Soccer Banter: With the start of the 2011 MLS season just around the corner with a total of 18 teams, let's think back to 10 years ago in 2001 when two teams folded from MLS (Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny) and the league was at 10 teams and many people thinking the entire league could be eliminated...what are your thoughts on what has transpired over the last decade and the current state of MLS?
Jeff Carlisle: Without question, the league has come a long way. I think the single biggest reason for that is MLS hit upon an economic model - with soccer-specific stadiums as the center piece - that investors could look at and conclude "I can make money from this." Granted, this vision hasn't been realized everywhere, especially in places like Dallas and Colorado, but the potential is there. When you combine this with some savvier marketing in places like Seattle, Philadelphia, and Toronto, then the abiltiy to make a profit becomes more realistic. And let's face it, these teams need to make money. MLS can't be looked upon as a cause that should be supported by the soccer community.
I think the Designated Player rule is a good idea, but hasn't entirely lived up to it's potential, especially as it relates to on-field performance. It's definitley had a positive economic impact however.
I'm of the opinion that in terms of expansion, the league has for the most part chosen its markets well. I will confess that I don't fully grasp the need to have a second team in New York when you have the entire southeast corner of the country without a team, but I think overall, MLS deserves high marks for this.
I do worry about the television ratings. Some people will complain that my employer doesn't do enough in this regard, and this would change with more promotion. I think it's more complicated than that. If it were as simple as throwing more money at the problem, I think ESPN would have done that by now. I wish I knew what the solution is.
Still, you added it all up, and the league has never been in a better position.
SB: Easier question, which team(s) will win the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup in 2011 and in your opinion which is more rewarding?
JC: I think both will come down to four teams: Real Salt Lake, New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas. Perhaps Seattle and Colorado will have a say in things as well, but I'm pretty comfortable with the top four there. I think RSL will win the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup.
I think the Supporters Shield is important, but not as much as MLS Cup for the simple reason that coaches put more stock in MLS Cup. If it comes down to resting an important player for the playoffs vs. trying to win the Supporters Shield, I think the coach is going to rest the player every time. I think that taints the race for the Shield just a little bit. That said, I'm not one who enjoys seeing the lower seed win the majority of the time in the postseason, as happened last year. I like to see teams that effort in the regular season be rewarded.
SB: Which Designated Player will have the biggest impact on a teams success this season?
JC: Landon Donovan. He's still the best player in the league, and a huge part of L.A.'s success. It will be interesting to see how Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez do as well, especially now that they've had a full preseason with the team. Ditto for Juan Pablo Angel. He'll need to produce for L.A. now that Edson Buddle is gone.
SB: Who will be this years Chris Wondolowski?
JC: Probably no one. How many times has someone more than tripled their career goal totals in one season after spending five years in the league? That said, I think O'Brian White could come good in Seattle. I've heard good things about him in preseason, although he'll need to displace Blaise Nkufo. I think the two forwards in Columbus, Emilio Renteria and Andres Mendoza both will get a lot more playing time, and if they get the service, they could get a fair number of goals as well. Of course, Juan Agudelo is another guy who could really break out this year, but given the hype he's gotten, it's hard to put him in this category.
SB: A bit off-topic but what young American (playing in MLS or abroad) are you most excited for in regards to future national team success?
JC: Agudelo and Teal Bunbury will garner a lot of attention, especially given the forward situation with the USMNT. It will also be interesting to see if Agudelo gets more time with the senior team or the U-20's. Tim Ream has really impressed me so far, and I'll be watching to see if he continues to grow. His passing out of the back is really needed at senior level.