I have a feeling that some day, maybe five years from now, maybe 10, we’ll look back on Wednesday, November 21, 2001, as a day that changed MLS forever.
What I’m not sure about is whether we’ll say it was the day the league was saved.
Or the day the league died.
First, let me make my opinion clear.
The takeover of the MetroStars by Phil Anschutz and the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) from MetroMedia had to happen for the good of the league. You never sensed any passion from MetroMedia's Stuart Subotnick and John Kluge about the sport of soccer.
I truly believe MetroMedia believed it was purchasing the second coming of the New York Cosmos back in ’96. The MetroMedia folks had visions of filling Giants Stadium, becoming big-time players in New York and raking in some dough. When it was suggested to key members of the company back in ’96 and ’97 that the MetroStars would be better off in a 30,000-seat stadium, they scoffed. This was not their "vision" for MLS’ flagship team.
Eventually, after watching Metro and MLS attendance decline and season-ticket sales dwindle down to nearly nothing, MetroMedia would come around on the idea of getting the Metros into a smaller stadium to create a little ticket scarcity and a better in-game atmosphere. But there was a condition: Someone would have to build it for them.
About a year ago, the MetroStars sprung for a lavish press conference at the ESPNZone in Manhattan. It was billed as a press conference to announce the club’s plans to build not one, but two soccer-specific stadiums in the Metropolitan area. One for the MetroStars in New Jersey. The other for an expansion team in New York.
They could just as well have called the event a pep rally or a sales pitch. They were looking for a couple of towns to build them a couple of $30-$60 million stadiums. The plan, the MetroStars said, was to be breaking ground by September of 2001.
Whenever the MetroStars were asked how much MetroMedia was willing to kick in to get the stadiums built, the club would turn to its "economic impact" studies, which projected how much money these stadiums would generate for the towns who built them.
I took that as a "not much … if anything at all."
Call me a skeptic, but as much as the MetroStars have talked about the progress they’re making toward getting a stadium built in Harrison, N.J., I always felt without an owner who was willing to pick up a big portion of the tab, it would not get done.
I could be proved dead wrong on this in the near future. The Metros said Wednesday they still believe they can get the Harrison stadium built as part of a New Jersey Sports and Entertainment District bill. So, we’ll have to wait and see.
But, I now feel there are at least other options … because of Anschutz. In Los Angeles (actually Carson), Anschutz is building the Galaxy a stadium. In Chicago (actually Arlington Heights), Anschutz was going to build the Fire a stadium until a mayor and a horse-track owner conspired to ruin the deal at the 11th hour. So, in Harrison, maybe the Metros don’t need the bill. Maybe they just need the land and the infrastructure.
One thing we know is that Anschutz is a player, not a poseur. He was the guy willing to go out and spend money to bring Luis Hernandez to LA … and even though that move didn’t pan out the way he’d hoped, it at least was a gutsy move. A roll of the dice.
He now runs all the big-market clubs in MLS … the MetroStars, Chicago, Los Angeles and DC … for a reason. Because he knows this is the only way to save the league. If AEG rolled the dice again, and can build stadiums (that will double as outdoor concert venues for AEG) in those markets and Lamar Hunt can take care of the smaller markets, the league may finally be presented properly.
Stadiums are everything. I’ve said it before, but if every team in MLS had the same presentation skills as the Columbus Crew, who play to near-capacity crowds in a 22,000-seat stadium, the league would not be portrayed as "struggling." If the MetroStars, Chicago and DC United, the league’s most passionately supported teams, had similar stadiums, suddenly people would get a taste for what soccer can look like in the right environment.
A lot of people talk about the "need for a flagship team in New York" and there’s something to it ... but more that that, there’s a need for all four of the big AEG markets to succeed. Around the world, people know of New York, LA, Chicago and Washington, DC. Put good teams with good fans in good stadiums in those cities, good things will happen for MLS. I have to believe this is what Anschutz wants to do.
Of course, my brain is spinning after the New York Daily News’ Michael Lewis reported that the league is considering contraction through the elimination of two teams. And when Lewis asked MLS Commissioner Don Garber about contraction on Wednesday, Garber said he wasn’t going to address it "at this time."
I wrote it last year, when the Board of Directors was talking about slicing Miami and San Jose … and I still believe it: I don’t think cutting back to 10 teams would be a bad thing for MLS. As you know, the league is a single entity. As you also know, there are more than two teams who are not getting it done. Places where, frankly, I don’t see them getting it done in the near future.
So, instead of allowing those teams to drain money out of the league, why not let Anschutz put that money into his Big Four and Hunt to put that money into his Middle-Market Two? A little pruning. And then see how things re-grow.
That’s the way I look at the MetroStars now. With MetroMedia out of the picture, the league may have lost an investor, but MLS may well have gained some momentum.
Check back with me in five, maybe 10.
ESPN.com's Soccer Index
The latest news and stats
Who's on the cover today?
SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...