Now that the 2013 MLS season has come to an end, a rather dramatic end with Sporting Kansas City defeating Real Salt Lake in a penalty shootout, all eyes are looking forward to next season and the future. MLS has been busy this year, announcing two more expansion franchises for the 2015 season in New York City FC and Orlando City SC, and that their goal is to have two more clubs join the league by 2020.
At such an important time for the league there are some key topics that continue to pop up in the swirl, such as the role of statistical analysis in soccer, MLS expansion markets, scheduling challenges and strategies, and broadcasting strategies for soccer in the U.S. We often here from industry experts and organization heads on these matters, but what do players have to say about them? Business of Soccer had the chance to sit down with both Mike Magee, the 2013 MLS Most Valuable Player, and Kasey Keller, U.S. Men’s National Team goal-keeping legend, to discuss these topics and get their thoughts.
Statistics and Soccer
Like MLS, Castrol has also been very active this year, further making a name for themselves in MLS and in the industry of sport with the Castrol Index gaining traction and popularity amongst fans, players, and industry experts around the league. Business of Soccer combined the Index with salary information from the MLS Player’s Union in a detailed analysis to show which teams and players provided the most value per point, or per spend by MLS.
Soccer has traditionally not been as statistically driven as some of its counterparts, like Baseball for example, but companies like Opta and Castrol are beginning to close that gap in a very meaningful way. Business of Soccer spoke with both Magee and Keller about the Castrol Index and what it’s future role could be with MLS:
They’ve made a really strong push to collect data and tie it back to performance, and it’s the first company that’s made it relevant. They compile every move you make, every pass you make, which is great. It’s cool to see the things that they’re doing and hear more about it. – Mike Magee
Traditionally, it [soccer] is so goal-scoring heavy, and if you don’t score goals then you’re never going to be considered to be at the top. I think they’ve found an excellent formula with tackles and balls won with a bunch of different scenarios in which defenders and goalkeepers can be credited for being at the top of their game in the context of the Index and it’s been fun and it’s gaining a lot of traction. – Kasey Keller
The Castrol Index is used in top leagues all over the world, and even in the World Cup to track player performance. Don’t be surprised if in the future, as the system proves itself out, if the Castrol Index or other statistical analysis is brought into the conversation when negotiating player contracts, sponsorship deals, financial spending strategies, etc.
For more on the role of statistical analysis in soccer READ: The Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced this summer that the league’s goal is to get to 24 teams by 2020. As the league currently sits at 19 clubs, some thought this goal might be ambitious. However, MLS knocked down 2 of those 5 expansion clubs this season as previously mentioned, and other markets like Miami and Atlanta show promise as well.
Mike Magee told Business of Soccer,
This is going to be my 12th year in the league and from where it started, you would never have dreamt this. Now looking at these teams paying $100 million in entry fees and seeing how careful the league is picking the new expansion teams, and seeing how much thought goes into it and how successful they are, it’s simply amazing. You look at the league and what’s going on and you can’t help but to just tip your hat to what the league’s done and how far we’ve come.
Fans of the game and of the league and its progression are excited about the upcoming growth, and it appears that MLS have targeted one of their geographical gaps in the southeastern region of the country as top priority for expansion.
MLS often gets compared to the elite leagues in the global football world, and one comparison that has become of particular interest of late is the difference in regular season schedule between MLS and FIFA. MLS runs from mid March to the end of November/early December, whereas the majority of other top leagues around the world begin in late summer and run through mid-late spring, playing through the winter months in the regular season.
There have been suggestions on more than a few occasions that MLS should change its schedule to align with FIFA’s. At the 2013 MLS final, the extremely cold temperatures were a very hot topic. It was 20 degrees farenheit at best, with wind chills well into the low teens and upper single digits towards the end of the match. Those in favor of MLS switching to the FIFA schedule offered up the fact that no matter where the MLS Cup final was held, it would almost always have a warm temperature because the season would end toward late spring instead of early winter. Opposing thinkers counter with the fact that even though the MLS Cup final weather would be favorable, many of the regular season games would have to be played in the some harsh winter climates – i.e. Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, etc.
Former U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Kasey Keller, spent much of his career playing overseas in Europe for clubs like Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur sat down with Business of Soccer and offered up his thoughts on the matter:
I understand the idea of flipping the schedule and having finals be in June and I understand that from a marketing standpoint as well, but after talking with different people in the league, it’s so difficult for them because you’re always going to upset somebody. The main problem is we still are in a situation where there are 5-6 teams who on a mid week schedule can draw a great crowd. But in a winter schedule, if you’ve got a bunch of games that need to get rescheduled to a mid-week time due to inclement weather, many teams won’t get that same turnout. I think they’ve realized that by extending the schedule, by having more Saturday games, they’re getting better revenues they’re getting better fan support, but it comes at a cost where your final now is in December.
NBC scored a major deal for the broadcasting rights for the Barclays Premier League in the U.S. beginning with the 2013 season, stealing from ESPN, and making all 380 league matches available to viewers in the States. While this was great news for soccer fans in America, the impact on MLS TV viewership was somewhat underestimated it would seem, and numbers have not grown at the rate the league and teams would like. Commissioner Garber himself has stated that “there’s too much soccer on TV” in the U.S., which makes it tough for an on-the-rise MLS to compete in an already mature, sport-saturated television market.
Keller, a Seattle resident, told Business of Soccer that he felt a sound regional broadcasting strategy was the key to MLS’s success moving forward, and then building upon that foundation down the road.
I have a feeling you’re going to see a much bigger emphasis on regional scheduling and I think what your finding is that the relevance of MLS in its own market is becoming greater and greater. If I’m going to pencil aside 2 hours on a Saturday to watch a game, I’m going to watch a Premier League game or another European match – not necessarily watch Kansas City play Houston. But, in Kansas City, that’s extremely relevant. In Seattle, it’s not so relevant. So trying to push a national market at this point – we’re just not there yet. If they can get their regional broadcasts up, I think that’s where theres going to be success.
It has been a very eventful year for MLS and those around the league to be sure. As we close out the 2013 season and reflect on the year that was, the strides made this year only reaffirm that we have much to look forward to in 2014 and the years to come.