Podcast: Ep 5 — Promotion/relegation with Peter Wilt

For more than a decade, promotion/relegation talk has been the bane of the U.S. soccer community’s existence. It wasn’t going to happen any time soon, and some people reacted to that news by harassing and slandering the people who explained the reasons why.

But now? We have a former Chicago Fire president — Peter Wilt, who has plenty of experience in other soccer leagues and U.S. sports endeavors — writing a manifesto on how we can make it happen, and he’s starting a league with the goal of making it happen.

In other words, the grownups are talking about it now.

Also, I’m doing a survey of lower-division clubs, from Division 2 to Division Not, and I need more replies.

In this week’s podcast, Peter Wilt and I go through history and FIFA statutes (starting around the 5:30 mark), argue the merits of pro/rel (18:15) and talk about what’s changed to make it more likely (31:30).

Quick note: This was recorded before Miami FC and the Kingston Stockade appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to ramp up the pressure on U.S. Soccer to force pro/rel into being, an action I fear will be counterproductive. But perhaps we can talk about that on a future podcast.

Listen away …

Major League Soccer oral history and other new research

In Long-Range Goals (available in print, on Kindle, on Nook, and possibly elsewhere), I said I hoped the book wouldn’t be the only book on MLS history in a few years. The league has plenty of stories to tell.

Complex tells a few of those stories today in “An Oral History of Major League Soccer’s Frenzied First Season,” gathering then-commissioner Doug Logan, founding father Alan Rothenberg, U.S. Soccer’s Hank Steinbrecher, MLS exec-turned-USSF president Sunil Gulati, a few other executives and some of the more notable and outspoken players. (Yes, Eric Wynalda speaks.)

Some of the stories will be familiar to those who’ve read Long-Range Goals or other pieces on the league. We know how FIFA nudged Rothenberg into the picture and how Rothenberg tasked Mark Abbott with devising the single-entity structure. Logan once again tells the great story of Lamar Hunt falling asleep while he was interviewing for the commissioner post.

But some things are new, in part because Complex did what I neglected to do — talk with Kevin Payne. He once asked me why I didn’t talk to him, and I honestly didn’t have an answer. It was an oversight on my part, and I’m glad he got a chance to tell his story from his vantage point as the man behind D.C. United.

I will quibble with one thing, and that’s the characterization that “real soccer people” were not involved in the conversations on changing the rules to suit the American audience. See Long-Range Goals, page 22: Abbott says “serious soccer people” were pushing for quarters rather than halves. And if you go back farther, FIFA was always happy to use the USA as its laboratory, and the foreign administrators and players in the old NASL were happy to oblige. (One of many reasons I find it ironic that the “we must do things exactly as they’re done in Europe” crowd has latched onto the neo-NASL banner. And before you ask, no, the Complex story doesn’t address promotion/relegation.)

Some other fun things revealed here:

– Logan says MLS had logos and branding ready for expansion teams such as the Chicago Rhythm, but that name was rejected because Catholicism. Seriously. Doug Logan should write his own MLS history one day — it’d be a wild read.

– Alexi Lalas and company speak up on behalf of the quality of play in the early days. They have a point, at least on the better teams. Talent was concentrated on 10 teams, and you could have a team like D.C. United that had nary a weak spot in its top 15. Preki says every team at the time had 4-6 players who could’ve played at any level.

– Wynalda says the colorful soccer ball actually blended into the crowd when it was airborne.

That’s a highly recommended read, and so is this: The Society for American Soccer History has launched a website. It links out to online resources (I would expect that list to grow over time) and produces original content. Early offerings include Roger Allaway on the Soccer War (1928-29), Len Oliver on Philadelphia soccer in the 1940s and 1950s, and Ed Farnsworth on the first U.S. international tour.

It’s a great time in U.S. soccer history. And there’s no better time to look back and see how we got here.

MLS vs. Mexico: The Goonies are not good enough

MLS teams made another predictable exit from CONCACAF Champions League play this week, and this time, one of the opposing coaches saw fit to kick a little dirt northward after the final whistle.

Toluca coach Jose Cardozo: “(San Jose’s players) were all just sat back. Here (in Mexico), they say soccer has grown a lot in the United States, but I honestly don’t know in what way.”


MLS fans can protest, of course. Sure San Jose plays that way, but isn’t Real Salt Lake fun to watch? And the U.S. talent pool did a bit better than Mexico’s in World Cup qualifiers, right?

And hey, the optimistic line goes, things will pick up when we get more money in MLS to develop and maintain a wider talent pool. Just wait until the Academy teams develop more players and the new TV deals let MLS teams spend more on players. And then more players will skip college to play on reserve teams in USL Pro, and they’ll be great, and we’ll come back and beat all you sorry Mexican teams and take your World Club Championship spots. Just you wait!

Maybe there’s a simpler explanation. Maybe soccer players and coaches in the USA just aren’t that good.

MLS has cast a pretty wide net. College players? Got ’em. Caribbean players? Come on over. Europeans, either big names getting Designated Player contracts or fringe youngsters looking for first-division play? Sure, they’re here.

Mexican teams are typically drawing from Mexico. Toluca and Cruz Azul certainly do. They may have more money to spend, but they’re just using that money to keep their top players home, not bring over Robbie Keane or Jermain Defoe. An exception is Tijuana, which looks a bit like old-school D.C. United — a few non-internationals from Argentina along with some skillful Americans.

And that brings us back to the Big Youth Soccer Paradox of this decade. We in the USA are taking youth soccer oh so seriously these days. The Bradenton’s U17 residency program debuted in 1999 with Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman and Oguchi Onyewu. A few more good ones followed — Eddie Johnson, Mike Magee, Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley. (Yes, and Tijuana player Greg Garza.) The program expanded to 40 players. We have a curriculum or two or three. We’re funneling players into national leagues and telling them not to play high school soccer any more.

All that, and the USA’s international youth tournament results have actually declined since the days of sending a bunch of unprepared kids in mullets to face down the top youth players of Europe, South America and Africa. And our MLS teams don’t look any better than D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy of the 1990s.

So what are we producing? If MLS lands a megabucks TV deal — something that isn’t the least bit confirmed at the moment — and breaks open the wallet, what will that money buy?

Maybe it’ll take a combination of patience and investment. Maybe it’ll take a few more steps away from the enforced parity that MLS once had.

But maybe it’ll also take some players looking at themselves and saying, “You know what? What we just did wasn’t good enough. My performance wasn’t good enough. Forget the salary cap and TV deal for a minute — this is about me. What am *I* going to do about it?”

MLS: Time to quit playing hardball

You may have already seen former FC Dallas player Bobby Warshaw’s epic takedown of anti-MLS snobbery. If not, please pause here and go read it.

Warshaw makes a realistic case, conceding a few problems with the “crazy, messed-up league.” Pay disparities within a team and attendance disparities between them are hardly unique to MLS, but the meddlesome league office and the lack of free agency are a little disorienting.

Then Warshaw hits Eurosnobbery hard. Manchester United? Barcelona? Bayern Munich? OK, those clubs are worth watching ahead of MLS clubs. But: “If you are saying that you’d rather watch Stoke City vs. West Ham instead of Seattle Sounders vs. Portland, you aren’t being honest.”

And if you’ve been watching a lot of Premier League games this season, you know what Warshaw means. On an individual level, most Premier League players are better than MLS players. Of course. But put them all together on a 14th-place team against a 15th-place team, and you can see some dreadfully dull games. U.S. fans may wince watching Jozy Altidore these days, but the rest of Sunderland’s squad isn’t going to move broadcasters to wax poetic, either.

Warshaw wraps it up pretty well:

I’m not sure why you’d rather watch a random European game with unidentifiable Italian and Spanish players when you could watch an equally entertaining game of players who grew up in cities you’ve been to and who attended colleges you’ve visited. You can identify with the player on the field. You can buy him a drink. He lives down the block from you and drives the same car as you. You can tell stories about how you played with a guy as a kid that played against a guy that dated the girlfriend of the guy that is playing left mid on the field. You can wear your team’s jersey to a Rep Yo City party. You weren’t born in Arsenaltown, were you?

One thing Warshaw omits: You can also see a lot of these players with your own eyes. You can go to games with great atmospheres, melding European and Latin American fan cultures with local American and Canadian twists. Soccer is a good TV sport but a great live sport, and you’re going to get more value out of an MLS game than out of a summer preseason game with AC Milan and Liverpool’s second teams sleepwalking in front of 60,000 people, many of them deluded into thinking they’re soccer fans.

It’s nonsense for a true soccer fan to ignore decent soccer in his or her backyard without a compelling reason to do so. If you live in Sunderland, then go see Sunderland. If you live in Cancun, then go see Atlante.

So congratulations to Warshaw for writing a powerful argument to root for the home league. And kudos to Deadspin for running it as a rebuttal to something the snarky sports blog had run earlier.

Now here’s the problem: MLS’s detractors … have a point. And the league is giving them ammunition as it heads into a very important year.

This is the last season of the league’s TV broadcast deals with ESPN, NBC and Univision. It’s also the last season of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players.

And speaking of collective bargaining, the league is starting the season with replacement referees.

That looks bad. And it is bad. Finding quality referees is already a challenge in any league. Now we’re trotting out retirees to run around with some high-strung players anxious for their first game of the season.

And what kind of tone is the league setting for the collective bargaining ahead? After several years of remarkable growth in which the league’s team have broken open their wallets for big-name players, will MLS really risk a credibility-killing work stoppage to withhold money from the rank and file? Will it insist upon a complex system of allocations and re-entry drafts to avoid bidding wars over five-year MLS veterans while Drake is helping Toronto FC sign Jermain Defoe to a megabucks contract?

MLS is ready to take a step forward. To do that, it needs players. And referees. Now is not the time to play hardball and go backwards.

Chivas USA: Farewell to a mistake

I was wrong.

When Chivas USA was announced as an MLS expansion team, I thought fans would greet it warmly. At home, they would draw solid crowds. On the road, the crowds would get a boost from the Chivas fans scattered across the country. That didn’t happen. As the years went by, it was clear that Chivas fans just focused on the original Chivas in Mexico, and other Mexican fans had no interest in cheering for a team wearing their rivals’ shirts.

And it was pretty clear that the young Mexican players who saw the field in that first Chivas USA season weren’t going to get it done against experienced MLS pros. The idea of a pipeline of talent between Guadalajara and Los Angeles never materialized.

The team did better when it eased away from the Chivas-lite motif. Bob Bradley and Preki coached the Americanized Chivas to winning records and playoff berths. Brad Guzan emerged as a top U.S. goalkeeping prospect. Scrappy American players led the way — Ante Razov, Sacha Kljestan, and Jesse Marsch among them. The youth academy was promising. A few Mexican players, especially veteran defender Claudio Suarez, added to a healthy mix of talent.

But the team decayed after 2009. When Jorge Vergara bought out his partners and decided to renew the focus on being a little bit of Guadalajara in Los Angeles, the end was near.

MLS has done the right thing here in taking over the team for a transitional year. If you insist on relating everything to English business models, pretend the team is in “administration.”

Cynics are already tearing down NYC FC, figuring its ties to Manchester City will spell doom for the same reasons Chivas USA failed. I doubt it. I think the mistakes can be easily avoided.

But I’ve been wrong before.

After team’s sale, Jorge Vergara admits “Chivas USA concept did not work out” | MLSsoccer.com.

Monday Myriad, March 4: Nordic state of mind

Headlines from the week:

– Slovenia’s Tina Maze is having the best Alpine skiing World Cup season of all time.

– Norway’s Maret Bjoergen had one of the best Nordic World Championships of all time.

Shaun White was back in action with another U.S. Open title.

– Milers Mary Cain and Will Leer stood out at the USA Indoor track and field championships.

– At the same meet, pole vaulter Jenn Suhr broke five meters and the indoor world record. The only other women’s pole vaulter to clear five meters is Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva. Isinbayeva’s outdoor record: 5.06 meters. Suhr indoors: 5.02.

– Speedskaters Brittany Bowe and Brian Hansen won World Cup races for the first time.

The Storified version has a few more fun features:



MLS team guides: What the heck is this?

One of my favorite books is English Football: The Rough Guide. The guide has an entry for each club in England’s top four soccer leagues. All 92 clubs.

Like most Rough Guides, it’s essentially a travel book. Want to know how to get to Bury’s home ground? Maybe find a friendly pub along the way? Maybe get some advice on where you don’t want to be seen wearing opposing team colors? They’ve got you covered.

But they also have comprehensive histories of all 92 teams. You’ll find the well-worn history of how a small club called Newton Heath became an international juggernaut called Manchester United. Better yet, you’ll get all the colorful historical incidents of all the smaller clubs. The cover of my edition (the 2000-01 edition is pictured at right; I have the first one, 1999-2000) is of Carlisle United’s on-loan goalkeeper, Jimmy Glass, celebrating after he rushed into the opposing box and scored the goal that kept Carlisle in the League in 1999. In the first paragraph on Cambridge United, we read, “there are those diehard fans who continue to insist that it is Cambridge City, not United, who should have been elected to the League in 1970.”

Books of this nature are easily outdated, of course, which may explain why I can’t find any versions after 2001. And U.S. clubs don’t have the historical continuity of their English counterparts, to put it mildly. We can thank all the in-fighting of the 1930s and the flimsy business plans of the 1970s and 80s for that.

But as MLS enters Season 17, we have a bit of history. Check the right column, and you might even find a book about it.

So I thought it would be entertaining to do something like these Rough Guides, only a bit more dynamic. Most MLS fans can’t simply trek two hours to an away game and return for a late dinner at home, but we’re still interested in knowing a bit about the stadiums, particularly because getting them built has been such a struggle for the past decade and a half. We can also update web pages any time we like, and we can even pull in RSS feeds with the latest news.

Well, it’s not quite as easy as all that from a technical point of view. I had to fuss a bit to get my embedded Google Maps to be centered on the stadiums without a bunch of extra clutter, and the plug-in I’m using to pull in the RSS feeds has a few bugs.

I’m also fussing a bit with the right format for telling the history. I’ve gone with a timeline for my first two entries, but I might go with a more narrative history instead.

I’d also like to open up to a bit of crowd-sourcing. I can’t go to all 19 stadiums this year. Tell me what’s going on. Tell me what supporters are doing.

It’s a work in progress now. But after I post all 19 team pages, it’ll still be a work in progress.

What I can’t do, however, is go through and update every page every week. I really wish someone else (MLSSoccer.com, SB Nation) would do something like that. Tell me who’s in the starting lineup and who’s in or out of form. Fantasy players would love this, as would people with any sort of curiosity about each team. It boggles my mind when I see a lineup on TV with a commentator telling us, “Shalrie Joseph is really a key player for this Revolution side.” Thanks. I didn’t need to hear that again. I want to know why some dude I’ve never heard of is lining up at left mid.

That said, I could see extending this into a brief player-by-player guide. That obviously won’t be ready any time soon. Maybe by the playoffs.

And I don’t intend to regurgitate media guides onto each page. You can get stats somewhere else. (If I can easily embed something, I’ll look into it.) This is where I plan to tell you that so-and-so captained American Samoa in World Cup qualifying and reached the Hollywood round on American Idol. Or so-and-so is going to get booed every time he goes to Seattle because he once Tweeted something nasty about Drew Carey.

MLS is a colorful league. That’s what I’m hoping to capture here.

How can you support this?

First of all, again, I’ll do some crowd-sourcing. Tell me if there’s an interesting anecdote I’ve missed. Tell me if the main supporters group is making a cameo appearance in a TV show. (Yes, Timbers Army, I’ll have your Portlandia clip.)

Second of all, buy my danged book. I’m not expecting to make a ton of ad revenue on this site, and I’m not really interested in putting up a tip jar. So just look to the right and think of this as “MLS rough guide, brought to you by Long-Range Goals.”

Thirdly, please bear with me. Even if everyone who reads this buys my book, it’s not my day job. This will take some time.

The first two pages, afflicted with a couple of glitches, are posted. New England and Chicago. Enjoy.