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Phil Shoen on MLS/Miami

Phil Shoen, GOL-TV announcer, on MLS and South Florida...
"Sorry to take issue with all the haters out there saying Florida got its chance with MLS and doesn’t deserve another. A lot of people, many of whom I respect, seem to have lost their grip on reality when it comes to potential expansion to the Miami market.

With the news that Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber is planning on sitting down with South Florida soccer fans this weekend, critics have started hurling their venom in an attempt to ridicule the idea that South Florida could support a team.

Now I firmly believe the next expansion team should go to New York City. That could take advantage of the massive potential fan-base and create a natural rivalry for the Red Bulls. MLS needs to be more relevant in America’s most important media and advertising market. However, I think South Florida should be top of the list when MLS starts handing out the keys for the league’s 21st team.

It’s important to remember all of the circumstances that were occurring back in 2001, the time MLS decided to shrink the league for a chance at survival. Sponsorship dollars were slowing down and overall attendance for the league played a role. Both Florida teams, Miami and Tampa Bay, were in the bottom third when it came to butts in seats and that put them in the bulls-eye.

However, there is a lot that isn’t being said in defense of the region. There were other teams that were just as bad, and headed in the wrong direction. The problem that the Mutiny had is that it was league-owned, so no one particular owner had a stake in keeping the franchise alive, but all of the league owners were weighed down by the problems in Tampa.

The situation with the Fusion was much different. Poor marketing, political infighting, exorbitant ticket costs, awful game day management and fan appreciation, bad results and a boring style were all self-inflicted. Every year the hole got deeper.

However, when my now-broadcast partner Ray Hudson took over as head coach of the team he turned a bunch of misfits and rejects into the league’s most attractive team. The soccer fans in the region started to notice and attendance was climbing significantly towards the end of the final year.

Even more importantly, the late and sorely missed Doug Hamilton gave the franchise a firm foundation on which to succeed. When Hamilton took over the front office he demanded professionalism, attracted sponsors and delivered results. He patted a few backs and stepped on a few toes along the way, but by that point there were a lot of feet that deserved a stomping.

You also can’t forget 9-11 also played a significant role as it understandably drew attention of the fan base away from the team towards the national crisis. This had a drastic and immediate impact on the economy of the nation.

Still at the end of the tragedy-shortened season, MLS decided to contract and the four teams at the bottom of the average attendance list were the ones in the most danger of disappearing: Miami (11,177), Kansas City (10,954), Tampa Bay (10,479) and San Jose (9,635).

The reason San Jose was not killed off is that, despite the worst attendance in the league by far, is that they went out and won the MLS Cup. It would have been a crippling public relations blow for a struggling league to have its champion disintegrate in the off-season. (Take a look at WPS.) So San Jose got a lifeline, first from the Krafts, and then from AEG. Basically, the league came in and provided a crutch until the local market finally came up with an owner.

So that meant that the second doomed team would come down to Miami or Kansas City. The reason it was the Fusion rather than the Wizards is the real issue. KC had Lamar Hunt (who also helped protect his hometown Dallas – fifth worst in 2001 attendance at 12,574 -and he eventually purchased the franchise from the league a couple of years later.) Miami had Ken Horowitz. The problem with the Fusion is that the owner, for all of his faults, was sold the Brooklyn Bridge when he stepped in.

The league was already in trouble when Horowitz bought the Fusion franchise rights in 1998. In my mind, a league struggling for investors should kiss the feet of someone who lays out $25 million. Instead, it was cash call after cash call and complaint after complaint. And while many of the league’s criticisms about the running of the club might have been correct, the communication from New York was a constant irritant and there never seemed to be a carrot to go along with the stick.

The relationship soured almost immediately and got worse from there. Horowitz figured he had nothing more to lose by 2001 and decided to play poker, demanding a better deal and almost daring the league to pull the rug out. The other owners called his bluff, perhaps correctly figuring they had already used his money and would be better off without his complaints.

And so the Fusion disappeared, but the market did not fail. The league and the local ownership did. Attendance climbed close to 50 percent in the final season, the lone year where the Fusion put forth a professional, attractive product. All indications were that attendance could have seen a similar jump the next season, despite the impact of 9-11.

Does this mean that a new team in South Florida would definitely succeed? Absolutely not. However, it does show that a professionally run front office coupled with a dynamic team that plays attractive soccer can be supported by the market and should be given another chance.''