The Forgotten Playoffs: MLS

We are in the playoff push for the NFL season. The NBA season tipped off and NHL season is well underway. One of the most watched World Series ever wrapped up with the Chicago Cubs breaking a 108-year curse, the longest drought in American sports history.

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Sebastian Giovinco could deliver Toronto a league title for a franchise that had never won a playoff game before this year. (Wikimedia Commons)

Somewhere in all of that, the MLS playoffs kicked off. Now, the MLS is not quite on par with the core four of American sports, but the last few years have pushed the top American soccer league into the national focus. The last several years have been solid years of growth in terms of league money and fans.

If anything, this year had the makings of a big year for the MLS playoffs. It features several big market teams, think New York, LA, Seattle, Dallas and D.C., a team searching for its first ever playoff win in Toronto, all three MVP candidates between the two New York squads and the return of the most-accomplished MLS player ever in Landon Donovan.

Yet all of that very easily fell by the wayside when the rest of the sports world exploded. Factor in the most ridiculous presidential election possibly ever and the MLS playoffs have been largely forgotten.

Now it is easy to write this off as just Americans don’t care about soccer, but that isn’t really a fair assumption. MLSSoccer.com reported in July that viewership was up across all ESPN platforms, specifically 32 percent on television and 127 percent via the WatchESPN app.

More fans are showing up to the stadiums as well. Total gate numbers increased by about more than 100 fans per game across the league. That might not sound like much, but that’s an extra 34,000 tickets sold this year. According to Soccer Stadium Digest, roughly 7.38 million fans turned out for MLS games this year.

Jordan Morris, Jeff Hendrick
Jordan Morris (left) scored the decisive goal in the Western Conference Final for Seattle. (Wikimedia Commons)

The stage is set for a massive final tonight, between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. It is the first time that either team has even reached the MLS Final, so we are guaranteed to have a new champion this year.

The stage is set for an impressive final, yet it is unlikely that people will be watching. At least not in the United States. Canadian television ratings were smashed consistently during the Eastern Conference playoffs. Toronto matched up with Montreal for the first all-Canadian conference final ever.

As I mentioned before, the league holds its playoffs at a time that competes with the NFL, college football, college basketball, the NBA, NHL and the World Series. It is to imagine that soccer is going to break through all of that to make an impression or garner fans’ attention.

Once again, the league needs to start considering a shift in the season. If the MLS Final were to happen some time in September or June, there is a very good chance that it would merit more coverage. There would also be a lot less to compete with. Obviously, the league does not want to admit that soccer is not popular enough to stand out in the States, but that’s the reality right now.

Soccer is slowly growing the U.S., but the long-term success of MLS will rely on a breakthrough in television viewership.

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Defoe for Jozy: A rare trade in the world of soccer

It is rare in soccer that a trade is executed, even more so when it involves two international strikers switching continents. The MLS has plenty of intra-league trades but it is uncommon for one to happen with an EPL team. Yet, Tuesday Toronto FC and Sunderland announced they were swapping forwards as Jermain Defoe would be heading back to England and Jozy Altidore would be sent to Canada. The two are at very different junctures in their careers as they make the move back to the leagues where they each started their professional careers. Time to take a second look at how Altidore and Defoe wound up being part of this deal.

Defoe has been playing in the professional soccer system since he was just fourteen years old. He began with Charlton Athletics’ youth squad in 1997 before latching on to West Ham in 1999. By 2000, at only seventeen years old, Defoe made his first appearance with West Ham’s senior team. He was loaned to Bournemouth though for the remainder of the season. When he returned, Defoe became a mainstay for West Ham and he wound up registering 29 goals in 93 appearances. Defoe had become a hot commodity by 2004 and was transferred to hometown Tottenham Hotspur mid-season. It was around this same time that Defoe earned his first call up to the English senior squad. Once at Tottenham, Defoe really began to shine. He scored in his debut against, ironically, Portsmouth, whom he would later join for a season in 2008. He scored 43 goals in his first 4-year stint with Tottenham. He played 2008 in Portsmouth, scoring 14 goals in just 30 appearances. 2008 also marked a big year for Defoe on the international stage. He scored his first ever goal in competitive match and eventually became a regular on the 2010 England World Cup team. After the year with Portsmouth, he returned to Tottenham for another 4-year stint, scoring 47 more goals for the London side. By 2013 though, Defoe was getting a bit older and the MLS had come calling. More specifically, Toronto FC made a big push to land the English international. After signing Defoe, Toronto immediately loaned him back so he could remain with Tottenham until the start of the MLS season. Once playing in North America though, Defoe came out firing. He scored two goals in his first appearance for the team and ultimately scored 11 for Toronto over the course of the season. Now the 32-year old is heading back to the EPL where he had all sorts of success. Defoe sits 14th all-time with 124 goals in his career with a great chance to move a little further up that list.

On the other hand, England has been where Jozy Altidore has struggled the most. The New Jersey native started out playing for the IMG Academy as a teenager spending time with the U-17 national team. In 2006, the Metrostars, who are now the New York Red Bulls, took Altidore in the MLS SuperDraft. He spent most of that season earning his high school diploma and thus did not make his debut until August. Jozy quickly became a fan favorite in the greater New York area and would become the youngest player to ever score in the MLS playoffs by a staggering margin. In 2008, Altidore left MLS when Villareal, in Spain, bought him for an MLS record-shattering $10 million. Villareal loaned out Altidore over the next few seasons to Xerez, Hull City and Busaspor. Jozy never developed into the prized striker Villareal hoped for as he never scored more than 1 goal in a season. Villareal then shipped him to the Dutch team AZ Alkmaar, which ended up being a resurrection for Altidore’s club career. He was having plenty of success on the international level, having been an important part of the US’ Confederations Cup Finals run in 2009. Playing for AZ, Altidore scored 39 goals in just 67 appearances, sparking some major interest in England. Concurrently though, Jozy hit a dry spell at the international level, not scoring for nearly two years in a USA uniform. Shortly after getting on track for the National team in 2013, Altidore made a move to the English side Sunderland. Jozy once again struggled to find his way; Altidore only managed 1 goal for Sunderland in the 42 appearances he made. It was well known that Altidore was looking for a fresh start once again, and now he has one back in the league where he first garnered fame.

Both teams will be happy to bring in these new players. Defoe is a proven goal scorer who can spark a Sunderland team that has struggled to beat the keeper this season, as the club ranks second to last in the league in scoring. Toronto will be able to add a younger player in Altidore and drum up more popularity in bringing back another US international player to MLS. Altidore will join Jermaine Jones, Omar Gonzales, Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman and Clint Dempsey and will play alongside Michael Bradley in Toronto. At this point, not many US international players are playing outside of MLS. We will have to see what this movement does for the team. Defoe has his chance to likely finish his career in England now. Altidore is getting another chance to start over. In the short run, I have to think that Sunderland are happy with the deal they landed. Toronto might get more out of it down the line but for the present, the English side definitely got the better hand in this one.