There is a fine line between calculated purpose and reckless ambition. It’s a line that Major League Soccer is continually toeing in its quest to join the top leagues in the world by 2022, as has been the stated goal of Commissioner Don Garber for the last few years.
On Tuesday, he laid out part of that plan in his State of the League address, focusing on growing the infrastructure of the league to elevate the on-field product, further embracing and expanding the fanbase all while keeping the financial restraint that has allowed the league to thrive longer than any other top-flight professional soccer league in America.
In Seattle, Sounders FC saw many of those items on the agenda come to fruition in 2013.
“It’s got to start with the quality of play,” Garber said. “As we continue to grow this league and grow our revenues and grow our entire system so that we have the influence to be able to attract the best players in the world and have the capability of having the best Academies in the world, we will be able to have the quality of play that will probably be dramatically different than it is today.”
A look at Sounders FC’s year in 2013 shows the capacity to succeed on both fronts.
First, the club added its first Homegrown Player in January and DeAndre Yedlin exceeded expectations with his All-Star season at right back, playing more matches than any other Sounders FC player while also appearing for the U.S. U-20 National Team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
Yedlin is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the Sounders FC Academy, though.
With the first crop of players from the inaugural class of Academy players now finishing their junior seasons, there are several players nearing readiness to make the jump Yedlin made nearly a year ago. Additionally, with several years now behind it, the current group of U-18s has spent as many as four years in the Academy system and the numbers of those players are rising year-by-year.
Next, Majority Owner Joe Roth and Owner/General Manager Adrian Hanauer committed to big spending to bring in top talent, signing forwards Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey to substantial contracts, bringing a combined 444 matches of top-flight European experience at an age when they both still have plenty of soccer ahead of them.
Lastly, Garber mentioned the in-stadium atmosphere, which not only provides for a better gameday experience, but also a more vibrant broadcast and advertisement for the league when games are on national television.
“I think in order for us to continue to grow what we have and get to where we want to get to, we have to have a dynamic in our stadiums and a fanbase that will be different from the other pro sports in this country and rival soccer leagues around the world,” Garber said. “Because we will be developing it from scratch, we will be able to have the kinds of relationships with our fans which might be more interactive, might be more productive and might have more situations like Seattle where maybe the fans are voting for the general manager in every market. It might have them engaged because of social media and the ways that communication has changed in a lot of the thinking that we have. By embracing this movement, we will be able to deliver a passionate fanbase that can be valuable and that value will allow us to invest more in player quality.”
For the fifth consecutive season, Sounders FC set new league attendance records, averaging 44,038 fans in 17 regular season home matches. Seattle also will host its fifth Annual Business Meeting on Monday, where ownership will address business and technical matters of the team to the Season Ticket Members in attendance and watching on a live stream at SoundersFC.com.