harder the job will be in winning them back.