By Dario Camacho - MIAMI, FL (Mar 2, 2012) US Soccer Players -- There was beer and popcorn flying about at Sun Life Stadium on Wednesday night. An instant reaction when Colombian midfielder Juan Guillermo Cuadrado poked a through ball into the Mexican goal. An increasingly balmy night, lubricating a bombastic celebration in the stands in Miami. More than 42,000 were in attendance, partaking in a ruckus encounter between two equally represented nationalities. Singing and chanting, waving flags and pumping fists. Exasperated old men clutching the heads in disbelief of a careening shot off the post.
It was a mash of nerves, sweat of emotion. It was a futbol game, once again begging the question why Major League Soccer can't take advantage of such a unique atmosphere.
Location, Location, Location
In 1997, the Miami Fusion came into existence. By 2001, they were gone. What happened in between was more or less a working example of Major League Soccer's problems at the time. The team was playing too far north in Fort Lauderdale. There was North American Soccer League tradition in that market, in fact it was Miami's NASL team that moved from the Orange Bowl to Lockhart Stadium originally.
The Fusion tried the Orange Bowl, but MLS was already moving away from oversized venues. The League's clubs had already figured out that all the tarps in the world wouldn't turn a big venue into a small one. With Fort Lauderdale as the only workable option, the original MLS Miami knew they had set limits that might be tough to overcome. They weren't the only team in trouble during the offseason between the 2001 and 2002 season, far from it. They also weren't the last MLS club to try to establish themselves at the extremes of their metropolitan area.
For most of what should have been the Fusion's core market, there was an hour commute to get to the stadium, one of the explanations for their lower than average attendance. Not much had changed at Lockhart since the NASL era. It was and is a stadium without enclosed space and a diminutive height. Comparing the rowdiness of Livestrong Park versus a typical game at Lockhart Stadium and the difference is deafening.
If MLS tries again in Miami, soccer-specificity would be a necessity. Developing in Miami would be ideal. The target audience is located in Dade County, drawing support from concentrated Hispanic areas in Homestead, South Miami, and Kendall.
For The People
For MLS Miami to have a better chance at working long-term the second time around, it would need to match the squad to the likeliest community. MLS has moved away from that since the days of Raul Diaz Arce as his own draw in DC and Chivas USA trying to market to Mexican club fans, but it's exactly what's needed in Miami.
That includes the sizeable Cuban-American and Colombian-American communities as well as the Mexican-American community. Miami is home to Univision and Telemundo, the two largest Hispanic broadcasters in the United States. There's already a synergy with corporations spending on soccer in this market, something that would require an MLS club connecting rather than inventing. GolTV is also Miami-based, and CONCACAF's offices are located there as well. With that in mind, there's a good argument that Miami is the biggest soccer-friendly city without an MLS team.
Marketing an MLS team would be an extension of already exists, but it requires embracing that community rather than creating additional degrees of difficulty.
Of course there is a reality still to contend with. Even with 42,000 tickets sold, the Colombia vs. Mexico game still failed to sell out the 74,000 seating availability for soccer. There was as much orange seats as there were yellow and green jerseys in the stands. The tough economic downturn has caused a diminishing fan base for all South Florida teams, having to support a fifth major team could be leaving an MLS expansion on the fringes of a fan base with too many options.
Weather factors into the equation as well. MLS players and Fusion fans remember what it could be like in the middle of summer playing in South Florida humidity. It's tough to draw a crowd when the weather doesn't cooperate, something Miami's baseball team demonstrates each season. Yet professional club soccer done right should have that built-in advantage, the already existing community connections.
What a second attempt would highlight isn't what brought the Fusion to a halt, but rather how to connect with the soccer market and focusing on what that market requires. Appropriate stadiums come first in the contemporary version of MLS. As we've seen most recently in Orlando and in the recent expansion cities, so does fan commitment. Miami would have to show that a soccer community exists to support a team and meet MLS expectations. We've got Philadelphia as the example for fan commitment first and then an ownership group taking shape and ultimately landing a club.
The day might come when the soccer obsessed in South Florida follows that example. We'll see a fan base supporting the same club colors, when the popcorn and beer are spilled in response to an MLS club representing Miami's soccer community.
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