For its 21st season, Major League Soccer has added its 21st and 22nd franchises in Minnesota and Atlanta. Both clubs’ first-ever games will be on Fox Sports 1, kicking off Fox’s third season in an eight-year contract in MLS.
Awful Announcing spoke with studio host Rob Stone and lead play-by-play announcer John Strong to discuss Fox’s schedule and changes in MLS for the coming season, most notably the new expansion franchises, big network television broadcasts and some upcoming changes that will affect the on-screen product later this summer.
Stone will join Strong, Alexi Lalas and new sideline reporter Katie Witham — who replaces Julie Stewart-Binks, now at ESPN — on Friday night in Portland, when the 2015 champion Timbers host Minnesota United at 9:30 p.m. ET on FS1. Stone will be doing pregame work from the crowd alongside the rabid Timbers fan base at Providence Park in Portland, “and fully embracing the energy and atmosphere that they bring.”
“Doing an expansion team’s first game is sort of a fun, unique thing,” Strong, who called Portland’s first-ever game as the team’s local broadcaster in 2011, told Awful Announcing.
“There’s nothing like that first game, making that first impression,” Stone told Awful Announcing.
For most weeks, Stone will be in Fox’s Los Angeles studio with a group including, but not limited to, Brad Friedel, Stuart Holden, Eric Wynalda and, potentially, Landon Donovan.
After the Portland-Minnesota game on Friday, Strong and Lalas will take a red-eye flight to Atlanta for its first-ever home match on Sunday night against the New York Red Bulls (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1) at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. The game may have sold out the 55,000 seat stadium, Strong said.
“There’s a lot of people that seem to feel that Atlanta can, maybe on and off the field, emulate a lot of what we saw with Seattle in 2009, which is really exciting,” Strong said.
Minnesota assumed a relatively low profile with its signings leading up to its inaugural season, but Atlanta has definitely not. Atlanta United, coached by former Barcelona and Argentina national team manager Tata Martino, has been at the forefront of the predominant trend in MLS over the offseason, which is signing young players from Central and South America — led by 23-year-old Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron and 22-year-old Argentine forward Hector Villalba — who are on the upswing of their careers instead of high-profile European players like Frank Lampard who are on the decline.
“I think Atlanta has a wonderful chance to get into the postseason in their first year in MLS,” Stone said.
Strong and Stone both expect a much better on-field product across the league this season, as teams shift towards signing younger players — including a larger emphasis on home grown players developed in teams’ academy and developmental systems — who actually see MLS as an improved landing spot to help develop their careers.
“It’s going to continue to raise the quality level of play that we see in MLS, which is the most important thing,” Strong said.
What this current television contract with Fox and ESPN has done is created consistent weekly time slots for MLS. This will be the second season where MLS is prominently featured on network television, with several games going to Fox.
On May 27, Fox will have a doubleheader beginning with the final of England’s FA Cup, leading into Seattle hosting Portland, the league’s biggest rivalry featuring the last two MLS Cup champions. In addition to a New York Derby between the Red Bulls and NYCFC on June 24, Fox will have the first-ever sporting event at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium between Atlanta and Orlando City on July 30. That all leads up to the MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 2 at Soldier Field in Chicago against, rumor has it, Real Madrid.
“When you create these destination moments, whether it’s a specific matchup or putting games on the Fox network, you can see the spike,” Strong said, in terms of viewership and fan interest. “If we put the right games in the right spots, people are there.”
That held true last September, when Fox put MLS games between Kansas City and Los Angeles and New York and Toronto alongside its regional NFL matchups during week two of the football season. The viewership and response were positive enough that the network appears enthusiastic about doing something similar this coming season.
“By all accounts, it was an absolute success for the league and for Fox and I would be stunned if it doesn’t come back,” Stone said.
A major change that MLS will implement after the All-Star Game is goal line technology and a system called Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR) to review goals and questionable calls involving disciplinary decisions like red and yellow cards. That will add a new dimension to broadcasts that Strong has already embraced.
“If we can, on a broadcast, within 10 seconds, show you definitely that the call was either right or wrong, why can’t we give that same opportunity to the referees?” Strong said.
Strong also said that over the course of the season, Fox’s MLS coverage will try to further integrate analytics and advanced statistics into the telecasts. That’s already begun with the Audi Player Index, which Fox is trying to make more accessible and more relevant, and will continue in midseason with the introduction of expected goals.
In partnership with a company called Opta, expected goals will be used to provide “context for what should have happened in that moment,” per Strong. Instead of just telling the audience that a certain player should have scored, expected goals will try to give context and determine why that player should have scored but did not.
As MLS expands, grows and evolves, Fox is trying to do the same with its coverage, with larger platforms and new technology. Now the trick is for Fox to get fans to tune in and notice that Major League Soccer may be a more developed and refined product than it’s ever been.