The Throw-In: MLS nears its own Rite of Spring
Historians disagree on the exact beginnings, but one story goes that it was the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox who were the first baseball teams to hold preseason camps somewhere warm when they reported to New Orleans in 1870 (so long ago that both teams had the word “Stocking” in their official team names).
Whatever the truth, it’s now a yearly ritual where all 30 Major League Baseball teams descend on Florida and Arizona for what’s now known as Spring Training.
It’s a little cliché, but those worlds conjure up that spirit of renewal, of the frost thawing and that sunny feeling of optimism for every team as they prepare for the season ahead. Baseball fans know it’s all there for them like clockwork at the same time every year.
But it took nearly half a century for Spring Training to become an established institution. It may only have taken MLS 15 years. And for a relative baby on the American sporting scene, this is a very cool development.
This offseason, all but one of MLS’ 18 teams have held or are holding preseason camps in Arizona or Florida – in fact, four are stopping in both states. MLS has never had such a concentration of teams in two locations at one time, mirroring quite closely baseball’s annual pilgrimage.
“What Major League Baseball has as an example is a big benefit to the league,” MLS executive vice president of competition, technical and game operations Nelson Rodriguez told MLSsoccer.com. “It creates a nice launching pad for the regular season. I’d like to find way to create something similar – a destination where fans can get early glimpses of their own team and others, an area where we could engage and involve other business, maybe even eventually hold winter meetings there.”
We’re getting there faster than ever. MLS has tried centralized spring training before, and in several different incarnations, from tournaments in Charleston, S.C. (which continue with this week’s Carolina Challenge Cup), to camps near San Diego. But it’s never really stuck, as teams generally prefer to make their own arrangements.
Florida has been a logical spot since the beginning. Five teams were based in Boca Raton before the inaugural 1996 season, and all 12 teams participated in a tournament in Orlando before kickoff in ‘98.
Since then, nearly every team in league history has returned to the Sunshine State to train, from regular trips to places like IMG’s Bradenton Academy or the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando (at right).
The Arizona phenomenon, however, is the new wild card. Twelve teams have spent time in the Grand Canyon State this winter, the most ever. Like America’s Pastime, local governments in the Phoenix and Tucson area are reaching out to try to attract MLS teams to new and soon-to-be-built soccer complexes that dot the sprawling desert landscape. And costs are much, much lower than, say, flying an entire team and its staff to Argentina.
“It makes a lot of sense for the Midwestern and West Coast teams to gather here,” Sporting Kansas City team administrator Rick Dressel told MLSsoccer.com over the phone from Phoenix, where the club is currently based for its entire preseason. “The facilities are really nice, and they’re only growing.”
Dressel himself laid a lot of the groundwork to make Arizona a preseason destination for MLS clubs. A few years ago, he began to look around Phoenix for training facilities at the request of SKC president Robb Heineman, who has business partners there.
He made connections around the area and convinced other teams to join Sporting, which has resulted in several teams occupying hotels in the Valley of the Sun and utilizing the 18-field, 70-acre Reach 11 Sports Complex in northeastern Phoenix for training sessions and scrimmages.
Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake are the first club to plunk down roots in Arizona, with their academy based in Casa Grande, 50 miles south of Phoenix. That’s given MLS another semi-permanent base in the desert, thanks to the work of former RSL Academy chief (and current Chivas USA assistant coach) Greg Vanney, an Arizona native.
The full-service facilities and spotless grounds make the Grande Sports World complex an ideal place for multiple teams to ensconce themselves, as a handful have done this winter.
All this makes Arizona a viable long-term and inexpensive preseason for many teams, where they can prepare for the upcoming season and hone their skills against league competition. Florida continues to be a destination, too – ESPN says it wants to expand its annual Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic, involving even more MLS (and perhaps foreign) clubs and a giant player combine.
All of a sudden, we’ve got soccer versions of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues that are only growing in popularity. And that’s music to the league’s ears. Rodriguez says the league is tickled pink that teams are taking it upon themselves to organize together during preseason, something MLS has long sought on its own and may look to perpetuate.
“We are looking at the possibility of returning some form of centralized spring training, which had been previously mandated several years ago,” he said. “We would not make it exclusive to any one market, but we’d look to have two or three markets that could house teams.”
Rodriguez was quick to point out the league is in the early stages, but it’s entirely possible MLS could require all teams to check in at one or two pre-established facilities in Florida or Arizona for a minimum set period during preseason.
There’s still a great desire on the league’s part to let teams plan their own preseasons to join tournaments abroad or visit their own partner clubs, of course – San Jose lodging with Tottenham Hotspur, New York visiting their Austrian parent club, FC Dallas dropping in on Brazilian partner Atlético Paranaense, for instance – but there is huge value in institutionalizing a form of Spring Training for MLS.
“Like a lot of things it does, the league doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Real Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerwey told MLSsoccer.com last week. “Baseball has done this a long time. It’s a different set of smart people who are coming to the same conclusion.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.