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The best post-T&T pro-promotion/relegation argument

Predictably, Soccerocalypse has brought out the usual arguments from the promotion/relegation crowd:

  1. Youth development will be so much better!
  2. Players will be under constant pressure!

If anyone could turn their attention away from Twitter long enough to read something longer than 280 characters at a time, they would have seen this addressed in the pro/rel series — both pros (and alleged pros) and cons.

The short versions:

Youth development: European clubs that have good academies have them so they can sell players (and yes, solidarity payments/training compensation is a legitimate issue with legal potholes I can’t fully comprehend). Chelsea’s inability to develop a first-team player from within is legendary, just one example of a “broken” academy system in the birthplace of soccer.

MLS has actually made progress in youth development because its clubs know they can avoid the boom and bust of pro/rel. They feel confident spending millions to create what wasn’t there before. Then they have a pathway, via their oft-derided relationship with USL, to send promising 17-year-old players to the first team via the USL bridge.

And then MLS teams can play their youngsters because they know they’re not going to be relegated. That’s one reason why MLS has developed so many players who turn around and beat the USA in CONCACAF. (I have heard arguments that MLS needs to impose stricter limits on international players. Then I’ve heard arguments saying MLS needs to spend more on international players to raise the level so that any U.S. players who make that first team will be more appropriately challenged.)

Pressure: Yes, we know. Someone in a German locker room threw a shoe at Eric Wynalda.

shoe

First of all, the idea that you’re “playing for your job” at every training session in Europe but not in MLS is inflated. European clubs aren’t going to cut people mid-contract. You can lose a starting spot, sure, and then you can regain it the next week. That’s not unique. If you want to see job insecurity, watch the NFL, where a kicker can miss once or twice on Sunday and be unemployed on Monday.

Second: Bobby Warshaw tells a different story of playing for a relegation-threatened team. His teammates in Scandinavia all just wanted to wash their hands of it and be gone.

And it’s not as if pressure always makes diamonds. Sometimes, it makes dust. In this clip, Woody Harrelson is Trinidad and Tobago. Wesley Snipes is the USA.

The USA didn’t lose because the media and supporters are too nice to them. They played tense. Cautious. Trinidad and Tobago did not.

After Prince died, Saturday Night Live ran a tribute. Jimmy Fallon told a story of being at a party where he was on stage wondering if he could get Prince to come up and play. Then he saw the crowd parting and Prince basically floating to the stage. Prince came up to Fallon and gave him a look that said, “Yeah, I got this.”

That’s what the USA needed. Not overconfidence. But that sweet spot between confidence and complacency in which they say, “I got this.” Only Christian Pulisic, who’s too young to have been through the same CONCACAF wars (or relegation battles — see Altidore, Jozy) as his teammates, played with that attitude.

But let’s say there’s a benefit to playing in a league that’s more intense than MLS — though, if you were ever in a locker room with Taylor Twellman or Dom Kinnear after a game, you know things can get pretty intense. Why is Germany more intense than the USA? Why is Germany more intense than Scandinavia?

It’s because Germany has a deeper soccer culture.

Same reason Mexico and the big Euro leagues are more intense than MLS or Scandinavia. For all the progress made in the USA since Paul Caligiuri took a wild shot in Trinidad in 1989, this country is still a good bit behind everyone else. Youth soccer participation plateaued and then started dropping, and while a lot of those kids turn up wearing Messi or Rooney jerseys, a lot more never watch soccer on TV or in person.

So if you want to make a good argument for promotion/relegation, try this:

Pro/rel will help deepen the soccer culture in this country.

And I believe that. Most of what I’m saying here on pro/rel is the same stuff I’ve been saying for 15 years, no matter how much it’s been misrepresented by the PRZ on Twitter. But this is an argument that I can’t remember hearing before. Maybe some people made it, but it was drowned out in all the “PRO/REL WILL OBVIOUSLY MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER BUT MLS/SUM/USSF/STEVE BANNON ARE CONSPIRING TO KEEP THE NFL BIG” nonsense.

This is your argument. This is something you can present to people who have money on the table — not the Monopoly money Silva and company threw at MLS so they could create the narrative that MLS turned down a gazillion bucks to institute pro/rel now.

Is it enough? I don’t know. The other realities still exist. We have a Division I soccer league now where we didn’t in 1992, and it’s because people were enticed to invest in a scheme that reduced the risk from “might as well burn your money” to “there’s a small chance this might work.” If you’d told people in 1992 we’d have a soccer league that consistently drew 40,000 people in Atlanta and Seattle, people would’ve laughed at you. (Especially Atlanta. I grew up in Georgia, and I’m astounded.)

But if the pro/rel crowd is willing to drop the nonsense, along with the conspiracy talk and nonsensical legal actions, maybe there’s a chance to win the argument.

If I were elected USSF president (no, I’m not running — there’s a reason a lot of sane, qualified people from Peter Wilt to Julie Foudy aren’t interested), I’d do the following:

  1. Divisions 2 and 3 go pro/rel next year. I’m torn on whether the USL brand name should stay. The NASL brand name should not. It has a history of incompetence, and even the glory days of the late 70s were built on non-traditional glitzy Americanized soccer. Besides, given the existence of Mexico, the “North American” part of the brand name never rang true. Keep the clubs — to start, put the clubs on the soundest financial foundation in D2 and the others in D3.
  2. Division 4 becomes the top amateur division (semipro clubs are allowed to compete, but it’ll be mostly amateur, as these leagues are now) for the top tiers of the major amateur leagues — PDL, NPSL, UPSL, Cosmopolitan, GCPL, other USASA Elite Amateur Leagues. Clubs that finish in the top three of these leagues can apply for D3 status — for the foreseeable future, only a few clubs will do that. (At this point, I don’t think we can or should relegate clubs from pro D3 to amateur D4. If D3 gets too big, start a pro D4, more or less mimicking what England has recently done with its fifth tier.) Have a D4 national championship if it’s feasible, replacing some of the existing and sort of redundant national amateur cups.

Two reasons to this. First, it’ll make the lower divisions much more interesting.

And it just might demonstrate to the powers- and purseholders-that-be that there’s a benefit to expanding the pyramid and building a soccer culture.

Or, you know, just yell and scream and sue. That’s working so far, right? And competition between uncooperative leagues worked so well that we’re about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ASL, right?

 

Here’s what WON’T help U.S. Soccer

snake-oil“That’s right, folks! Step right up and get your miracle elixir! Cures everything from chronic flatulence to an inability to qualify for the World Cup or Olympics from CONCACAF!”

Doesn’t work that way. The problems have deeper roots. A dash of snake oil isn’t going to make the U.S. men’s team (or women’s, which has some similar issues and some very different) magically better.

Among the pet programs that won’t make the USA follow France’s path from qualifying failure to World Cup champion in four years:

Ramping up “pressure”: Consider how Trinidad and Tobago played in their cozy, bumpy stadium with the soothing hum of generators or pumps or whatever created what little “atmosphere” existed last night. They were loose. They were having fun. Only Christian Pulisic, who’s too young to have been through the battles of his teammates, played with any flair to match what the home side brought to the marshland of Ato Boldon Stadium.

If anything, the U.S. players seemed too tightly wound. Michael Bradley, the captain, was raised in a family that lives for competitive pressure. Jozy Altidore has dealt with the wrath of the global soccer media in the midst of a relegation fight, and yet he was probably a lot better before all that, back in the 2009 Confederations Cup and World Cup qualifying that year.

Which brings us to this …

Promotion/relegation: I dealt with this in the pro/rel series. Pro/rel doesn’t magically turn every club into Barcelona. It doesn’t make clubs run awesome academies — in fact, you might end up with some major gaps as major cities’ clubs lose Division 1 status and have to cut funding.

And can we cut the nonsense that players in MLS clubs aren’t playing for their jobs? North America is littered with MLS washouts. (Some of whom turn around and score against the USA in CONCACAF play.)

Dismantling MLS: The league needs improvement, sure. But it’s worth noting that the goals that eliminated the USA — from Panama and Honduras — came from guys with plenty of MLS experience.

Costa Rica is going back to the World Cup. MLS players scored 11 of their 14 goals in the Hexagonal.

And the oft-derided MLS-USL partnership has created an alternate pathway to the oft-derided college game. Go to an MLS academy. If you’re ready to go pro at age 17 or 18 but not quite ready for the first team, play for the reserves in USL. Then up to MLS.

Clubs have made these investments because they’re financially secure. They feel confident that they’ll be in the top division for the foreseeable future. Any change to that structure needs to be made very carefully.

Let’s put it this way: If you dismantle MLS, you’re also dismantling most of the free academies that exist in this country. How is that supposed to help?

Having the “passion” to hurl rotten fruit at players when they return: Sure, let’s make the notion of being a professional and international soccer player less attractive in a country that has a ton of sports options. That’ll work.

Along those lines …

Telling people how to live their lives: Remember when everyone was telling Landon Donovan to abandon his family and move to Europe for our own satisfaction?

Two issues with that:

  1. That’s not going to inspire future athletes to devote themselves to soccer and international play.
  2. Couldn’t the U.S. men have used a Landon Donovan last night, no matter how many years he spent in MLS instead of the Bundesliga?

Hiring a savior: One guy isn’t going to turn around the men’s national team, let alone change the entire culture in this country. Jurgen Klinsmann had no idea how to change youth soccer other than the vague imposition of things he knew as a child in Germany.

The people working to change the culture are working at the U.S. Soccer Foundation (different from the federation) and other organizations trying to make the sport more accessible.

Turning the sport into a job for which only the elites may apply: Eastern Europe in the Cold War had a bunch of sports machines that culled the top sports talent at an early age and herded them into camps. Brazil and other countries thrive on street soccer. Which group has had more success?

Reading too much into one World Cup, either 2002 or 2018: Was Bruce Arena a genius in 2002? Somewhat, but it helped that Portugal collapsed and the ref didn’t notice John O’Brien’s handball against Mexico. Was he suddenly an idiot in 2018? Somewhat, but it helped that Panama scored a phantom goal and Honduras (and T&T) got a couple of flukes.

Wins amplify good decisions. Losses amplify bad ones.

* * * *

Here’s what WILL help:

“Incremental changes at multiple levels”:

Reducing the “travel” in travel soccer: Even if you have tons of scholarship money, explain to me how a kid with two working parents who don’t control their own schedule are going to get that kid to every practice and game all over a five-state region?

Related to that …

Ending the turf wars: We have an arms race. Club A is in the Development Academy, so Club B has to be in the ECNL. Then Club C has to travel to multiple showcases everywhere from Disney World to that massive soccerplex in Indiana that’s hosting everything these days.

Remembering that we’re still competing for players and fans: Quit telling 9-year-olds that the stuff they’re doing now will pay off when they’re 16-year-old pros. Quit pretending we can drive people out of the sport as children and expect them to be paying customers when they grow up.

If soccer was so deeply ingrained in the USA that we would put up with all this, fine. The truth is that we’re still fighting attitudes like this:

And that is a Democratic Congressman. His voters surely include a lot of immigrants and a lot of soccer fans. And yet he feels secure in bashing soccer. In 2017.

Education: I’ve had the chance to see more than 100 paid coaches at the U9-U12 level. Maybe 20 of them are people I’d be happy to have coaching my kids. Another 20 or so seemed OK. The rest are screamers, joystick coaches and assorted cretins.

I’ve also worked with about 100 parent coaches. Some of them are trying to learn what they can and apply what they’ve learned. Some can’t be bothered to do the two-hour online F license.

Listen: Everyone’s talking and no one’s listening. Not just on Twitter. Also in Chicago, where the most basic questions about the Development Academy or anything else get brushed off and ridiculed.

The USA has a lot of smart people. Not just one, not just a small group. And as Steve Gans found on his “listening tour” before declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Soccer presidency, they’re not being heard.

Maybe we should all do a listening tour.

And then keep some perspective. No one died here. That’s happening in Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. We’re talking about a sport, one in which the better team doesn’t always win. The USA probably wasn’t one of the top eight teams in 2002, and they probably aren’t outside the top 32 right now.

Let’s not set up an East German-style sports machine. Let’s not take the fun out of this sport and assume good athletes are going to want to play anyway.

Embrace diversity — in all senses. Embrace accessibility. Calm down and think.

And then we can do the same thing next year when the women don’t qualify for France 2019.

RSD 14: The next U.S. Soccer president?

The problems in U.S. Soccer run deeper than the water that flooded Ato Boldon Stadium in Trinidad and Tobago before the U.S. men’s anemic performance and shocking exit from the World Cup on Tuesday night.

There’s an arrogance throughout the federation. There’s chaos in youth soccer, where the costs keep spiraling upward with no tangible results.

My guest on Ranting Soccer Dad: Episode 14 is out to change that. He’s Steven Gans, and he’s challenging Sunil Gulati for the presidency of U.S. Soccer. The election will be at the federation’s Annual General Meeting, Feb. 8-11 in Orlando.

He believes he can get better results from the country’s national teams. But he wants to devote a lot of effort at the bottom — youth soccer and the various volunteers he sees as being neglected and ignored today.

The interview took place Monday, when the U.S. men’s qualification campaign seemed to be in good shape.

Women in U.S. Soccer leadership

No, it’s not a blank post.

The Guardian recently posed the question of whether a woman could be elected U.S. Soccer president, focusing on one of the more likely candidates (we think) — Julie Foudy. The response from Foudy? “It’s not realistic.”

But it’s not because a good female candidate couldn’t win.

Foudy also says that most women are unable to even consider running for the position because it is an unpaid role with a high workload.

“How much work does Sunil do for a volunteer position?” Foudy says. “There’s no pay for the president so what woman who needs an income or is raising kids is going to say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be able to volunteer 30 or 40 hours a week that take me away from family and my real job’. It’s not realistic. The position itself needs restructuring if you are going to get more women engaged in it.”

That might also explain why we don’t see many women heavily involved on the U.S. Soccer board. Here’s a quick history:

In the mid-2000s, U.S. Soccer followed the lead of other sports federations and reduced the size of its board from 40 to 15 voting members (plus two non-voting — the immediate past president and the CEO/Secretary General, the top paid USSF employee). The bylaw was approved in 2006, the same year Sunil Gulati was elected president for the first time. Let’s look at who has occupied each seat since then:

President, vice president: Sunil Gulati, Carlos Cordeiro. Gulati was unopposed in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Not in 2018. Cordeiro, formerly an independent director (we’ll get to it) won the vice presidency in 2016, ousting incumbent Mike Edwards (who replaced Gulati as VP in 2006). (Yeah, I’ve already written about this.)

In short — no women here as far back as I can trace.

Athlete representatives: Chris Ahrens, Carlos Bocanegra, Angela Hucles. USSF is required to give athletes at least 20 percent of the vote, which means three out of 15 in this case. There’s no official rule saying the reps must be one Paralympian, one MNT veteran and one WNT veteran, but that’s how it’s worked out since Jon McCullough joined the board in 2008. The 2012 Paralympic torch-bearer passed away in 2014, and Ahrens took his place on the board.

Linda Hamilton was on the board after the 2006 re-org. Her seat has since gone to Amanda Cromwell, Danielle Fotopoulos, Danielle Slaton, Cindy Parlow Cone and now Hucles.

Pro Council: Don Garber, Steve Malik. Bylaws say these seats are for the Pro Council chairperson and an elected rep. MLS commissioner Garber has been on the board for the whole century so far. WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci had the other seat for a year or so. Malik, who runs North Carolina FC (and the NWSL finalist Courage), replaced USL CEO Alec Papadakis, who replaced another MLS/NWSL owner in Merritt Paulson.

So that’s one woman, briefly (bad timing for her departure).

Adult Council: Richard Moeller, John Motta. As on the Pro Council, these seats are for the chairperson and a rep. Motta defeated Gulati in a close race for vice president in 1998, but Gulati won a rematch in 2000. Motta is exploring a bid for the presidency. I can’t find any women who’ve held these seats since the 2006 re-org.

Youth Council: Jesse Harrell, Tim Turney. Also chairperson and a rep. Evelyn Gill was on the board for four years.

At-Large Representative: John Collins. The election process for this spot is insanely complicated. Read Bylaw 413, section 3. In any case, no women, at least since 2006.

Independent Directors: Donna Shalala, Val Ackerman. These positions were added to the board in the 2006 re-org. They’re officially elected, but in practical terms, the board seeks out people with some clout in the worlds of sports business, general business and politics. The board also has used these spots to find people other than white men — Cordeiro, Fabian Núñez, Shalala and Ackerman. Shalala recently made news as the alleged independent director who fell asleep during the presentation of Rocco Commisso on behalf of the NASL’s Division II sanctioning application, which Commisso thinks is an indication of the board’s prejudice but more likely an indication that Shalala might not be young enough to sit through an NASL presentation.

So as it stands now, is the best path for a woman to the USSF presidency might be through the independent director seats? Let’s compare it to the other pathway — through the various constituencies …

Adult Council (basically U.S. Adult Soccer): The one woman out of eight here is Shonna Schroedl, who has run for the Council’s elected spot on the board. (Note to self: Interview Shonna Schroedl.)

Youth Council: This is a little more complicated. Four organizations are represented — U.S. Youth Soccer, U.S. Club Soccer, AYSO and SAY Soccer. How many women are on their boards?

Pro Council: If the NWSL ever names a commissioner, maybe they’ll have some female representation?

Actually, the organization with the most women in leadership is the Organization Formerly Known As NSCAA. That would be United Soccer Coaches, where Amanda Vandervort just wrapped up a one-year term as president and Lynn Berling-Manuel is the CEO. Including the ex officio members such as Berling-Manuel, five of 11 board members are female.

U.S. Soccer also has committees and task forces that have a few women involved. The giant Appeals Committee includes Kate Markgraf (also one of two women on the Rules Committee), Shannon Boxx, Lauren Holiday, Lori Lindsey, Heather O’Reilly, Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsay Tarpley and several more women. Siri Mullinix pops up on the small Credentials Committee. Gill, Schroedl and Lauren Gregg are on the Disability Soccer Committee. Mary Harvey is on the Life Member Task Force. Sandra Hunt is among the women on the Referee Committee. Finally, the Technical Committee is a 50-50 split that includes WNT coach Jill Ellis, April Heinrichs and Carin Gabarra.

(Lydia Wahlke, listed as a staff liaison on several of these committees, is a U.S. Soccer general counsel.)

Here’s the one that aggravates the Ranting Soccer Dad in me: The 12-member Task Force on Youth Issues has ONE woman — Hucles.

So would U.S. Soccer have some viable presidential candidates here? Perhaps.

Would it help to get more women involved on these task forces and then perhaps on the board? Definitely, and not just because that’ll increase the likelihood of having a female president one of these years.

Promotion/relegation propaganda/reality, Part 5: Cons

You’ve read about the pro/rel pros, the history of the U.S./Canada debate, and the major players in the U.S. (including U.S. Soccer).

Now it’s time to read about why promotion/relegation can be a bad idea.

Yes, promotion/relegation has pros and cons. That’s heresy in some quarters.

But what doesn’t have pros and cons? The U.S. sports system has pros and cons. Capitalism has pros and cons. Representative democracy has pros and cons. Going outside has pros and cons. We simply have to weigh them and decide what’s best.

Pretending that pro/rel makes everything better is simply dishonest. If you read all this and decide pro/rel is the best system in Europe (probable), the best system for U.S. amateur leagues (also probable), the best system for U.S. lower divisions (quite plausible) and the best system for the entire U.S. pyramid (more problematic, but not easily dismissed), that’s your prerogative.

So let’s take a look …

PRO/REL CONS: GLOBAL

Con #1: Can’t count on division status when planning long-term investment.

See Reading, which will expand … or not … well, maybe … if they can win their way into the Premier League.

“But smaller clubs will invest in their academies to produce players to compete,” we hear. Wrong. And if you’ve read Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, you know the federation had to force the 36 Bundesliga clubs (well, not all of them, but they felt compelled to impose the rule) to run academies. They weren’t all happy about it.

* * * *

Con #2: “Pure” pro/rel based on “sporting merit” usually takes a back seat to “other criteria,” anyway.

England is the birthplace of soccer and the birthplace of pro/rel. So take a look at what they’re doing with their women’s leagues: Top tier will go pro-only, second tier for semipros. And that’s perfectly legal under FIFA Statutes, Article 9, which a lot of PRZ (Pro/Rel Zealots) incorrectly cite as proof that the U.S. system violates FIFA’s holy word.

This isn’t something new. Consider how England did pro/rel between its amateur (“non-League”) and professional leagues for generations. The last-place team in the last League division stood for re-election against everyone who wanted in. Usually, that last-place team stayed in.

Then there’s the Netherlands. If someone can explain the contortions they’ve gone through in the last few years to try to institute pro/rel between the amateurs and pros better than Wikipedia has, please tell me.

And if you want to go back a ways, join Dan Loney for a deep dive into the erratic history of pro/rel in Brazil, which rather thoroughly refutes the Deloitte claim that no country with a “closed league” has won the World Cup. I’ll add one thing: Before you complain that Dan focused only on the state leagues, bear in mind that Brazil’s national league didn’t start until 1959.

* * * *

Con #3: People who have nothing to do with the soccer side of the business can lose their jobs.

Farewell, Aston Villa employees. Goodbye, Newcastle backroom staff. Have fun collecting unemployment, locals who sell food, merchandise, tickets, etc.

Sometimes it’s years of mismanagement than lead to relegation. Sometimes it’s a couple of injuries and one bad bounce. The flip side of that wonderful moment when the ball fell to the foot of Carlisle United goalkeeper Jimmy Glass is that Scarborough went out of the League, which in those days was a horrifying drop.

“But that’s capitalism,” the PRZ have argued over the years. Sure. And it’s why capitalism is regulated and constantly reformed. Look, we all went through our libertarian phase in high school or college, but at some point, you have to grow up and realize we aren’t in ancient Rome giving thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs for our morbid entertainment.

* * * *

Con #4: Pressure creates ugly soccer.

How do you make someone miss a shot in basketball? You ramp up the pressure. Even Woody Harrelson knows that …

What do you think of when you think of do-or-die situations in knockout tournaments and relegation battles? Beautiful plays? Or “grit”?

The latter. And yet the PRZ tell us over and over that the USA will suddenly learn how to play with skill and verve.

* * * *

Con #5: Clubs make “survival” their only goal.

Self-explanatory.

* * * *

Con #6: Clubs in relegation danger have little incentive to give young players a chance.

Again, the PRZ insist that pro/rel is the key factor in player development. But in which country are you more likely to see young players thrown into the fray and given a chance? England, where clubs live in constant fear of relegation? Or in the USA, where clubs near the bottom of the table can start building for next year?

* * * *

PRO/REL CONS: SPECIFIC TO THE USA/CANADA

Con #1: Lawsuits, lawsuits, lawsuits!

You think MLS owners who’ve made nine-figure investments (add up expansion fees for newer owners, capital calls for older owners, stadiums, academies, etc.) are going to go quietly if they’re told their investments are going to be at risk of being devalued?

* * * *

Con #2: The PRZ have poisoned the well.

Take a look, if you happen to be unfamiliar with the last 15 years or so of public discourse on the topic.

* * * *

Con #3: The USA and Canada have unique challenges with soccer fans spread over a giant land mass.

I’ll wholeheartedly agree with one thing in the NASL lawsuit — the notion that a second division has to be in three time zones is ridiculous. (The way they’ve argued it is hilarious — gee, you mean England doesn’t require teams in three time zones? — but that’s another rant.)

The USA was hostile to soccer for generations. Read … well, anything — David Wangerin’s booksOffside: Soccer and American ExceptionalismSoccer Against the Enemy, etc.

In some ways, it might be easier to build up pro leagues if we built them around pockets of soccer fans — Cascadia, California, the mid-Atlantic, etc. But then those leagues would struggle to get TV deals, and we’d leave nothing for fans in the rest of the country. If Kansas City can fill its stadium for MLS games, then Kansas City should have a danged team.

Pro/rel would put us in danger of removing a major market from the top division — Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Washington, etc. That’s not the case in England, where it’s virtually impossible to be more than 150 miles from a Premier League club unless you’re in Cornwall or unless you’re at the very fringe of East Anglia during a down period for Norwich and Ipswich.

* * * *

CONCLUSION

So do the pros outweigh the cons?

I’m on record as saying yes, with a whole lot of asterisks. I’m disappointed when MLS commissioner Don Garber — who is surely speaking for a strong majority of MLS owners — brushes it aside.

But any good system is going to have to account for as many of these issues as possible. Figure out a way to mitigate the financial risks, not just for unsympathetic oligarchs (not all of whom are horrible people) but also for people who work in MLS club offices. Come up with a format that adds excitement without leaving us with a bunch of grim, grinding soccer games.

Piece of cake, right? Especially when we’re having such rational discussions about it.

Alex Morgan’s ejection from Epcot: Not a big deal, not not newsworthy

Let’s first get rid of the notion that male athletes or public figures would not make the news if they were tossed from a bar — let alone tossed from Epcot Center, where hundreds of people may have seen the incident — or some similar things:

Ric Flair tossed out of bar (pro wrestler)

Deshaun Watson kicked out of bar (football player)

Something about a hat (also football)

Something about paying with bubble gum (also football)

Noooo! Harry Potter himself tossed from bar! (male actor)

Underage college drinking (football)

Underage college drinking (basketball)

More college drinking (football)

Remember Freddy Adu? (soccer)

Jimmy Buffett tossed from NBA game (laid-back rock)

Politician pees on himself (Kenya)

In fact, see how this story was reported in the UK, which might not know Alex Morgan as well as Americans do and instead focused on “Ex Derby County star Giles Barnes.”

You may note that a couple of the players listed above were arrested. I’d suggest reading the stories and asking if a white woman would be arrested for the same crimes. (Yes, Giles Barnes, who was escorted from Epcot along with Morgan and Donny Toia, is Jamaican/English. Just a hunch, and I do have a relative who works elsewhere in the Disney megaplex, but I think Epcot security might be a little less arrest-happy than a lot of police officers in this country.)

Notice one other thing from this NFL arrest database: Many players arrested on DUI charges were immediately released. Not so in women’s soccer, where we have seen a couple of players arrested and quickly forgiven.

So is Alex Morgan’s ejection from Epcot newsworthy, bearing in mind the precedent in other sports? Yes.

Would a male soccer player of note — say, Michael Bradley or Jozy Altidore — get the same sort of treatment? Probably. The fact that Morgan is also a published children’s author might make her a little more noteworthy than Bradley or Altidore, as might the fact that Morgan has won international championships. Maybe we should be comparing with Neymar or someone, and I think it’s fair to say Neymar would make headlines if he got tossed out of Epcot.

Is Morgan’s offense worthy of suspension? No. Other internal punishment? Meh.

Would I expect Portland fans to bring it up this weekend, just as college sports fans would pounce all over a player who got in a mild bit of trouble? Yes.

 

 

Spirit season recap and a post-Vegas anti-cynicism rant

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, the Ranting Soccer Dad podcast opens with a few thoughts on why we shouldn’t give up on changing people and society as a whole, either on something relatively trivial like youth soccer or something horrifying like one man’s ability to assemble the weapons to wound 500 people. Maybe we need a little less competition and a little more cooperation to make the changes we need?

Also, a quick recap of the Washington Spirit’s season, in which the team fell from being 30 seconds away from a league championship to last place. Includes postgame comments from Spirit coach Jim Gabarra and the team’s star attacking player, Mallory Pugh.

(Apologies for the drop in volume during the Pugh interview. Also, if you can’t hear Gabarra’s last two words, they’re “No comment.”)

(Featured image from Flickr)

Spirit, Reign play a legitimately entertaining soccer game

Things didn’t bode well Saturday. Traffic heading up the Beltway to Maryland was worse than usual. The SoccerPlex didn’t have its usual Ben & Jerry’s cart — Yom Kippur apparently kept the proprietor away.

And Seattle’s Jess Fishlock, simultaneously one of the most inspirational and infuriating players in women’s soccer, started the game by clattering into Washington’s Mallory Pugh, the type of foul that does nothing other than send an early message.

Then a funny thing happened. An actual soccer game broke out. Free-flowing. Long strings of passes. Good runs.

For Spirit fans, it looked a bit like 2016 all of a sudden, with Pugh replacing Crystal Dunn and Meggie Dougherty Howard replacing everyone else. The two rookies carved up the Seattle defense with incisive passes en route to a 2-0 lead.

But the defense certainly isn’t last year’s defense. The Reign got back into the game as Spirit defenders kept whiffing on clearances. It’s the SoccerPlex — a terrific playing surface on which the Spirit play every home game. They should be used to it.

And credit to the Reign. They were pressing. They didn’t want their season to end on a loss. And coach Laura Harvey told us after the game, incongruously given her giddiness after Seattle’s 3-2 win, that she had reminded players at halftime they were playing for their jobs.

So were the Spirit players. Looking ahead to next season, they’ll build around their two sensational rookies from opposite ends of the hype meter — national teamer Pugh, who skipped out on UCLA to go pro early, and third-round pick Dougherty Howard. Of the other 11 Spirit players to appear in the game, who’s guaranteed to return next year? Probably captain Shelina Zadorsky and original Spirit player Tori Huster, who can surely play for the Spirit as long as she wants. Anyone else?

It’s not that the players are particularly bad. As a whole, even with a viable starting XI on the injury report, Washington had a competitive team this season. It’s strange to say for a last-place team, but they overachieved. If you’d told me before the season they’d have this many injuries but would still win five games (two more than the disastrous 2013 season) and score 30 goals (more than Kansas City, Boston and Houston, and only three less than playoff-bound Chicago), I’d have said that’s impossible.

The defense, though, needs to be addressed. I don’t want to speculate on whether Stephanie Labbe will be back in goal for the Spirit — I simply hope she’s happy and healthy. Zadorsky is generally solid, and Estelle Johnson was having a career year until her injury. Other than that, it’s simply not a reliable group of players for this level.

They’ll surely draft Andi Sullivan, who could slot in at center back alongside Zadorsky. But she can have a bigger impact in midfield.

They can’t just draft a bunch of defenders with their surplus of picks and see who emerges. The Spirit have enough youth. If they want their rebuilding project to be 1-2 years instead of 3-4, they need to make a trade or a sign a big-time free agent.

But there’s time enough to deal with that. Tonight, it seems most NWSL fans got an entertaining sendoff to the regular season, a nice change of pace from what’s been a lackluster season marked by cynical play that the referees refuse to stop.

Whatever you think of the Spirit, let’s hope tonight’s slate of games was a nice harbinger of things to come next year.

 

To kneel or not to kneel (revised)

When Colin Kaepernick started kneeling for the national anthem last year and Megan Rapinoe followed suit, I was skeptical. In the circles in which I run, skepticism is a bad idea.

Outside the women’s soccer community, of course, opinion was more polarized. I was stunned to see people I’ve considered sympathetic to the Kaepernick/Rapinoe cause object to their protest, quite angrily. I even saw people profess to become greater Washington Spirit fans when Bill Lynch pulled the anthem switcheroo to keep Rapinoe from kneeling on the field at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

(One year later, I can’t recall seeing those people at any Spirit games, so perhaps I should ignore their input on the matter.)

I worried that the message wasn’t getting through. Maybe it’s because I gave too much voice to the counterdissent, or maybe it’s because I’m an aging, jaded journalist who knew how this would play out in the media. Or maybe I was looking at it with white, straight, male privilege. Or some combination of the three.

To this day, I don’t know. All I know is that it’s not simple.

The players who’ve really been at the forefront of spreading the message against racism — particularly the institutional racism that is far too forgiving of police who harass, shoot and kill black people — are in the WNBA, as this SB Nation roundup shows. I thought their mix of T-shirts and linked arms had the potential to get the point across. But just as many people outside the WoSo community are unaware of Rapinoe’s protest, a lot of people missed the WNBA players’ unified voices. (And they resumed their activism before Game 1 of the league finals today.)

Today, I have no reservations about the hundreds of NFL players taking some sort of action — kneeling, linking arms, staying in the locker room — during the anthem. And that, of course, brings out the haters again — people who are still so offended that anyone questioned the effectiveness of last year’s protests that nothing can appease them.

One such accusation: Oh, so you DIDN’T care when it was about black lives, but now you care because it’s free speech?

Wrong. I always cared about the underlying issue. Even some of the people who claimed to be bigger Spirit fans after the anthem incident care about the underlying issue. On Twitter and at this year’s annual general meeting, we’ve seen that plenty of people within the rank and file of U.S. Soccer weren’t at ease with the anthem protests, and they simply can’t all be bigots.

I disagree with them on the anthem protests. To be clear — I was never offended. I worried about the protests’ effectiveness, and I may have been wrong. I’ve been in a high school gym in Norfolk, Va., in which half the crowd sat and yelled at others to sit down during the national anthem because they felt the anthem celebrates slavery. If I’m not offended by that, I’m not going to freak out when Megan Rapinoe takes a knee.

What’s changed is this:

  • We have a new president who demonizes immigrants and cozies up to white supremacists. This is no longer an issue of local police. This is national. So protesting national symbols makes a lot of sense to me. (You can argue that the protests last year were aimed at racist attitudes that were so widespread that they effectively were national, and I respect that view. I would suggest, though, that what we see today is at another level — and it’s institutionalized.)
  • That president has challenged the rights of people to protest during the national anthem and remain employed. The only way to challenge that is to protest en masse during the anthem.

I can’t stress enough — if you think last year’s protests were effective or should’ve been more effective if not for the sensationalist, superficial media coverage, I respect that point of view. I still have some reservations about the protests’ effectiveness, but I recognize that, in the long run, the movement may be effective.

My views are certainly malleable, within reason. I’ve written before that I grew up not thinking about issues of sexuality and gender. I was raised in a medium-conservative Christian environment that had a few good life lessons and a few things that have required some deprogramming over the years.

What changed my mind? It wasn’t a bunch of people patting each other on the back for the cleverest insult behind my back (subtweeting, in the modern environment). For the most part, it was simply getting to know people who were different — gay, Muslim, Northeastern — and watching my stereotypes melt away. It was positive interaction.

In any case — my opinions aren’t that important. I’ve rejected what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” the twisted view of objectivity that makes us journalists consider everyone’s point of view equally even if one side is clearly malicious or dishonest. But I still believe in putting facts first, and my goal is to make my observations accurate. I didn’t spend 90 minutes tearing apart Stefan Szymanski’s declaration on behalf of the NASL lawsuit because I hate the NASL or Szymanski or the Cosmos — indeed, I found a couple of his points had merit. I did it because a lot of that declaration set off the b.s. detector that makes somebody a journalist.

So if you want to retreat into the “woker than thou” women’s soccer echo chamber, knock yourself out. (Yes, there’s an echo chamber for everything. I did a story on the Flat Earth movement, which has a surprisingly savvy echo chamber. There’s probably an echo chamber in which everyone competes to be the most dogmatic believer in the notion that Donald Trump is from Mars.)

If you want to engage on what’s happened today, I’m all ears. I’ve written 1,000 words here (exactly!). Your turn. Be nice. But be candid.

And congratulations to those who’ve demonstrated today that a Twitter troll, no matter what office he holds, isn’t going to silence anyone.