Friday, November 11, 2011

An Altered State

Commissioner Don Garber gave his annual State of the League address via teleconference Thursday afternoon. Several of his comments are receiving media attention, like an imbalanced schedule and potential changes to the playoff format for 2012. Such alterations can easily be modified, though, year-to-year, if and as fans and critics voice their disapproval. But some of the Don’s comments are far more troubling in that they present paths that, if pursued further, may lead to trouble that can cause irrevocable damage and alter the state of the league forever.

After his initial statement, Garber answered questions from journalists. Predictably, questions surfaced regarding the possibility of a second New York franchise and the ownership of the Cosmos brand. Garber explained that the league now has an employee dedicated to working on a stadium in the New York region, that two-three viable locations are being considered, and that a selection of potential operator-investors will be made only after a stadium deal is in place. A full-time employee hired to realize a pipe dream is shocking. The problems facing a SSS project in NY are already well documented. But how are you going to get a stadium built without a team? The idea that MLS will build a stadium to then place a team is unprecedented and bizarre. No need to even get started on how grossly unfair this is to other potential markets. Not long ago the condition for getting a NY franchise was the ability to secure a stadium deal. Yesterday’s comments announce a shift, in that the league has assumed responsibility for building a stadium, in advance of any club to field a team to play in it.

The new owners of the Cosmos brand, Garber claimed, will be invited guests at MLS Cup but they remain merely potential partners with the league, not “front runners.” The pending lawsuit for non-payment of their sponsorship of the Blau Weiss Gottschee academy program won’t affect consideration. Although Garber has acknowledged that in the past he passed on the opportunity for the league to buy it from Pinton, he now claims to “believe the Cosmos are a great brand.” He also called Paul Kemsley a “great guy,” so it remains difficult to discern the Don’s authentic opinion.

Garber’s obsession with NY2 is problematic from a local perspective (when, where, how and at whose expense?) and must be horribly frustrating to those hoping expansion will bring MLS to their region/market. With all the problems that continue to plague the Red Bulls, one wonders why they don’t hire someone full-time at MLS to fix the current New York franchise. The focus and attention on the pipe dream of NY2 distracts from the crises facing existing franchises. Despite the Commissioner’s praise for the value of rivalries, the future of our archrivals is very much in peril. RFK is now raccoon colony while the Scum played the last year without a lease deal. Garber claimed that a move north to Baltimore is one option while relocation to another region all together is a very real possibility.

Great and grave changes may be coming to Major League Soccer in the near future. As much as we despise DC, it’s hard to imagine the league without them. We are the DC haters. But would any of us will them to extinction? Meanwhile, a local rivalry remains a prospect that may be shoved down our throats. There’s enough talent to justify operating three academy programs. But there aren’t enough MLS fans in the New York market to justify two franchises. A second team in the region will surely fragment an already fragile fanbase.

How different would things be if the Commissioner told New York soccer fans to support the team that represents them, rather than perpetuating the same vague promises we’ve been hearing for sixteen years and counting? Years ago, at the peak of their popularity while they played at Giants Stadium, the Cosmos nixed the notion of a second New York franchise to play in Queens, asserting their territorial exclusivity in the NASL. Only hubris and ignorance can explain comments from Chris Heck and Erik Soler claiming that the Red Bull organization would welcome a revived Cosmos as a second franchise to share the New York market, “as a little brother,” to cite Soler’s phrase.

So the State of the League address and its accompanying Q&A session leave us with many uncertainties. Just when it seems the new Cosmos ownership group have disgraced themselves to a point of no return, the Commissioner throws out another life-line, stringing everyone along further and further. While the obstacles in the way of building a soccer specific stadium in New York City proper remain as problematic as they were when the Cosmos considered it in the 1970s, if not more so, the league seems content to continue to foster fantasies and keep packing the pipe for those who dream of an alternative to the current New York pro soccer club. Will they ever wake from this altered state or will they alter the league? I suspect if their dream is ever realized it might well prove a nightmare for those who have kept the league going since its inception.
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