Publicity Stunt?

Major League Soccer doesn’t usually, if it all, make the front page news on ESPN (at least not in this country).  With the NCAA tournament in full swing and Opening Day baseball right around the corner, it’s hard for anything but those two events to break through the clutter.  But the last couple days have been different.

Major League Soccer has been the United States’ domestic league for the last 15 years and has been the most successful US soccer league to date.  There have been a few other now defunct leagues in the country since but MLS has seen the greatest fan support and revenues of all the previous professional soccer leagues.  There has, however, been tons of criticism from FIFA as well as local supporters about the structure of the league, from ownership to the league season calendar, to extra-time structure.  MLS has always done things a little differently from the rest of world because soccer is generally speaking, “the new kid on the block” in this country.  Our nation has grown up with American football and baseball for the last five or six generations.  Association football(soccer) has been established in Europe since about the late 1860’s in countries such as England, France, and Germany.  American football began in the 1890’s and baseball not long before that.  Soccer in the United States was actually the first professional league formed in 1884 as the American Football Association.  The name “football” actually wasn’t dropped until 1974 with the word “soccer” being introduced in 1945.  In 1863 the Football Association of England drafted “The Laws of the Game”to unify the many and diverse clubs throughout the country.  The first match played by the FA’s Laws was played between Princeton University and Rutgers University in 1869.  From that point until 1967 there were multiple leagues moving in and out of existence and in 1968 the more stable North American Soccer League was formed which was the most successful league in the pre-MLS era.  The United States Football Association was formed as the sport’s governing body on April 5, 1913 and the body, though now called the U.S. Soccer Federation, still governs the sport today.

Unfortunately for the U.S. Football Association, the sport never caught on the way it had in Europe.  Ironically, the earliest forms of soccer played between New England universities actually turned into rugby-like sports that were the precursors to modern day American football.  American football and baseball were uniquely American sports and were embraced as a part of the culture in a way that a foreign sport such as soccer couldn’t compete with.  The NASL eventually folded in 1984 and the sport saw a dark period in the U.S. for a little more than a decade with the exception of Major League Indoor Soccer (MISL) which actually became popular during the 80’s and 90’s.  The turning point for U.S. soccer came when the U.S. Soccer Federation submitted a bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.  The bid was successful and the World Cup was a huge success for U.S. soccer.  The final match played by Brazil and Italy at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA set attendance records that still stand today.  Part of the bid proposal was a promise to create a new professional domestic league.  In 1996 MLS made its debut season and has reaped the benefits of the success of the ’94 World Cup.  The league has expanded from 10 original clubs to 18 at the start of the 2011 season.  The league fields teams from the United States and Canada and competes in the SuperLiga which is an annual competition between MLS and the Mexican Premiera Division and the CONCACAF Champions League.  MLS has continued to grow and evolve over the last 15 years and has seen increased revenues and support every season.  But without a doubt one of the biggest publicity aides for the league has come from an unsuspecting ally.

Chad Ochocinco of the Cincinnati Bengals has been a fan of soccer since age four and grew up playing the sport in recreational leagues.  Chad grew up in Miami, FL playing soccer and football and decided to go to college to play football over soccer.  While he excelled at wide receiver and was drafted by the Bengals in 2001, Chad has remained an avid fan of soccer and a supporter of Real Madrid C.F.  The current political troubles of the NFL have allowed Ochocinco to chase his other dream of being a professional soccer player.  In an effort to stay in shape for whenever the next NFL season is, and to just have fun, Ochocinco was invited to run a trial for the MLS club Sporting Kansas City.  The trial is slated to last four days which began on March 25, 2001 and after two days of training was asked to participate in a reserve match on Monday (today).

Ochocinco (center 85) in training with Sporting Kansas City

I believe this is a blessing in disguise, or maybe not in disguise, for MLS because Chad Ochocinco is one of American sports’ most electrifying and controversial figures of the last decade.  Known for his on the field and off the field antics, Ochocinco has captured the love and hate of sports fans across the nation.  His antics include the infamous “List” from 2005 of the cornerbacks who covered Ochocinco during the 2005 season and his “Future HoF 20??” jacket worn during a Monday Night Football game against the Ravens in 2007.  Always in the media limelight, Ochocinco is a prime candidate to draw more attention to MLS which deserves to make the newspaper headlines for once.

In all reality, Ochocinco’s trial will probably come to an end relatively soon.  He is humble about his soccer skills saying that he hasn’t played a competitive match since age ten but showed a ton of effort and gained the support of his Kansas City teammates.  His first day of training was rough as expected and was mostly used to get Chad used to the flow of the match and to get the rust off his boots.  The second day of the trial went much better for Ochocinco and was followed by the team’s manager calling Ochocinco into his office and asking him to play in KC’s reserve match.  Should he impress during the match, the trial may be extended to see if he has the quality to possibly be used on either the reserve team or first team.

The sports media has been divided on whether this is good for MLS and Ochocinco.  Media pundits have deemed the trial a publicity stunt for Ochocinco who might not be able to cause mayhem on and off the gridiron this fall and a way for him to keep his persona in the media.  Others suggest, like Ochocinco, that this is something done honestly to stay in shape and will benefit both Ochocinco and MLS.  The longer his trial, the longer MLS stays in the headlines.  And if he makes the team AND if there is no 2011 NFL season Ochocinco could be on the verge of a breakthrough.  In all reality, there probably will be a 2011 season and Cinco’s trial will probably be cut short but I say good for him doing something he loves and is trying to benefit his NFL career by staying in shape.  If along the way a well-deserving MLS gets more publicity then I’m all for it!  It can only be a good thing if MLS gets media attention during the NCAA Men’s tournament so I am emphatic about Ochocinco’s trial with Kansas City!  I wish Mr. Ochocinco luck as he competes in his match today and look forward to the 2011 MLS and NFL seasons!

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