The Throw-In: MLS in SD? Not yet, but stay classy

When fully expanded, league could go anywhere -- but be patient

Hey, you – the one reading this column from a non-MLS town. Does your city have untapped potential? Are you wondering why Major League Soccer doesn’t take a flier on your well-credentialed metro area?

Maybe you’re in St. Louis, and you point to the huge youth-participation rates. Maybe you’re in South Florida, and say it’s time MLS take another shot in the Miami area and its massive South American population.

It’s impossible to catalog the amount of American towns that don’t have top-level pro soccer, yet are mad for the sport. Recite all the statistics you want; there’s just this feeling you can’t put your finger on: Build us a team, and we will come.

This past week, I joined some you in letting my imagination get the best of me over a town that holds a special place in my heart: San Diego.

In America’s Finest City, Labor Day isn’t the unofficial end of summer; it’s just another day off to hit the beach. Open-toed shoes are business casual, fish tacos are plentiful and warm breezes are still whipping out of Mission Valley toward the coast.

Not a bad way to spend your college years in the mid-1990s. But back home a couple hours up I-5, Major League Soccer was just getting going and the Los Angeles Galaxy were playing to big crowds at the Rose Bowl. There was no MLS love in the place my dad calls “LowCal.”

But there’s been a perfect storm in San Diego over the past several months, and my mind raced like a fan boy. No market in the US generated the sort of TV ratings San Diego did during the World Cup. Baseless rumors began to surface that Chivas USA were considering relocating down south.

Then in July, my own boss, Commissioner Don Garber, really got me anxious when he shoehorned a little nugget into his halftime address at the MLS All-Star Game in Houston.

San Diego had supposedly “re-entered the mix” for an MLS expansion team among a group of cities that includes Atlanta, Miami, San Antonio and Detroit.

At that moment, I suddenly craved a fish taco. When MLS was first getting going, and most of the league’s corporate operations were based in LA, San Diego was a serious consideration for expansion – that's why the 1999 All-Star Game was held there.

The eighth-largest city in the US has a lot of characteristics that made it attractive to the league:

  • Nearly 3 million inhabitants in a sprawling metro area.
  • Soccer history, from NASL to MISL to college level.
  • Oodles of corporate money.
  • Footie-friendly demographics from suburban soccer moms to fútbol-mad Hispanic communities, and everything in between.

“For all the talk of Portland, Salt Lake City, wherever, I still contend that San Diego is truly Soccer City USA,” explains San Diego Union-Tribune writer Marc Zeigler who, by the way, is probably America’s best soccer scribe not based in a greater MLS market.

“This is a highly sophisticated market where people know their soccer where practically everyone either plays or watches. The problem is, it’s really fractured.”

MLS never took a risk on San Diego because, as seemingly perfect as it is, its urban sprawl and lovely location works against it. It’s hard to rally any portion of the population together for an event given the distances.

And that deliciously fickle nature – it’s what makes this sun-drenched town unique. I still recall how quickly all those little bolts disappeared off everyone’s cars after the Chargers got blown out in Super Bowl XXIX.

“The Padres are in a pennant race, and they’re barely averaging 20,000,” laughs Zeigler. “They’ve actually got less people coming now because most people are thinking, ‘Oh, it’ll be so crowded. I’ll just watch on TV.’”

Let’s talk ChivaClásico for a second. A respectable crowd turned out to see Chivas USA top parent club CD Guadalajara at Petco Park on Tuesday – in fact, bigger than the average crowd that came to see the Padres take on the rival Dodgers in a three-game series earlier this month.

Pair that with those wild World Cup ratings, look at how the Mexican National Team sells out year after year in friendlies at Qualcomm Stadium, and you start to understand why people think there’s something there down in San Diego.

But it’s not there just yet. For as enticing as the town seems, it’s a back-burner possibility, along with Atlanta, Miami, San Antonio and Detroit.

MLS is focused on reaching that magic number of 20 teams, which it’s expected to do by 2012. And after Montreal, Garber has said again and again the preference is on adding a second team in New York.

If anything, San Diego would be a candidate for what Garber constantly refers to as “a fully expanded league.” That’s a nice image of what MLS will look like beyond 2012.

“There are a lot of reasons to think San Diego would be a successful market,” league president Mark Abbott told me recently. “As our expansions plans continue to evolve, we’ll keep looking at it.”

This is just the long way of telling us all, myself included: Cool your jets. That fact that we can even discuss a bigger and grander MLS is fantastic. But if we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s the smaller steps that make the league bigger and better. And for as great as we think our towns are, there are reasons the league isn’t going there yet.

Finally putting a team in my old stomping grounds – provided the circumstances are right and an ownership group comes along – would bring a tear to my eye. But so would a sustainable second try below the Mason-Dixon Line. So would another presence in the expansive Midwest.

For now, we can keep dreaming and championing our towns. We need to keep that passion alive. It’s what’s making MLS a stronger league and it’s what’s making the US more and more hungry for the sport.

That’s good enough for me. Now move – you’re in my sun.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.