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

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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.

Chicharito says Mexican team “always feels welcome” in the United States

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Mexico will take on Wales on Monday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA as they warm up for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Playing in the United States is nothing new for the USMNT’s southern neighbors, and it doesn’t phase them. In fact, they love it.

Star striker Chicharito told reporters that he and the rest of the squad is more than happy playing north of the border, because according to him, apart from a pair of venues, they can’t even tell they’re on the road.

“We always feel welcome here,” Chicharito said. “It’s like our second country, if we can say that, apart from Columbus [Ohio] and apart from the stadium in Miami when we played Colombia…those two stadiums, that’s the only time I’ve felt that we were the away team.”

Chicharito knows that the high population of his countrymen and women in the United States helps the Mexican team feel close to home when they play over the border. He’s all for the melting pot of the US.

“We feel at home [in the United States],” Chicharito said. “We have plenty of Mexicans here, so I don’t know what else to tell you, we feel welcome, we feel glad, happy to be in touch with those people here. They are sacrificing a lot of things, and they are all enjoying their lives that they decide to live in the USA…it’s great. It’s great when you come to another country and you feel like you are home. You see all the stadium green, shouting and screaming your names, screaming your goals, so yeah, it’s great.”

Mexico will play Wales on Monday at 9:00 p.m. ET, and will return home to take on Scotland at Azteca on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET.

England international Delph expecting child in middle of World Cup

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England international Fabian Delph could face quite the dilemma if England advances past the group stage of the World Cup.

Delph’s wife Natalie is expecting the couple’s third child on June 30, which is two days after their pivotal group stage match against Belgium, and two days before the squad would take the field July 1 for its Round of 16 game should they win Group G. If they finish second in the group, they would play their Round of 16 game on July 3.

When asked what his plans are, Delph joked that his wife would manage on her own. “She’s tough, she’s a Yorkshire lass so she’ll deal with it,” Delph said with a smile.

He then coughed up the truth: they’re not quite sure what the plan is.

“We’re not 100% certain, with a game on the 28th there might be an opportunity to fly back and then get back fast,” he said. “[England manager] Gareth [Southgate] has been fantastic. There’s nothing more important than family to me – family always comes first and always will.”

There’s another dilemma that Southgate must navigate involving Delph. The 28-year-old is a natural winger, but played wing-back in Pep Guardiola‘s title-winning system for much of the year and saw a massive uptick in form in the new role, playing in place of the injured Benjamin Mendy. Southgate must decide where he wants to deploy Delph – if at all – and if he wishes to fit his formation and tactics to mold Delph’s season under Guardiola.

Authorities drop assault charges against Hope Solo

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KIRKLAND, Wash. (AP) — Prosecutors in Washington state have dropped domestic violence charges against former U.S. national team star goalkeeper Hope Solo.

Solo was charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault in 2014 after police said she assaulted two family members at a home in Kirkland, east of Seattle. The case was delayed by appeals.

KING-TV reports that city prosecutors dropped the charges Wednesday, saying the witnesses in the case wanted to move on with their lives and did not want to participate in a trial. An attorney for Kirkland, Melissa Osman, wrote in court documents that the circumstances were unlikely to be repeated.

The longtime national team goalkeeper and two-time Olympic gold medalist recently ran unsuccessfully for president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. She has called for equal pay and equal treatment for the U.S. women’s team.

Mark Hughes signs new long-term contract at Southampton

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Mark Hughes has gone from Stoke City outcast to Southampton savior in little under six months time.

The Welsh boss was let go from Stoke City with the Potters 18th in the table and headed towards eventual relegation, but he was picked up by fellow relegation candidates Southampton after the departure of Mauricio Pellegrino. He steered the club to safety, finishing three points above the drop in 17th.

With the Saints in the top flight for another season, the club has announced the signing of Hughes to a new three-year contract.

“Mark, Eddie and I are thrilled to have signed long-term contracts with the club. It was the only option we considered, having spent the last eight weeks with the club,” Hughes said of himself and his assistant coaches Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki. “Now it is vital that we take the unbelievable support we received from the fans during the last few games into next season. The staff and the players will work hard every day to deliver the success this club deserves, and with everyone pulling together we will achieve our goals.”

Hughes guided Stoke City to three consecutive ninth-placed finishes, the highest the club had ever finished in the English top flight, but they finished 13th last year and regressed even further this campaign. The sale of playmaker Marko Arnautovic was particularly damaging, and the club scored just 35 goals in 38 games as a result.

At Southampton, Hughes took over a club that sat in 17th with just eight matches to go. He lost three Premier League games in a row to start his tenure and only won two league matches with Saints the rest of the way, but managed to keep the club barely afloat.