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Our City: Is FC Dallas the MLS Canary in the Coal Mine?

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So the legend goes, coal miners used to bring a caged canary into the mine to monitor for noxious gasses. When you saw the bird keel over, you knew it was time to worry. Does FC Dallas play a similar role in American soccer?

MLS: Houston Dynamo at FC Dallas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I think about FC Dallas more than I should. I think about that team a lot because it continues to be a Major League Soccer conundrum. The Hoops are MLS originals who from the outside seem to have done everything correctly. They survived the early years and built on that success. They moved out of the cavernous Cotton Bowl with a capacity of 92,100, into the more intimate confines of the soccer-specific Toyota Stadium. They have intense rivalries with Houston and Colorado, an important factor with both supporters and the MLS higher-ups.

And lately, they’ve been very successful. Over the last four seasons they’ve made the playoffs three times, including a Supporters’ Shield in 2016 and two first-place finishes in the West in 2015 and 2016. This season they are pacing the competitive West again and look to be solid competition for whoever they come up against in the playoffs. They have also won two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups in 1997 and 2016.

They’ve built an exciting core of quick players around Maxi Urruti and Michael Barrios, along with U.S. National Team goalkeeper and Homegrown talent Jesse González.

With all of that in mind, FC Dallas seems to struggle with attendance. This year the Hoops are averaging 15,206, good for third to the bottom. Since moving to Toyota Stadium, the club has never averaged more than 16,816; nothing close to capacity for their 20,000-seat capacity.

The positive view is that they’ve kept a consistent average on either side of 15,000, but that number always feels generous when you watch FC Dallas games on TV. I can’t think of a quieter stadium in MLS, and that includes what does sound like an impassioned supporters’ section and accompanying drumline.

The challenge, as an observer from far away, is that it’s hard to imagine a team this successful having a hard time drawing fans in the fifth biggest market in the United States and the ninth largest city in the United States (not including the 16th largest city, Fort Worth). This is not the team that should be struggling with attendance.

While MLS highlights the teams that draw larger crowds in Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, and until very recently, Orlando, these legacy teams that struggle to draw a crowd have to concern the league. With the coming additions of attendance monsters Cincinnati FC along with whatever the new clubs in Nashville and Miami generate, the concerns of Dallas and similar legacy clubs with attendance struggles will fall further from the radar.

The challenge for Dallas is often cited as the distance of the Frisco location from the center of Dallas, a solid half an hour depending on location and route. While that doesn’t sound impossible, I’m sure many of us drive that far to Orlando Stadium through the sprawl that is Central Florida, it does sound inconvenient. How do you solve that? While that might be the multi-million-dollar question, it is the one that MLS and FC Dallas have to answer. The health of the league is tied as much to the success of new clubs as it is to the legacy clubs based in significant metropolitan areas.

I’ll conclude with this thought. MLS intentionally runs a very conservative ship, with all of its mechanisms for allocated money and league-owned player contracts. While at times this drives most of us crazy, is there a way the league could navigate funding clubs’ success in the stands as well as on the field? The league has been clear in its intentions to put a good product on the field, but why not put some money into infrastructure?

The challenges that face Dallas and its attendance are problems the rest of the league does and could face depending on the season and the team. The health of the Dallas market, is in the end, the health of the league.