Will Bruin;Boniek Garcia

Dynamo president Chris Canetti talks Houston’s low turnout; We talk viability of a mid-week first round


As the playoffs began last season, I had a brief Twitter exchange with Brendan Hannan (then a communication guy with Chicago) about the poor attendance at Toyota Park for the Fire’s first round match. In addition to the normal challenges facing Chicago’s ticket sales, the opening round match had fallen on Halloween. That combined with a weeknight’s trip to Bridgeview (say, 15 miles outside Chicago) and a short window to promote after their regular season finale meant only 10,923 showed up for the match.

Brendan’s explanations came to mind as I watched last night’s game in Houston, where a  crowd of 10,476 watched the Dynamo eliminate the Montréal Impact. Though the result moves Houston a step closer to their third straight MLS Cup final, the night was disappointing on separate level. Every shot of the crowd forced television viewers to wonder why a good team with a history of success can’t draw more people to their two-year-old facility.

[MORE: Houston Dynamo 3-0 Montreal Impact: Quick start lifts Houston to next round (video)]

“There were some real challenges last night,” Dynamo president Chris Canetti told me this afternoon, his sanguine explanation putting the low turnout in a different content. A practical conspiracy of factors — from the holiday, to short turn-around, to weather and a crowded sports week —  helped produce the team’s season-low crowd.

The biggest issue was the holiday. For the second straight year, Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference playoffs started on Halloween. For a league and sport that tends to draw a younger audience, it’s a killer coincidence.

“For a huge percentage of our fanbase, that was the issue,” according to Canetti. “Halloween is a time you spend with your kids and you do things. I think that was a very difficult obstacle to overcome.”

It could have been overcome, Canetti feels, had other factors not lined up against the team. Houston was hit by another of their characteristic mini-monsoons mid-week, causing flooding throughout southeast Texas. By early afternoon on Thursday, the showers had been turned off, but the storm still kept people away from BBVA Compass.

The University of Houston also had a football game, forcing some fans to make a choice, but the bigger problem may have been an unexpectedly crammed media landscape. At a time of the year when the Dynamo can usually gain some traction, Dwight Howard was making his debut for the Rockets and the Texans were changing quarterbacks. Add in the unfortunate passing of local legend Bum Phillips, and Houston was squeezed out.

source: AP
Houston averaged over 21,000 fans for their two 2012 playoff games. On Thursday, they drew less than 11,000 for their playoff opener. (Photo: AP Photo.)

“The Dynamo have a great track record for attendance, particularly playoff attendance,” Canetti notes, the team averaging over 21,000 for their two 2012 playoff games. “One of the reasons we were able to drive such a great attendance in years’ past is because we were able to elevate our brand and get huge media exposure in the market. The media market was very cluttered this week in Houston.”

Given four days to get the word out, Houston couldn’t penetrate that market. The people who ended up at the stadium were the diehards.

“Those fans were loud, the ones that were there,” Canetti says. “Those are our most ardent supporters. They brought it last night.”

Like Chicago, Houston’s situation is unique, but as places like Kansas City, Portland, and Seattle show, there’s more to a full house than nice numbers and lined pockets. If you can fill out a stadium, the television product is much better, and if there’s one thing the league needs to be concerned about more than anything else, it’s how it comes off on broadcast. It’s part of the reason why the English and German leagues come off a little better than Spain’s (non-Barça, Real Madrid) or Portugal’s. It’s also the reason why a Philadelphia Union match creates a better broadcast experience than a D.C. United game.

Dynamo fans did seem louder than the 10,000-person crowds we see elsewhere, but with seas of orange seats visible around the stadium, MLS didn’t put their best foot forward. Instead of marveling at how far the league has come, people tuning in last night might wonder how far MLS needs to go.

“We’re a growing league, we’ve got an incredibly bring future,” Canetti confessed. “These are bumps in the road along the way.”

“I don’t think anybody wishes that we have to play mid-week playoff games, especially on a Halloween. That would include the folks at the league office. I certainly understand the scheduling challenges that put us in this position, especially this year as we have to battle a FIFA window coming up.”

But at some point, you have to set priorities. In that sense, maybe reducing the regular season schedule does make sense, providing a solution that will give the league more flexibility when scheduling these all-important, marquee matches. Or if a solution can’t be found for the first round game, perhaps eliminating them entirely should be considered. Four playoff teams in each conference seems like enough, even if Houston wouldn’t have made last year’s playoffs with a smaller field.

There’s little point to putting matches on television that aren’t going to show the league in a positive light. Did last night’s game cross that line? Perhaps not, but casual MLS fans tuning in for a playoff atmosphere didn’t get it. And it wasn’t the Dynamo’s fault.

“It’s not that we stink or we don’t know what we’re doing here,” Canetti explains. “We’ve got some real, real challenges that need to be understood.”

For teams like Houston and Chicago, those challenges include fighting for space in crowded sports landscapes. For MLS, the task is putting their franchises in the best position to win those battles.

Does the mid-week, quick turnaround playoff game do that? Not Thursday in Houston. Not last year in Chicago.

VIDEO: Premier League Player of the Week – Matchday 9

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There was some eye-popping moments in the Premier League this weekend, yet still very little debate who shone brightest.

Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri scored a pair of Goal of the Month competitors in the same day in the Potters’ 2-0 win at Hull City on Monday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

The first was a curling wonder from distance, while the second came from a bit closer as the big-calfed Swiss attacker bamboozled the Hull wall and goalkeeper.

The Potters are up to 16th in the Premier League table with nine points.

Finnish fans celebrate surprise title for IFK Mariehamn

IFK Mariehamm
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HELSINKI (AP) Fans of IFK Mariehamn have gathered in the main square of the remote Finnish town to celebrate their team’s surprise league title.

“I feel very proud,” the club’s managing director, Peter Mattsson, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Monday, adding that “thousands” were expected to turn up for the party.

Watched by more than 4,000, Mariehamn clinched the Finnish title on Sunday with a 2-1 home victory over Ilves, from the industrial city of Tampere.

[ MORE: Full MLS Cup bracket ]

Mariehamn held off 11 other teams, including the traditionally strong Helsinki club, HJK, and defending champion SJK from western Finland. It ended three points clear of second-placed HJK for its first league title.

Local media dubbed the team “Leicester” after the surprise English Premier League champions last season.

Mariehamn, which has a population of 11,500, is the capital of the Aland islands off the southwestern Finnish coast

Kroenke: “Very high” on Wenger who is “very hard” to replace

Jeff Fisher
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LONDON — Arsenal remains “very high” on Arsene Wenger and it will be “very hard” replacing the manager who is in the final year of his contract, owner Stan Kroenke told The Associated Press on Monday.

Wenger this month celebrated 20 years in charge of Arsenal and has offered no indication whether he wants to sign a new deal into next season.

The 67-year-old Frenchman became the Premier League’s longest serving manager when Alex Ferguson retired from Manchester United in 2013. United is now on its third manager in three years and has not competed for the Premier League title since Ferguson’s departure.

In a rare interview about Arsenal, Kroenke noted the tricky post-Ferguson succession at United while discussing the challenge of eventually replacing Wenger.

“You see it (at United), you bring up a comment like that,” Kroenke told the AP after Arsenal’s annual general meeting. “It’s very hard. He’s a great manager.”

Wenger signed his last three-year contract extension in 2014.

“We will sit down and discuss the future at the appropriate time,” Arsenal chairman Chips Keswick told shareholders at a meeting where Wenger didn’t address his contract situation in his speech.

Although Wenger has won the Premier League three times, the last success came in 2004 – a drought which frustrates fans.

“He’s been a wonderful influence on the club,” Kroenke said. “We are all very high on Arsene. We are (joint) top of the table right now.”

Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool are only separated on goal difference at the summit. Despite Wenger only winning the FA Cup twice since 2004, the team is in the lucrative Champions League for the 19th successive year thanks to its runner-up finish last season. Wenger is yet to win European football’s top prize.

“I know a number of (sports team) owners that are very successful that say the same thing – the hardest thing to do is be consistently competitive at the top of the league,” said Kroenke, who also owns the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. “Arsene has always done that and Arsenal has always been in that position. We have always been competitive.

“We may not always win the things we want to win. We are very focused on winning for sure the league. Arsene’s been consistently at the top and I will tell you – it’s very, very hard to do if you look around sports.”


2016 MLS Cup playoffs bracket in full

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07:  Michael Bradley #4 and Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC celebrate a goal by teammate Tsubasa Endoh #9 during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With Major League Soccer’s Decision Day 2016 in the books, we now know who will battle it out for MLS Cup.

[ MORE: Who will win MLS Cup? ]

Up first on Wednesday and Thursday are the four knockout round games, then the Conference semifinal first legs kick off this weekend.

We get into it thick and fast.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage

The PST crew already selected their picks for the postseason and filled out their bracket. You can see that by clicking on the link above. FWIW, I have Toronto FC beating the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup…

[ MORE: Ranking MLS playoff teams ]

Below is the MLS playoff bracket in full so you can make your picks and let us know who you went for in the comments section below.


MLS Playoff bracket, 2016

MLS Playoff bracket, 2016
Source: MLSSoccer.com