football Major League Soccer

US, Russia: A Soccer Solution

7:11 PMGoalChatter

by Aleks V |

In April 2017, the U.S. Women's National Football Team will play two friendly games against Russia in Texas. They last met in 2014, also playing two games on U.S. soil. Those came after a 12-year hiatus.

The last time the U.S. Men's National Football Team played Russia was in 2012, a friendly that ended in a 2:2 draw at Kuban Stadium in Krasnodar. They've only met 10 times in both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Their first and only meeting in official competition was the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea, where the USSR walked away with a 4:2 victory, finishing top of Group C and knocking the US out of the tournament. The Soviet team went on to beat Brazil in an extra-time final.

USA vs Russia: All-Time Record
Games: 10
Wins: USA 1, Russia 5
Draws: 4
Goals scored: USA 8, Russia 15

At club level, the two probably last met in 1990, when the likes of CSKA and Dynamo Moscow played friendlies against the Atlanta Chiefs and Washington Diplomats. One such game was fittingly played in Washington D.C., where Dynamo won against the Diplomats 6:1.

A lot has changed on both the sporting and political arenas since then. The fall of the Soviet Union led to the establishment of a Top Division, and in 2001, the Russian Premier League. The 90's gave rise to Major League Soccer and a World Cup held in the US. Both leagues continue to have their share of struggles. Unfortunately, the same can be said about relations between the two countries.

In an ever-increasingly competitive world, no one nation or league can claim to be "the best". Being one of the best, however, is certainly not out of reach, and can be achieved much quicker by working together.

The countries' top soccer leagues can do just that.

The Russian Premier League and Major League Soccer: At A Glance

- Est. 1993
- Teams: 22
- Reserve league: integrated into USL Pro League
- Coverage in US: available on cable; limited access on local channels (Spanish-language TV)
- Pro Rel: no


- Est. 2001
- Teams: 16
- Reserve league: yes
- Coverage in Russia: Match TV (public), NTV+ (satellite)
- Pro Rel: yes

Right off the bat, two of MLS's biggest problems come into view: lack of accessibility for viewers and absence of promotion/relegation between leagues.

Despite having pro/rel, the RPL faces a different kind of dilemma: Clubs that are promoted often lack funds to compete in the top league. Many of the clubs in the second tier, known as the Football National League, are struggling financially, as are some top tier "regulars". However, this does not stop teams like FC Rostov from competing in Europe (they've played in the Europa League Round of 16).

Various factors have affected attendance figures in both leagues. Other leagues vie for fans' attention. In MLS, Designated Players like David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Steven Gerrard play a big role in attracting fans, who are used to that kind of marketing elsewhere (it's the equivalent of going to see a Johnny Depp movie). That said, it would be interesting to see the RPL and MLS do a domestic DP or star player swap. Although 18 players from the former Soviet Union (four from Russia) have played for MLS, only one player, Yura Movsisyan (Armenia), has been a Designated Player in Major League Soccer. By contrast, just a handful of players with US citizenship have played in Russia's top tier. Forward Eugene Starikov, originally from Ukraine, played on loan at FC Rostov and Tom Tomsk in 2010-2013. Zurab Tsiskaridze, who was born in Georgia but also holds US citizenship, is a rare case - he played in MLS and the NASL early in his career, and later made three appearances for Amkar Perm in Russia.

Much of the Russian Premier League's attendance woes can be attributed to post-Soviet era hardships, the economy being one of them. Another factor is stadium safety. Some of the older stadiums need a little TLC. Hooliganism has sometimes marred the experience for law-abiding fans and families.

The fall of the Soviet Union undoubtedly left its mark on attendance figures. The lowest all-time attendance for the Soviet Top League from 1970 onward, a little over 18,000, is still higher than last season's RPL average attendance. In 1971, the Soviet Top League had an average attendance of over 30,000 fans per game. By contrast, the highest average attendance of the Russian Premier League in the past 14 years was 13,115 (2007 season).

A lesser-known reason for the RPL's empty seats: Russian football clubs weren't as popular as other teams in the last decades of the Soviet Top League. Georgia's Dinamo Tbilisi had the highest average attendance of any team in 10 out of 21 seasons. Russian clubs recorded the highest average attendance only four times in 40 years. The difference was substantial - in the 1977 season, for instance, Dinamo Tbilisi had an average attendance of 68,200, while Zenit St. Petersburg came second with 27,667.

(excludes domestic cup tournaments)

Most viewed games in 2015/16 (TV/internet):
RPL 2015/16: Spartak-CSKA - 8.1 million
MLS 2016: LA Galaxy vs San Jose Earthquakes - 1,000,000

Aside from ratings for most-viewed games, it was difficult to come across RPL viewership stats. MLS had the opposite problem, with only figures for last season's most-viewed games available.

Nonetheless, it's easy to see that what the RPL lacks in attendance it makes up for in viewership, especially online. Although RPL viewership has gone down significantly in the past decade, last season's most-watched game had eight times the audience of the most-watched MLS game (note: the figure for the Russian league includes online viewers). 

Another head-to-head comparison - in the 2014/15 season, the RPL registered a 2.2 TV rating on the channel NTV among males over 18. In 2015, the overall TV rating for MLS on ESPN was 0.4.

Current TV Rights

MLS annual rights (ESPN/Fox networks): $75 million
MLS annual rights (Unimas/Univision): $15 million
TOTAL: $90 million

RPL rights per season: $22 million
RPL rights (international): $7 million
TOTAL: $29 million


Total revenue (in euros): 2014/15 season

MLS: 536 million
RPL: 803 million

Revenue per club (in euros): 2014/15 season

MLS: 27 million
RPL: 50 million

On to the business side of things.

After NTV+ morphed into Match TV, the league signed a contract for three seasons and will earn around 1.6 billion rubles (about $22 million) per season from the TV rights. As for international TV rights, the RPL struck a deal with IMG in 2016 for around $7 million.

Though the TV rights for MLS are more than triple that of the RPL, the former was behind in total revenue and revenue per club in 2015.

Compared to the world's top ten soccer leagues, MLS are 9th in total revenue. The RPL is 7th.

Despite dwindling attendance, the RPL was ahead of MLS in revenue and average salary in the 2014-15 season. TV viewership for the 2015/16 season's most watched game was also significantly higher than that of MLS. When it comes to fans in the stands, however, MLS is far ahead.

There's room for improvement for both leagues that can be achieved through collaboration. Organization of international friendly matches across the US or Russia would boost the popularity of both leagues, especially if done in tandem with TV deals, with channels that normally air the leagues carrying select games from both. A recent precedent: The U.S. U-20 MNT played a friendly against Russia U-21s in Marbella, Spain in November 2014.

What more can be done, you ask? Collaboration between the nations' youth development programs can help improve the levels of training and produce more talented youth products. An exchange program can give young players from both nations the opportunity to gain valuable playing experience abroad.

Upon arriving in Washington, D.C. in 1990, Dynamo Moscow were greeted at the Sign of the Whale cafe. According to a fan, the cafe was named after Operation Breakthrough, an effort of both American and Soviet rescuers to save whales trapped in ice at the shores of Alaska. The peril of one of the whales and the slim chances of survival of the others made some question the resources that were spent.

It seems that almost no joint efforts between the two powers can take place without being met by controversy or criticism. To paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, many who indulge in this criticism didn't create the situation; they merely exploit it.

What the world needs now is a breakthrough in international relations, one that can be more easily achieved in the sporting, rather than the political, arena. After all, few things have such power to bring people together and to stand up to propaganda as the sport of soccer.

All we're missing is the kick-off time.

Click here to see how Major League Soccer and the Russian Premier League stack up against the world's top ten leagues.

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