MLS at­ten­dance on rise with big-name int’l play­ers

The China Post - - SPORTS - BY PAT GRAHAM

Kaka and David Villa are rais­ing the pro­file of Ma­jor League Soc­cer. Clint Dempsey and the U.S. na­tional teams have done their part, too.

Buoyed by in­ter­na­tional soc­cer icons and cap­i­tal­iz­ing on re­cent World Cup suc­cess by the Amer­i­can men’s and women’s na­tional teams, the league is draw­ing record num­bers so far this sea­son, MLS Com­mis­sioner Don Gar­ber said in an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press this week.

MLS av­er­ages 21,109 spec­ta­tors a game, a fig­ure bol­stered by the ad­di­tions of Or­lando City (Kaka’s squad) and New York City FC (Villa’s team). The 20-team league also has new tele­vi­sion deals that al­low their stars to be seen all over the globe.

Still, MLS is los­ing money — Gar­ber de­clined to give an ex­act fig­ure — as teams write big checks for top play­ers and fund player de­vel­op­ment through academy pro­grams to dis­cover the next Michael Bradley, Lan­don Dono­van or Dempsey.

“We’re still in in­vest­ment mode,” said Gar­ber, whose MLS All-Stars beat Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur 2-1 on Wed­nes­day. “But there’s a lot of mo­men­tum for the sport of soc­cer in the U.S. and Canada and that is em­pow­er­ing.”

Next on the docket? Ex­pan­sion. At­lanta is sched­uled to join MLS in 2017 and a sec­ond team in Los An­ge­les the fol­low­ing sea­son. Down the road, Mi­ami and Min­nesota are ex­pected to come on board as well.

Gar­ber threw his sup­port be­hind a plan pre­sented by re­tired soc­cer icon David Beck­ham to of­fi­cials in Mi­ami. Beck­ham and his part­ners are look­ing at the for­mer Or­ange Bowl site, with the field fi­nanced pri­vately and built on city-owned land at an es­ti­mated cost of around US$200 mil­lion.

“We be­lieve Mi­ami will be a great MLS mar­ket and we look for­ward to bring­ing the whole pro­ject across the fin­ish line,” Gar­ber said.

As for Min­nesota, that’s prov­ing a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing. With the pass­ing of an early July dead­line for a sta­dium plan in Min­neapo­lis, the league is turn­ing its at­ten­tion to­ward St. Paul.

“We’ve now be­come in­trigued by a pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing a sta­dium be in St. Paul,” Gar­ber said. “Sim­i­lar with Mi­ami, though, with­out a sta­dium, you can’t go for­ward any­where. But we re­main hope­ful.”

Other po­ten­tial mar­kets in­clude Sacra­mento, St. Louis or San Diego, he said.

“That speaks to this over­all growth pe­riod that we’re go­ing through,” Gar­ber said. “You have to do ex­pan­sion right. There’s no rush. If we have to wait any pe­riod of time to get it right, we’re will­ing to do that.”

Gar­ber is en­cour­aged by the num­ber of for­eign play­ers head­lin­ing MLS ros­ters — and not just as a last re­sort.

Se­bas­tian Giovinco, the 28-yearold for­mer Ju­ven­tus stand­out, has 13 goals and 10 as­sists for Toronto FC this sea­son.

Then there’s Kaka and Villa, a pair of 33-year-old highly dec­o­rated play­ers who are de­mon­strat­ing they still have flashy moves. Kaka scored on a penalty kick in the MLS All-Star game and set up Villa’s goal.

“We’re still go­ing through these unique phases that are de­ter­min­ing what this league will look like,” Gar- ber said. “We don’t know what MLS will look like two years from now.

“But if a fan lives in a mar­ket with an MLS team, we hope they’ll be deeply con­nected with our lo­cal club. Paint their face and wave a flag, put on a club jersey and celebrate this game. Think of this league as a league of their own.”

AP

Mon­treal Im­pact’s new­est player Di­dier Drogba takes a selfie with fans fol­low­ing a news con­fer­ence in Mon­treal, Thurs­day, July 30.

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