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MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

[ MORE: Caleb Porter out as Portland Timbers head coach ]

MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Putting Salah’s sensational season in context

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Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

How long is Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC?

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While Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League success has largely been driven by Sebastian Giovinco — Wednesday’s final second leg not withstanding — perhaps the Reds’ brass isn’t convinced the diminutive 31-year-old can keep it up much longer (at least in terms of value).

[ MORE: Behind the scenes at NYCFC training ]

Toronto’s dynamic Designated Player says he wants to stay in Ontario, implying that he’d like to be there for the rest of his career, but TFC’s brass may not want to pony up DP dollars for the next stage of Giovinco’s career.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson:

“I already talk, but they said it’s not the moment (for contract talks),” Giovinco told the Sun. “For them, that’s not a problem, for me it is a little bit. I want to know my future. I have family. I’m 31 years old. For what I do for the city, I think I deserve it, no? … For them it’s not a problem, for me it’s starting to be a problem … I already said I want to stay here forever … If not, I have to think about other options.”

Let’s look into Seba’s success. The Italian has three goals and four assists in seven CCL matches (though scoreless through three MLS matches).

2017: 32 games, 20 goals, seven assists (6W-3L-2T w/o him)
2016: 37 games, 22 goals, 16 assists (1W-1L-4T w/o him)
2015: 35 games, 23 goals, 14 assists (0W-2L w/o him)

The assist numbers took a hit with the emergence of Victor Vazquez, but the ex-Barcelona man is also 31 years old. Michael Bradley turns 31 this summer, and Jozy Altidore is 29 in November.

Who will stay long-term? Who could general manager Tim Bezbatchenko have in mind as replacements, upgrades, or buttressing? Inquiring minds are

Checking the Championship with two weeks to go

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There are two match days left before the Football League Championship playoffs, and there’s still no clarity outside of who will finish first.

The champion Wolverhampton Wanderers have a 12-point lead on second place, but there are three teams still alive for the second automatic promotion spot and technically seven who can make it into the playoffs.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

May 6 is the final day, and all kickoffs will take place at 12:30 p.m. ET

Instant promotion battle

Cardiff City, Fulham, and Aston Villa are the three sides aiming to finish second, with Cardiff currently holding the advantage. Their 86 points are one more than Fulham, and four clear of Aston Villa.

2. Cardiff (86 pts, +28): at Hull City, vs. Reading
3. Fulham (85 pts, +34): vs. Sunderland, at Birmingham City
4. Aston Villa (82 pts, +31): vs. Derby County, at Millwall

Projection: Cardiff has a decent run-in, but Fulham’s path will carry it past them should the Bluebirds stumble at all. Aston Villa faces two sides aiming for the playoffs, and is probably plotting out its strategy for the playoffs themselves.

Playoff spots

Aside from the two above sides who fail to grab second, there are seven other sides within varying degrees of probability for a playoff spot. Middlesbrough and Derby County hold fifth and sixth now, but Millwall and Brentford are within a win of the Top Six and Preston North End, Bristol City, or Sheffield United could get in with a win and help.

5. Middlesbrough (72 pts, +20): vs. Millwall, at Ipswich Town
6. Derby County (71 pts,+19): at Aston Villa, vs. Barnsley
7. Millwall (69 pts, +12): at Middlesbrough, vs. Aston Villa
8. Brentford (68 pts, +12): at Barnsley, vs. Hull City
9. Preston (67 pts, +9): at Sheffield United, vs. Burton Albion
10. Bristol City (66 pts, +10): at Nottingham Forest, vs. Sheffield Utd
11. Sheffield United (66 pts, +7): vs. Preston, at Bristol City

Projection: Brentford is the only club without at least one date against a promotion hopeful, but everyone under 8th will be rooting for Derby to lose out (and probably Boro to draw Millwall?). Preston and Sheffield are likely staging a knockout match on Saturday. Expect Tony Pulis and Boro to avoid dropping from the Top Six, an Derby should manage its fate well even with Villa on the fixture list. Yet don’t be surprised if Brentford climbs into sixth even though the Bees have only claimed a point of six from their remaining opponents.

Behind the scenes: A look into an NYCFC player’s training routine

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Professional athletes are often lauded for their achievements on and off their field of play, but for those that have never played their respective sport at the highest level it is often difficult to exactly understand what occurs on an everyday basis for that athlete.

Regimented training schedules, as well as pre-planned diets for each player are only a few of the considerations that take place between a club and its players, and New York City FC is no different.

[ MORE: Sweden coach says Ibra must reach out to have chance at World Cup ]

On Tuesday, Pro Soccer Talk and various members of the media had the unique opportunity to visit the Etihad City Football Academy — NYCFC’s new, state-of-the-art training facility in Orangeburg, New York to get a closer look at what the daily life of a soccer player is like.

PST’s Matt Reed, and decided to keep a journal of many of the day’s activities, from getting all geared up in the locker room to viewing his performance from the day’s training session following the workout.

Below, we’ll take an hour-by-hour look at what it means to be an NYCFC player.


9 a.m. ET

Upon arriving in Orangeburg, the first thing noticeable when pulling off of the Palisades Parkway was the town’s devotion to soccer.

Before driving into the parking lot at NYCFC’s facility, it’s nearly impossible to miss the various turf fields that lie in front of the City Football Group-owned ground. Those fields belong to World Class FC — a local U.S. Soccer Development academy that has begun working closely with the Major League Soccer side.

After parking the car and walking through the front doors of the venue, there was immediately a presence that could not be overlooked. On the near-side wall was a global map, which featured pinpoints of each of CFG’s entities around the globe, which include parent club Manchester City, NYCFC and Melbourne City, among others.

Breakfast was the first item on the agenda in the team’s cafeteria, which featured an open setting that allows players to either eat inside or outdoors right next to the pitch. Every food and beverage item features a card next to it indicating the calorie intake, which is something the organization is making a strong effort to pay close attention to.

Following the meal, we had the chance to walk through the facility, which features a very similar setup to that of Man City and Melbourne. The design is said to be nearly identical to NYCFC’s sister club in Australia.

Many of the club’s full-time staff for both the senior and academy teams work on-site in Orangeburg, with an office view that allows the employees to look directly outside to the pitch.

One major emphasis from the club and its vision of the facility was to allow everybody to be inclusive of one another.

That was in focus when we visited the indoor training area, filled with weights, stationary bicycles and various workout machines. Not only can players view the pitch outside, but the team’s medical staff is able to see everything in that room, as well as on the opposite side of the wall where players can be tended to for injuries, massages, ice baths and other amenities.

New York City FC

10 a.m ET

Although NYCFC has been training at its new facility for over a month now, the occasion served as an official opportunity to open up the ground with all of the club’s executives.

Technical director Claudio Reyna and head coach Patrick Vieira were on-site for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with Vice-Chairman of NYCFC, Marty Edelman, and president Jon Patricof.

Photo by Anthony J. Causi

As several of NYCFC’s higher-ups alluded to on Tuesday, their vision for the new facility won’t be simply for the club, but also give the opportunity to other teams to practice in Orangeburg when they are in town.

Man City has already been scheduled to make a visit to the training ground in late July when the incumbent Premier League champions arrive in the United States for the International Champions Cup.

They’ll face PL giants Liverpool on July 25 at MetLife Stadium, approximately 30 minutes from the NYCFC training facility.

PST then had an opportunity to speak to several players and staff members in an open media forum, so we decided to provide some of the most-notable takeaways from the discussions.

Patrick Vieira on links to Arsenal

“Who? Vieira said jokingly. “No. I’m sure you would know before I do. It’s an honor, of course. It’s Arsenal Football Club, and it’s a big football club.

Vieira on how the club has been able to become more inclusive at the training ground

“When I was talking to Claudio about what we really wanted here we wanted our departments to interact with each other. We wanted to be more like a family. People can see each other. It’s not too small, and it’s not too flashy. You understand what I mean? You have what you need. There’s nothing over the top that we don’t need. Every single room makes sense. At the same time it’s good, and it’s simple. I really love this facility. There’s nothing extra that we don’t need.”

President Jon Patricof on vision for pursuing a stadium

“This is not going to put our fans at ease. And nor should it. Listen, MLS is continuing to grow and the stakes are rising. The standards are rising. We’re really proud of this facility, but this is what is expected of MLS clubs today. It’s a huge milestone. It’s important.In no way does it slow down our plans in pursuing a stadium. We have to and continue to press full speed on that front. I recognize that expectations are high. We are highly focused on it.”

Technical director Claudio Reyna on having their own facility

“Manchester is still part of the group, so it’s an extended home for us as part of the team. Also, in January the weather isn’t great here. Not that it’s great in Manchester either, but it allows us to send guys there and get some preparation ahead of the MLS season. But of course, what we didn’t have at SUNY Purchase for December and January was a gym space. And if the field is in good condition then we can obviously use it. The players come earlier and leave later. They want to stick around, and they do extra work. It’s very motivating for them. Since this will be our first offseason here, we’ll see how the players use it, but I think a lot of them will be here once the season is over.

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson on setting the standard for other MLS sides

“I can’t speak for the rest of Major League Soccer because I haven’t been around to many club’s training facilities, but what I can say is that from my experience this place doesn’t compare to anything I’ve seen. For a player to have a place like this is amazing, and us as players don’t take it for granted. We feel this is very special, and we want to make sure that we’re doing our part and give back.”

Midfielder Tommy McNamara on being from the Orangeburg area

“It’s beautiful. We’re very appreciative to have it. We’re given everything we need to compete. We feel very grounded and settled here like we’re at home. My parents live three miles down the road. My cousins, you could walk to their house from here. My sister grew up on those fields. It means a lot to me because this is literally home to me.”


11 a.m./12 p.m. ET

It’s impossible to pinpoint one specific highlight that created the best memory of the experience, but viewing the locker room and physically participating in training have to be high up on the list.

After sitting down for the interviews, we got to suit up just as NYCFC players would, went out to the pitch, and experienced a Vieira-led training session up close and personal.

Before moving to the field, members of the media were given their own kits and changed in the locker room, which featured a unique twist on a traditional changing area.

The circular dynamic of the room is another measure of the team’s willingness to create a welcoming atmosphere for its senior players.

That was something McNamara and Villa stated repeatedly during his interview sessions with the media, and they believe it is one of several reasons why the club’s camaraderie has improved with the current group of players.

Then, it was time to hit the training room for several workout exercises to warm up, including leg lifts, several forms of dynamic yoga and box-jumping routines.

Once the warmups were over and everyone was loose, we went out onto the pitch to receive instructions from Vieira and the rest of his training staff. The former Premier League midfielder broke the session up into different groups to focus on certain drills, as the team would on a regular training day.

A communication drill kicked off the on-field display, as players passed the ball to one another in a small 10 yard by 10 yard grid.

Then, games of 3 versus 3 and passing drills designed to find the open player were implemented to get a better feel for the group of players.

Needless to say, t’s very easy to see how difficult some of the exercises are…


1 p.m. ET

After a filling lunch back in the cafeteria, the final stop of the day brought us to the film room, where we had the chance to view some of the action from our on-field session.

Several members of NYCFC’s coaching staff indicated the importance of these sessions, which normally takes place in small groups. Vieira stated that he has put an emphasis on the meetings to not only point out areas where his players can improve, but also to indicate something a particular player is doing well.

Matt Reed/Pro Soccer Talk

One person, in particular, who is often only caught behind the scenes for the club is Head of Performance Analysis, Daniel Fradley. Vieira suggested that Fradley has been an integral part in NYCFC’s analytical approach, which has helped the club improve since the team’s inception over three years ago.

On a regular day of training, NYCFC players have the opportunity to speak with Vieira, Fradley and other members of the staff about their individual play from their session on the pitch. This includes individual tactical approaches, as well as how the group as a whole should be performing as a unit.


Training evaluation

For about five minutes, there was a strong sense within myself that I could impress Vieira and the rest in attendance, but then I came the realization that I haven’t played competitive soccer in years and this was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.

To be perfectly blunt, the warmup exercises were tricky enough as it was, and that was only coupled by the fact that the on-field experience featured my very sloppy touches on the ball and several missed opportunities shooting on goal.

Straying away from my personal lack of soccer skills though, it’s very easy to see why the NYCFC players enjoy their new facility so much.

As Vieira stated so succinctly, “The venue isn’t too big and it isn’t too small. It has exactly everything that we need.”