Archive for the ‘MLS’ Category

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Scuttlebut ahead of the Game

Is it a World Cup warm up? A B Team exercise? A little cash grab? Probably the first option. Despite USMNT coach Juergen Klinsmann’s anger at a few MX Liga clubs for not releasing players, it’s hard not to see the core of this USA midfield in Brazil.

There was the usual Dos a Cero stuff:

Then we had the “split team” theory, in which the Mexico game would showcase some of the MLS side of US talent, giving fans a way to compare some key components to the “European” selects.

For Mexico, and more importantly for Miguel Herrera, this was another chance to slap a recognizable squad together out of the wreckage of El Tri’s problematic World Cup qualifying campaign.

Team Selections

The obvious chin-wagging on the US came from Landon Donovan starting on the bench, alongside the USA’s Theo Walcott, 18-year-old Bayern Munich prospect Julian Green, who got his fair share of shots during the first half where he spent some time “developing.”

Bradley started at the top of a midfield diamond ahead of Zusi, Brad Davis and Kyle Beckerman, which raised a few eyebrows.

For Mexico, Herrera was without some of his preferred options including Aguilar and Vazquez, though Rafa Marquez was at the centre of Herrera’s three man defense. Herrera put Jesus Zavala at holding mid, and gave Brizuela a look for a possible option in Brazil.

The Kits

USA’s kind of looked…not great? The lollipop candy stripes disappeared into a dull shade of red. Loved Mexico’s wrestling-inspired get up.

The Game

An exciting, fast paced game, end to end. Also a tale of two halves, and a kind of How Not to Defend Set Pieces video for both sides.

The US stormed out with Bradley rampant, working well with Beckerman behind him and with Wondo to his left. Despite his ostensibly forward position, Bradley did much of his work from his more familiar deeper position, and resembled in many ways a kind of quick passing Yaya Toure.

He scored the first goal on a corner won by Omar Gonzalez (with Zavala making a meal of his mark) and then assisted Wondo for USA’s second. Ian Darke hyperbole’d on the best half ever from the US, but the cohesiveness of the midfield will surely be one of the major strengths of this US side.

Herrera meanwhile spent much of the time yelling, eventually at the referees at the end of the half. Mexico were too thin at the back and had trouble with the US breaking through the middle.

Then the second half, and a total reversal. Rafa Marquez scored on a corner, with Beckerman “picked” out of the play, allowing the Mexico vet to steam in unmarked for the header. Then Pulido scored after a failed clearance.

After that it was a total reversal, with the Mexican wingbacks coming into play and forcing a few very good chances and spending time in the US final third, though Nick Rimando looked confident in goal. The US back four though…man. Omar Gonzalez wasn’t in great form, having trouble at times, and Besler with a rough start to the game, nearly losing his mark and exposing Rimando. They looked inconsistent all night long.

The Controversy

An 85’ minute Eddie Johnson “goal” that was ruled offside but which was not offside! A foul on the Bayern teen sensation Julian Green at the edge of the box that was not awarded! Yeah, the US got jobbed a little.

The Takeaway

While many will look into issues of the team’s resolve, it’s hard to pass judgment with so many subs coming in the second half. The team can be built around Bradley though, who’s in some form. Basically the US defense sucked. That should be the focus of whatever Klinsmann is going to do between now and June, if he can. And defending set pieces a little better.

For Herrera, it wasn’t his first choice squad, but he should be pleased he could make adjustments so quickly. Mexico is gambling on the 3-5-2 fashioned at America, so the coach needs his best to make it work. Some bright moments though, particuarly from Pulido.

The GIF

MLS: SuperDraft

Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley stunned world football in coming to Toronto FC in MLS. It’s like, totally happening guys! MLS has “arrived” (no it hasn’t, that doesn’t mean anything).

Except whenever things go relatively well (at least in appearances) for MLS in terms of big name(ish) transfers, an old, smelly debate resurfaces: should MLS go mental and blow up single-entity so that clubs can’t spend whatever the hell they want to attract the world’s best players? Not only that, should it introduce promotion and relegation to North American soccer to punish the weak and reward the strong?

The problem with this kind of “debate” (beyond the endless time consuming and soul-immolating back and forth) is that it rarely follows a coherent framework, on both sides of the divide.

For example, some backers of the current single-entity model in MLS (it’s too exhausting to explain single-entity again, so just read this and come back after) attack promotion and relegation as a system in its own right, rather than focusing on whether it would work in America. This is absurd: you don’t need to crap on a model that has served the vast majority of football-playing nations decades in order to argue against it working in a North American context.

Additionally, boosters will often argue pro/rel’s merits without explaining just how exactly it would be realistically implemented in the US, in 2014 (or 2015, or whenever)—just in the same way it’s easy to keep yelling “public healthcare!” in the United States, but nearly impossible to get it past a House of Reps painted red Republican. The legal problems alone are staggering—what happens to the players’ unions? Does the USSF just ignore MLS and go ahead and set up a separate league pyramid?

At the same time though, backers of single-entity often conflate arguments against the practicality of implementing promotion and relegation in the US with arguments against promotion and relegation per se. Despite the braying (and boring) presence of the Westerveltians on-line, it isn’t necessarily obvious that pro/rel in US soccer would be the unmitigated disaster we all smugly assume it will be.

How, therefore, should we go about this?

To begin, I hate pie-in-the-sky arguments, so I think it’s best to only argue for a pro/rel scenario that has a hope in hell of getting approved one day. So it makes sense to get word on the subject from those with the power to implement it.

So, here’s MLS commish Don Garber in 2012:

The topic of promotion and relegation is something I am asked about regularly, along with the league moving to a single table and possibly changing to a European calendar. While I personally think promotion and relegation would be very exciting, the professional soccer landscape in the United States and Canada is not mature enough to support this type of system, and therefore it is not something we are contemplating.

And here’s the head of the United States Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati in 2009:

I used this analogy with [FIFA president] Blatter: He said the U.S. played two different halves against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. I said that I was turning 50, facing the second half of my life. U.S. soccer is still in the first half of its life. Twenty-five years ago, in 1984, we had big attendance at the Olympics the eventually led to 1994 and the World Cup. For us, 2009 is still the first half. Questions about promotion/relegation, schedule — they are second-half issues. We will need to be more mature. Maybe 10 years down the road with a couple more southern teams, maybe one dome, more passionate fans. Is it the next year or two? No.

Now, maybe there’s some sort of diplomatic reason for this “someday, maybe” view here (certainly FIFA would like it), but I’m going to take them on their word. So it seems both Garber and Gulati sort of form of pro/rel one day, but not yet.

I also think we can agree that you can’t introduce pro/rel without also dispensing with single-entity, for obvious reasons—a league can’t co-own a team which can theoretically drop out of said league.

Using this framework to guide us, over the next few weeks I want to explore in a little more detail the kind of questions I posed rhetorically in this post from last year (last year!) on this subject. I’m not a fan of projections (Black swans), but I think it’s reasonable to look at the status quo and make some straightforward inferences, of the kind I couldn’t be bothered to six months ago. Until next week…

MLS: Toronto FC-Press Conference

So I went to this thing because I can go to these things. It was held at Real Sports Bar & Grill, the darkly lit screen palace for inveterate gamblers and sports addicts who like bad beer. Supporters gathered on the upper deck to overlook proceedings, ignoring official requests to, you know, not express their excitement. Strawberry shortcakes were passed around in abundance. The Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri sat and watched, with few recognizing him (including this guy).

Significantly, it still wasn’t a sure thing even from the get-go Bradley would be there. Talk was of Defoe, and a large Routemaster emblazoned with It’s a Bloody Big Deal stood out front in the street giving the whole thing an Anglophilic air (Defoe was not inside, because he’s a person who is presumably normal). theScore alum Sean Keay wore proper pants. His shirt was tucked in. Bloody Big Deal.

The press assembled in their seats, some glad-handling, others almost shell-shocked. Some had already decided in advance Toronto FC was an MLS Cup contender (perhaps not coincidentally those whose connections to the CEO got them the Bradley scoop). MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke disagreed, however: “We haven’t accomplished anything,” which sounded only slight absurd flanked as he was by an erstwhile Premier League starter with double digit goal tallies in his last two seasons and a 26 year old US mens national team regular who Roma were sad to lose. But people got it. These unbeatable assemblies get touted and hyped all the time. Seasons are played game by game, shot by shot, injury by injury.

Even so, the group on stage knew what they pulled off in this, and so they smirked like hell under the lights, smirked in crowded scrums with recorders shoved in their faces, smirked as they were whisked away by handlers. They smirked because making this happen wasn’t easy.

After all, how many routine player transfers live or die on the availability of both Drake and David Beckham, not to mention some developmental/marketing quid pro quos which may lean more to the quid than the quo? Leiweke, the man who convinced David Beckham to come to MLS, sold a bona fide DP and a star midfielder in the prime of his career on Toronto FC, a team with a 23% career win percentage in a city located in Canada, not a nation associated with elite football by any measure. They sold them on a long-term vision.

“Why can’t we be great?” Leiweke asked. Nothing about today should convince anyone that good times are a sure thing. Winning in MLS often involves a mix of consistency, intelligent planning, risk management, and faith in a stable first team. You can buy the good players and still be a Red Bulls. But what matters is whether this club is planning on what to do in a worse case scenario, how to address issues with Ryan Nelsen’s leadership, should they arise, as head coach.

The cliche is to write, “but those matters can wait for another day.” No. They can’t. Toronto FC and MLSE have invested too much in this to just sign off and let the wins roll in.

Chaos at Chivas USA, again

Columbus Crew v Chivas USA

Chivas USA are moving headlong into another pan-MLS existential conversation. What once appeared like a promising tactical adaption from coach José Luis Sánchez “Chelis” Solá in the month of March has devolved into a series of defeats—six in the last seven fixtures, with one draw, and a -14 goal differential, with 17 conceded and three scored. Things have come to head, with Chelis getting the sack and the club issuing an oddly verbose statement on the matter:

Chivas released a statement via the team’s website late Wednesday evening (early Thursday morning EST) that the club had “mutually agreed to part ways with Head Coach José Luis Sánchez Solá,” who is better known as Chelís. No doubt was left as to why this decision was made, as Chivas cited “the team’s poor performance on the field” in the opening sentence of the press release. Further clarity was provided in the following passage of the statement:

“Since his hiring, Sánchez Solá had at his disposal a competitive team with the institutional premise of a formal interaction, based in communication in which the club listened to his petitions to incorporate players approved by him. However, he was not able to reflect it with results. While serving as Chivas USA Head Coach, Sánchez Solá not always followed the patterns of respect and conduct implemented by Major League Soccer, as well as by Chivas USA.”

The club’s poor form comes at a time when the LA-based team remains at the centre of speculation over a possible takeover by MLS, particularly as average attendance numbers bottom out (they’re now below 10,000 a game in one of the USA’s biggest markets). MLS director of communications Dan Courtemanche has long denied the rumours, but some MLS journalists maintain they believe it’s only a matter of time.

Part of the problem has always been the team’s association with its sister club in Guadalajara. Yesterday it was revealed that two former academy staff were suing the club for discrimination, as they believed they were fired for not being “Mexican or Mexican American.”

Toronto FC might feel compelled to make jokes at this point, but be warned:

Philadelphia Union v DC United - Disney Pro Soccer Classic

I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on this, so I will point you in the direction of the work of Ben Rycroft (reporting) and Steve Sandor (explaining) on the recent efforts of the Canadian Soccer Association in pushing Major League Soccer recognize Canadian players as domestics and not internationals.

Why is this important? Because US teams have limited slots for international players, which leaves prospective Canadian players left to fight their way into one of three MLS sides here in Canada. The rest, at this point, are SOL unless they’re good enough to merit an international slot on a US team.

Sandor has a great take on the nature of the legal grey area on this issue, noting that USL Pro teams do, in fact, treat Canadian players on US teams as domestic players. Sandor writes that it’s unclear whether it’s truly a labour issue, particularly as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which covers labour equity told him it was a matter more appropriate for the Department of Immigration and Homeland security.

There are all sorts of interesting hypotheticals and quandaries in this, and Sandor touches on a few. I would only add this: I would strongly urge those who think opening up domestic slots for Canadian players on US MLS teams would promote player development here to think again. MLS is a the top tier professional league; it should be the repository of an already existing talent pool developed by a national curriculum and national league, neither of which Canada has yet to effectively implement. Without these, Canada is essentially any decent talents to move south of the border sooner than later. With that comes the threat of a talent-drain, which could have consequences for the national team.

Should MLS eventually change the rules, it would also be in the CSA’s best interests to work to possibly shrink or eliminate altogether the Canadian player quota on Canadian teams. The reason, as Sandor points out, is that Canadian players, if considered domestics in the US, could be used as bargaining chips by US teams, and sold above market value for desperate Canadian teams.

Anyway, things to think about…

FC Barcelona v New York Red Bulls

So the new director of football operations at New York City FC is American playing legend Claudio Reyna:

Reyna, 39, has strong ties to both MLS and Manchester City, and is one of the most decorated figures in American soccer history. He spent four seasons playing for Manchester City from 2003-07 before returning to MLS, where he joined the New York Red Bulls as the franchise’s first Designated Player. He appeared in 29 matches for the club before injuries forced him to retire midway through the 2008 season.

Reyna is leaving his position with the US Soccer Federation as Youth Technical director. This is as pitch-perfect appointment as Man City and MLS could envision. An former American international who featured in four World Cups, an ex-City midfielder, and a person with experience in youth development. That’s the appearance of course, and MLS has staged managed this with consummate professionalism.

Politically though, it was also an intelligent way to ingratiate City with the local football scene. I’m still waiting to see the chips starting to fall with regard to City’s owners, once the cable news cabal gets wind of it. But until then, smiles all around!

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This is of interest to Counter Attack as we’ve been tracking Don Garber and Dan Courtemanche’s movements in choreographing a stadium deal in Queens for a while now. There is staunch community opposition there to developing the park in Flushing, and the group in question–the Fairness Coalition of Queens–put out a statement today on the development:

“We welcome Major League Soccer to New York City. We are pleased with their new willingness to consider other sites in New York. The proposal for a stadium inside the heart of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is deeply flawed and would irrevocably damage a vital community resource.

We look forward to finding a more appropriate home for the team that does not sacrifice public parkland and that does not giveaway parkland to a documented human rights abuser. Lets make this a development that all New Yorkers can be excited about.”

As you can see, the group isn’t hesitant to draw attention to Manchester City’s owners and the human rights record of the United Arab Emirates, which is not a battle MLS, City and the Yankees will want to countenance. Despite the work of MLS in lobbying to develop the area, New York Yankees president Randy Levine said the team could start playing in Yankee Stadium:

Guardian US writer Graham Parker has a great summary of the timeline here.