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Recent MLS actions translate into both good and bad news.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, January 17, 2001) -- Over the past week, there has been some good and bad news for Major League Soccer fans.
Clearly, the best news is that Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, which operates the National Hockey Leagueís San Jose Sharks, has signed a multi-year deal with MLS to take over the operating rights to the San Jose Earthquakes. SVS&E stopped short of becoming a full-fledged league owner\operator, but has an to later buy into the single-entity league and become a full partner.
This removes one major worry for MLS. Last year, Kraft Group Sports operated San Jose, along with its New England Revolution, under essentially the same deal as SVS&Eís -- operating rights with an option to buy. Over the winter, however, KGS decided not to exercise the option, not wanting to on the hook for the continuing operating loses in San Jose.
MLS would have liked to have found some deep-pocketed Silicon Valley dot-com multi-millionaire to buy into the league to operate the Earthquakes, know as the Clash until last season, but dot.com dollars have become increasingly scarce.
What the league wound up with probably is even better considering the SVS&Eís success marketing the Sharks in the NHL. SVS&E has shown itself to be a savvy marketer in the Bay area, and in the Valley. The knock on the San Jose soccer franchise has been of being an amateurish outfit operating in an area that is home to thousands of companies with sophisticated marketing departments. The Kraft operation, located in Boston, never had a grasp of Silicon Valley and how to sell to this unique, wealthy audience.
SVS&E knows marketing and knows the area. Unfortunately, the group has little knowledge of or experience in soccer, a fact that is a bit troubling.
The first question asked of Greg Elliott, SVS&E vice president and de facto president of the Earthquakes, is whether he would retain coach Lothar Osiander. He said his new management needed time to study that question. Thirty-six hours later, Elliott announced the canning of Osiander with a terse: "The fit was not right for the future of this team. This organization is ready to make positive strides this season both on and off the field and this change was necessary to move the organization in the right direction."
This was very much an NHL kind of response where a coach gets fired if the Zamboni is broken, or if his team loses two in a row. San Jose fans, for the most part, wonít miss the Krafts, and many will be glad to see Osiander go. Still, most will feel much more comfortable if SVS&E brings in an experienced soccer hand to take over the on-field operations and let the new owners concentrate on building a front office and sales staff.
Another piece of good news is the decision by Philip Anschutz to add D.C. United as his fourth MLS team to go along with the Colorado Rapids, Chicago Fire and Los Angeles Galaxy. He also owns the NHLís Los Angeles Kings and their home, the Staples Center.
Unitedís complex British-United States ownership structure disintegrated after the teamís operating rights sat for sale for two years with no buyer. The rights were returned to the league, which would have to operate the team if Anschutz doesnít take over.
We understand that, at first, all he was willing to do was to take his fellow owners off the hook and operate the team until a new owner could be found. Now, according to league insiders, the more he has looked at the smooth running United, the better he has liked what he sees to the point he is now said to be trying to acquire Unitedís operating rights on a permanent basis.
MLS certainly would prefer bring in new investors, but among current owners, Anschutz, one of Americaís richest men, has the deepest pockets and is the most enthusiastic about the leagueís future.
If Anschutz acquires United, he will control the three most solid franchises: D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. He has a history of letting his teams operate at arms length from one another; it will be interesting to see if that continues. Unitedís highly-regarded president Kevin Payne and the equally respected Tim Leiweke, who is president of the Galaxy and who oversees Anschutzís soccer mini-empire, are both men of, shall we say, strong personality. Under the present circumstances, however, the move is good for United and good for the ;eague.
Troubling to MLS fans, to say nothing of coaches and general managers, is the announcement that team rosters will be cut from the current size of 20 players to 18. To make up for this, each team will be allowed to carry a number of young, junior players who do not count against roster limits.
More disturbing, is the "non-announcement" that MLS plans to cut its team salary cap from $1.73 million to $1.7 million, as league sources have stated privately. While the league spent millions of defending itself from a antitrust lawsuit filed by its players association, officials speculated the legal fees suppressed player salaries. Now the suit has been won, there had been an expectation the cap would be increased.
MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis would not comment specifically on the cap, but did say "on an average per player basis, our spending is increasing this season. What we are doing is shifting some of our resources from senior players to junior players, both junior internationals and Project-40 players. This is where our future is."
A cynic might look at this, along with a reduction of the per-team limit of three foreign players from four, translates into a league philosophy of "Why pay some experienced player a big salary when you can pay a young player a minimal amount? Why waste money on marginal players when they can be replaced by exciting young players on their way up."
Weíll have to wait and see.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
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Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..