The Timbers/Polo saga—what did we learn?

On June 3, 2021, a woman who wasn’t sure whether to pursue misdemeanor harassment charges against her husband sat in her home with two people pledging to help, along with a good friend who was serving as translator.

In an audio recording of the session, the two visitors come across as kind and compassionate, trying their best to solve her interconnected problems. She’s dependent on her husband financially and otherwise. She needs to get her kids to school. She wants to go to school herself and get a job. All of these things are difficult, and the visitors offer solutions.

Here’s the problem … 

The husband is Andy Polo, then a player for the Portland Timbers. The two visitors are Jim McCausland, a retired Portland police detective now serving as the Timbers’ director of security, and Christine Mascal, a lawyer retained by the Timbers to represent Polo. McCausland and Timbers executive Gabriel Jaimes also raced to Polo’s home May 23 while police were still on the scene gathering evidence, having been called to investigate a report of a man hitting a woman. 

Anyone who has listened to the June 3 recording would agree that the friend and translator is a saint. But she is not a lawyer. And she is not a social worker sitting there on behalf of a government agency.

So the advice Génessis Alarcón received for dealing with this dire predicament came from two people who, well-intended or not, were representing parties Alarcón would later sue — Polo and the Timbers.

The Timbers are free from that suit, thanks to an undisclosed settlement in late March. Polo, not the Timbers, is the primary target for Alarcón and her lawyers in the United States and Peru, where Polo returned after his dismissal from Portland in February. 

The club also won’t face any further punishment from MLS, which turned to Proskauer Rose to investigate the Timbers’ actions. The law firm, which counts MLS as a frequent client, said the team didn’t induce Alarcón to forgo pursuing charges. MLS fined the Timbers a pittance of $25,000 for not realizing they were supposed to report the Polo incident to the league under the MLS Constitution, as improbable as that seems for a club that employs a general counsel as well as an HR staff. 

But this isn’t going away so easily. 

Start with Madison Shanley, who has frequently sung the national anthem before Timbers for more than a decade and for their wildly popular NWSL team, the Portland Thorns, since the women’s league launched in 2013. On April 3, she sang while wearing a T-shirt with the message “YOU KNEW,” directed at the organization over its handling of the Polo incident and of the case of Paul Riley, the former Thorns coach who was allowed to leave the club and sign elsewhere without anyone revealing that he had been accused of abuse and inappropriate behavior. Last fall, two players came forward to accuse Riley of sexual coercion. 

Shanley has since said she won’t sing the anthem again until she’s satisfied the club has made solid institutional changes. At the Timbers’ April 22 home game, supporters made it clear that they support Shanley and not team management. 

The club did indeed release a list of changes, including community initiatives and anonymous reporting lines. Those changes, though, don’t address the circumstances that put the Timbers in such a terrible situation in the first place. 

Nor do we see any reason to believe the Timbers or any MLS club — for that matter, any employer anywhere — learned a lesson about when and when not to intervene when police show up at a player or employee’s home while a spouse or partner is pleading for help. And to understand why, we have to ask a few questions about the Proskauer Rose report, which reads more like a list of excuses than the result of an exhaustive investigation. 

The Proskauer Rose report had no contact information, and a media spokesperson for the firm did not return an email. The Timbers declined to comment beyond what is publicly available.

To be sure, the Timbers did a few things right. The club had been helping Alarcón adjust to life in a new country well before the May 23 incident. When McCausland and Mascal visited June 3, they urged Alarcón to seek more help from the Department of Human Services and/or Catholic Charities.

But the Proskauer Rose report takes these actions as proof that the Timbers didn’t offer a quid pro quo for help. That might be literally true, but anyone looking at the situation from Alarcón’s perspective might have felt underlying pressure to back off. Mascal points out in the June 3 meeting that Polo could face a year in prison. She may not have meant that as an implied threat. But would anyone blame Alarcón for hearing “one year in prison” and thinking that if she pursues charges, she’ll lose her financial lifeline?

That’s one of several head-scratchers in the Proskauer Rose report: 

“Ms. Mascal explained to the investigators that she had not been provided with a copy of the police report from the May 23, 2021 incident, and therefore wanted to talk to Ms. Alarcon to better understand what had happened from Ms. Alarcon’s perspective.”

Reporters have a copy of the police report. Mascal couldn’t get it? 

Also, Proskauer Rose said its investigators spoke with six Timbers employees (including the CEO), Mascal, Polo and Alarcón while also checking out Alarcón’s audio recordings and “text messages, emails, and other relevant documents provided by the Timbers.” The report says nothing about speaking with the police or the DA. 

(Worth noting: Mascal resigned from the board of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center in 2019 for what was seen as a “victim-blaming” approach to representing sexual abuse defendants. One sample question she asked in court: “You don’t bring up threesomes with someone you just met, or is that who you are?”) 

“Mr. McCausland and Ms. Mascal each provided credible reasons for being present at the [June 3] meeting.”

Fine, but again, what was the “credible reason” for proceeding with no one representing Alarcón but a good friend who was translating?

The Proskauer Rose investigation was limited to (a) whether the Timbers tried to induce Alarcón not to pursue charges and (b) the Timbers’ failure to report the incident, so it didn’t cover the reason for Alarcón’s since-settled complaint against the club. That document shows another thing from which the Timbers and anyone similarly situated simply have to learn a lesson.

Polo didn’t go to jail May 23. He was given a citation and a June 23 court date. Police were satisfied that Alarcón’s friend and the Timbers staff could keep the couple safe. And that meant, Alarcón’s lawyer argued, that the team assumed responsibility for the situation. 

“Mr. Polo was permitted to be released to his household in part because of the safety plan that was promised by the Portland Timbers,” the complaint read. “Ms. Alarcon and law enforcement relied on the promises above made by the Portland Timbers management. The Portland Timbers failed to honor their responsibilities and duties outlined above, and further abuse and incidents and domestic disturbances occurred within the household after May 23, 2021, causing Ms. Alarcon continued pain and discomfort and significant emotional harm.”

In another action with unfortunate optics, MLS, under pressure from the MLS Players Association, paid his contract in full even though he was terminated and set free to return to Universitario de Deportes, his first pro club in Peru. You’d think that would mean Polo has plenty of money to hand over to Alarcón, but even though Universitario originally said he had to sort things out with her before making his debut, reports from Peru say he turned down one deal and hasn’t settled anything

“We have more than a decade of outstanding work in the community and off the pitch of which we are extremely proud,” read a Timbers press release when the investigation report was made public. “However, we are not perfect and will make mistakes occasionally. When that happens, corrections will be made, and we will learn from them.”

Those corrections can only be made if the mistakes are fully understood. From all available evidence, that is not yet the case. 

When it comes to legal liability, the Polo case may be closed. But it’s not going away.

MLS, the Timbers and all soccer clubs need a serious rethink of what they can and can’t do to assist players’ families, particularly when their relationships turn abusive. If they don’t learn from the past, they’ll be condemned to repeat it.

And then we’ll see more supporters groups holding “YOU KNEW” banners.

Cross-posting to beaudure.medium.com

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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.

Promotion/relegation propaganda/reality, Part 3: U.S. Soccer

There’s no organization in the world quite like U.S. Soccer.

That’s not a compliment. That’s not an insult. It just … is.

U.S. Soccer is unique among major U.S. sports federations in that its mandate goes beyond organizing national teams and developmental programs. It’s responsible, by FIFA fiat, for regulating professional soccer competitions. (Or, in the case of the U.S. Open Cup, running those competitions outright.)

ussf-purpose

U.S. Soccer is unique among soccer federations in that the nation it serves is a massive economic power on a giant land mass in which soccer is not the most popular sport. The USA isn’t the only country that has its own indigenous offshoot of “football” that rivals or exceeds soccer in popularity — see Australia and, to a lesser extent, Ireland — but it’s the only one that has multiple team sports that garner more attention. As far as I know, it’s the only soccer federation in a country that has been openly hostile to the sport for generations.

And to my knowledge, it’s the only federation that was charged by FIFA with getting an honest-to-goodness professional league running in the 1990s. Every other major country already had one.

The most important election in U.S. Soccer to date was in the summer of 1990, when Alan Rothenberg unseated Werner Fricker. Rothenberg was under a bit of pressure to run. From 1994, here’s Steve Berkowitz, then of The Washington Post and later a demanding but fair editor who made some of my USA TODAY stories a lot better:

Rothenberg said FIFA officials, familiar with him because of his involvement with the 1984 Olympic soccer competition, initially contacted him about chairing the World Cup organizing committee. When he said he was interested in doing so, he was told that he also would have to become USSF president. He agreed, and lo and behold, Rothenberg unseated Fricker in August 1990.

And so Rothenberg went to work on getting FIFA’s cash cow, the World Cup, up to speed. He also had to fulfill U.S. Soccer’s other promise to FIFA, a pro soccer league. Rothenberg needed a plan, and so he went about hiring people — including economist Sunil Gulati and attorney Mark Abbott, on loan from Rothenberg’s law firm, Latham & Watkins.

Abbott sat with me for an interview when I was writing Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer (please note: I did not choose that subtitle). Here’s what he said about Rothenberg’s unusually sprawling role:

At that time, there were very stringent procedures that were put in place to ensure that although Alan was the head of the soccer federation and leading the effort to make a presentation with respect to the league, he had been recused from the decision-making system in U.S. Soccer. There was a big meeting in December 1993 where we made our presentations. Alan was not part of the Federation board in making that decision. Also, and I think this gets overlooked, FIFA in awarding the World Cup to the United States did so very expressly for the purpose of using it as a springboard for a professional league. That’s what he was supposed to be doing, using this event to help start the league.

Still, the federation’s board voted to decide which of three bids would be awarded Division I status. In addition to Rothenberg’s group, the existing Division II-ish APSL put in a bid, as did Jim Paglia on behalf of League One America, which would take the old NASL’s Americanization of soccer rules to new extremes. (Jim, I know you’re out there — if you still have the video of the test games, I’d love to see them.)

The vote wasn’t unanimous. The tally was 18 MLS, 5 APSL, 0 League One America.

More from my book (because I can’t find Hersh’s story online):

Veteran national-team defender and U.S. Soccer board member Desmond Armstrong, who cast a ballot for MLS in the Division I vote, said his decision was strictly on merit. “I don’t have any love lost for the federation,” Armstrong told the Chicago Tribune‘s Philip Hersh. … “It wasn’t a matter of playing favorites, but of getting the best proposal out there so we can have jobs. I voted for Alan’s plan because it had all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted.”

The APSL grumbled a bit and for a short time was a legitimate competitor to MLS, signing quite a few players who were clearly good enough for the top tier but balked at the salary structure.

The next year (1994), Rothenberg ran for re-election. It got ugly, but he won.

The election was close in 1998. “Dr. Bob” Contiguglia defeated Larry Monaco 57.6% to 42.4%. Even closer was the race for executive VP, in which John Motta defeated … Sunil Gulati, then serving as MLS deputy commissioner. That was 372 (50.8%) to 361.

Maybe that was a rebuke of MLS officials gaining too much power in U.S. Soccer (though, note, this was before MLS hired Don Garber and well before MLS formed Soccer United Marketing). But such sentiment didn’t last long. U.S. Soccer then started staggering the terms of its top board members, and Gulati came back two years later to win the seat from Motta. And Gulati was able to point out in Fraser v MLS testimony that U.S. Soccer didn’t just rubber-stamp whatever MLS wanted.

Then Gulati succeeded Dr. Bob as U.S. Soccer president, and elections have come and gone with little fanfare or fire since then. The 2016 vice-presidential election was contested in gentlemanly fashion, with longtime independent director (board member) Carlos Cordeiro ousting Mike Edwards. Gulati hasn’t been opposed.

(This is an image of a Google search. Don’t click.)

gulati-votes

Wait, wait … you’re saying. What does this have to do with promotion and relegation?

Nothing. Because it wasn’t an issue.

We’re about the have the next biggest presidential election in USSF history. Is pro/rel an issue now? Or is it more about general arrogance and an unwillingness to push Major League Soccer to be more open, whether that means pro/rel or a looser salary cap? Or perhaps the historical view that the close ties between USSF, MLS and Soccer United Marketing that may have been necessary for survival in the mid-2000s are no longer necessary and perhaps harmful?

https://www.instagram.com/p/BZKR67THaA0/?taken-by=prorelfc

Gulati has often been painted as ruthless — player testimony in Fraser v MLS certainly made him look like a tough negotiator, to put it nicely. In my experience, he’s a pragmatic idealist. He has devoted thousands of volunteer hours to making the sport succeed, and he has laudable intent (and action) on trying to diversify the typically homogeneous Federation. Whether he has handled every situation in his long tenures in various roles is up to everyone to decide.

Gans is pragmatic as well. He announced his candidacy only after going on a “listening tour” of various constituencies, and he’s concerned about youth soccer dysfunction and the decision-making that led the Fed to renew Jurgen Klinsmann’s contract and then fire him. As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, his take on pro/rel is cautious.

That’s not far from what Gulati said on pro/rel earlier this year:

“It’s not the rules of the game that people came in on,” Gulati said. “When you buy into a particular structure, that’s what you expect the rules to be. … But if the leagues or a league wants to engage, we’re happy to be support that.”

Lapointe is more prone to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. His approach to Twitter, to which he’s still relatively new, resembles another president in the United States:

He recently proposed promotion/relegation in women’s soccer and a U.S. Women’s Open Cup. The Twitter reaction was skeptical, to say the least:

NWSL supporters on a lively Facebook group said “let’s get the NWSL in order first” and “technically, we have national Cups for women, but no one enters.” The latter point was emphasized by none other than John Motta, the former USSF VP who is now president of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association.

And Motta is himself considering a run. So is Jerome de Bontin, the former president of French club Monaco and general manager of the New York Red Bulls who is now the chairman of the sprawling Rush Soccer youth organization (sadly, not named after Geddy, Neil and Alex — or Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny, though like Rush Soccer, they hail from Colorado).

So will any of these presidential candidates bring forth promotion and relegation?

It’s complicated.

Like the United States themselves, U.S. Soccer is a representative democracy. Not a dictatorship. The president must contend with the rest of the board, the general membership and perhaps even the U.S. courts.

And even Lapointe sees a need to phase into promotion and relegation, not just throw open the whole pyramid at once. That might not reassure the PRZ (Pro/Rel Zealots), who insist any incremental step suggested by me or Peter Wilt is simply doing the bidding of Evil MLS.

In any case, pro/rel may be the least of the next U.S. Soccer president’s concern. As mentioned many times in the past week or so, the NASL lawsuit calls into question U.S. Soccer’s legal authority to regulate professional soccer, and it’s not the first. But the bylaws clearly state U.S. Soccer’s firm belief that it can’t simply let someone else take over any aspect of the game.

ussf-autonomy

(Except, apparently, indoor soccer. The boarded version of the game is operating outside USSF right now. For a while, it was associated with an organization called the Federation Internacional de Futbol Rapido, whose acronym FIFRA was hilariously close to FIFA. And except, apparently, college and high school soccer, neither of which is governed by U.S. Soccer. But I digress …)

So the Federation, and its president, must walk some difficult political lines. Filip Bondy, a longtime soccer writer now contributing to Forbes, put it best when he described the presidency as “a job opening you might want to pass on.”

Summing up Bondy’s take — the president gets to:

  • Accept blame for national team downturns
  • Deal with men’s and women’s national team contract disputes and potential work stoppages
  • Deal with FIFA and other officials of potentially dubious credentials and ethics (to me, this might be the toughest — how long can you swim in the FIFA cesspool without starting to stink?)
  • Collect a salary of $0.

Oh, and you have to put up with the NASL and Stefan Szymanski. If you didn’t see my Twitter thread on Szymanski’s declaration in favor of the NASL tweaking U.S. Soccer, check it out. Allow some time.

And it’s not as if U.S. Soccer simply rubber-stamps everything the president wants. (Also in that link: Note that U.S. Soccer changed the way it runs election, asking candidates to declare in advance instead of just presenting themselves on the meeting floor, and it instituted term limits. If Gulati runs and wins re-election in 2018, he’s out in 2022.)

So who votes? Let’s see if we can sum up Bylaw 302:

  • State association reps, both youth and adult. Their votes are weighted by the number of people they represent. (In other words, New York East is going to have a more heavily weighted vote than Alaska.)
  • Athlete delegates. There’s usually only a few, but by U.S. law, their votes have to be weighted to count for 20 percent of the final tally.
  • Board members.
  • Past presidents.
  • Life members of U.S. Soccer (weighted so that they have no more than 12 total votes, which isn’t much)
  • Delegates from pro leagues, national associations, national affiliates, other affiliates, disabled service organizations, etc.
  • Adult Council and Youth Council administrative commissioners (I have no idea who this is)

Further weighting: The Youth, Adult and Professional Councils will all end up with equal votes.

Here’s how it broke down in 2015:

vote

You know what I don’t see in the bylaws? Is the election “first past the post” (top vote-getter is president, even without a majority) or a runoff system (top two hold a runoff)? In elections for the “at large” representative on the board (which is rarely of interest), the bylaws specify a runoff. I haven’t seen anything about a presidential race with more than two candidates.

And as I’ve been writing this, Eric Wynalda has jumped into the race. Maybe. His platform seems to be simple: Sunil Out. Yet even he suggests promotion/relegation needs to start in the lower divisions before going up to Division I.

So will any of this bring about pro/rel? I don’t know. How’s Trump doing on draining the swamp? Or building the wall? Or ending Obamacare while making sure everyone has access to health insurance?

president

Overthrowing a dictator is a fairly simple process. Overhauling a democratic organization is much more difficult.

 

Attendance check: Club over country?

Attendance at last five Atlanta United home games:

July 4: 44,974
July 29: 45,006
Sept. 10: 45,314 (first game in new stadium)
Sept. 13: 42,511
Sept. 16: 70,425

Attendance at last five Seattle Sounders home games:

July 23: 43,528
Aug. 12: 43,350
Aug. 20: 40,312
Aug. 27: 51,796
Sept. 10: 44,697

Attendance at last five U.S. men’s national team home games:

July 15: 27,934 (Gold Cup; Cleveland)
July 19: 31,615 (Gold Cup quarterfinal; Philadelphia)
July 22: 45,516 (Gold Cup semifinal; Arlington, Texas)
July 26: 63,032 (Gold Cup final; Santa Clara, Calif.)
Sept. 1: 26,500 (World Cup qualifier; Harrison, N.J. — sellout and a loss)

Attendance at last five U.S. men’s national team home friendlies:

Oct. 11: 9,012 (Washington)
Jan. 29: 20,079 (San Diego)
Feb. 3: 17,903 (Chattanooga, Tenn.)
June 3: 17,315 (Sandy, Utah)
July 1: 28,754 (Hartford, Ct.)

Attendance at last five FC Cincinnati (USL) home games:

July 29: 23,548
Aug. 5: 25,308
Aug. 23: 20,058
Sept. 2: 22,643
Sept. 16: 30,417

Attendance at last five U.S. women’s national team home games:

April 9: 11,347 (friendly; Houston)
July 27: 15,748 (Tournament of Nations; Seattle)
July 30: 21,096 (Tournament of Nations; San Diego)
Aug. 3: 23,161 (Tournament of Nations; Carson, Calif.)
Sept. 15: 17,301 (friendly; Commerce City, Colo.)

Attendance at last five Portland Thorns home games:

June 28: 16,199
July 15: 16,804
July 22: 18,478
Aug. 5: 18,243
Aug. 19: 19,672

What’s going on here? Do we officially care more about club soccer than international games? How can the Thorns outdraw the women’s national team? How can Atlanta, Seattle and Cincinnati outdraw men’s friendlies?

 

Podcast: Ep. 6 — The Big Questions with Bobby Warshaw

“If you let your kid play sports, she’ll grow up to be a productive member of society! If you don’t, what’s wrong with you?”

That’s the subtext of a lot of sports marketing ads for everything from the NCAA to shoe companies. And we sports journalists buy in whole hog.

But wait a minute. Aren’t some of the traits that make someone a good athlete — aggression, attitude, a winner-takes-all mentality — actually bad traits to have in life?

Bobby Warshaw played at Stanford and went on to the pros in MLS and Scandinavia. His book, When the Dream Became Reality: The journey of a professional soccer player, and the push for meaning, purpose, and contentment, wrestles with the duality of being a good athlete and a good person.

Along the way, we talk about the now-dissolved Bradenton academy (“There’s no human being that came out of that Bradenton academy that was a regular person after that”), promotion/relegation, parenting, character-building and whether the Scandinavians know something we don’t about how to live.

 

Are refs calling NWSL and MLS games differently?

A few of us have gotten the impression that referees in NWSL games are awarding tons of penalty kicks but not many yellow cards. Are we right?

Sort of …

ref-comp

So the PKs, aside from games involving Sky Blue, aren’t that far off. But yellow cards? A rare sight in an NWSL game.

If you’d like to check my work, have at it …

Is MLS liable for a player’s foul temper and concussion treatment?

A lawsuit filed by former D.C. United goalkeeper Charlie Horton raises a few interesting questions … and some that seem a little less interesting. (Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer.)

Like many legal documents, this suit has a few aspects that will make anyone with the slightest knowledge of the sport laugh out loud. I’ll never understand why lawyers think they can get away with such nonsense, but they’re not alone in the “post-fact” landscape. Horton’s four caps with the U23s (sharing time with Cody Cropper, Ethan Horvath and Zack Steffen) are distorted into “a starting goalkeeper for the national team.” That may be technically true. The assertion that Horton played in Olympic qualifying games is not. He was on the roster, but Steffen and Horvath played all five games (four wins, one very costly loss).

The allegation is as follows: After United’s players watched video of their recent match against Dallas, Espindola confronted Horton about a practice-field incident “weeks prior.” Horton said he wasn’t interested in talking about it, but then …

(Again, this is the plaintiff’s side of the case — we’ll see how the various defendants dispute what happened.) Espindola is the sole defendant in the first three counts of the complaint: assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The next day, coach Ben Olsen met with Horton. Here’s how the plaintiffs sum it up:

The notion that a coach, a team and a league may be negligent (Count IV of the complaint is “negligent supervision,” directed at Olsen and United) for hiring a player with “fire in his belly” won’t win Horton and his legal team many sympathizers in the soccer community. And skeptics will question how Horton was able to play for the Richmond Kickers (8 games, 16 saves, 0.88 GAA — good enough to get called back up to United for part of the summer) and return to preseason camp with United, only to announce his retirement after Olsen told him he wouldn’t make the team in 2017.

But here are the interesting aspects:

1. Is MLS, under the single-entity structure, liable for all the actions of all its teams? 

Count V (Negligent Hiring and Retention) is directed at MLS, with this paragraph included:

2. Did D.C. United follow proper concussion procedures?

Curiously, no one on United’s training staff — which surely would’ve been responsible for any decision on whether Horton trained that day — is listed as a defendant. It’s Espindola, Olsen, United and MLS.

The complaint goes on to say Horton’s condition worsened overnight. He then reported the problem to trainer Brian Goodstein, who referred to an unnamed doctor and put him in the Concussion Protocol.

Count VI of the complaint is “Respondeat Superior/Vicarious Liability,” which would surely require a lawyer to untangle.

The complaint doesn’t specify an amount of damages sought. See the full version at Courthouse News.

The law firm is Ashcraft & Gerel, which advertises frequently on D.C.-area television.

For sake of comparison: When Bryan Namoff sought $12 million for his career-ending concussion, he sued Goodstein, then-coach Tom Soehn, D.C. United, then-team physician Christopher Annunziata and Commonwealth Orthopedics. He also had a malpractice suit against United, Goodstein and Commonwealth, plus a separate malpractice suit against Annunziata. In skimming through the docket reports, it seems these cases dragged on forever, with a couple dozen doctors and a few outliers (Langley School? Arlington Soccer Association) also served with subpoenas.

(Disclaimer: I’ve been treated at Commonwealth, as have a couple of relatives. My hand is much better now, thanks.)

As Steven Goff reported, that case did not end well for Namoff.

D.C. Superior Court documents show the sides did not settle. The case, which sought $20 million in total damages, was dismissed.

A judge ruled workers’ compensation laws barred Namoff’s claim against United, Soehn and Goodstein.

Namoff’s claim against Annunziata and Commonwealth Orthopaedics was withdrawn after the defense provided a detailed list of evidence that Namoff was not as sick as he stated.

In an interview Tuesday, attorneys for Annunziata and the medical group said no payment was ever offered or made.

Why wasn’t MLS sued as well? Perhaps it’s simply the different nature of the injury. Horton claims Espindola inflicted his injury, and MLS is negligent for employing him. Namoff wasn’t claiming an assault; he was claiming negligent medical care.

So in addition to the ongoing concern about concussions in sports, the Horton case could be one to watch for those interested in understanding the league’s complex single-entity structure.

MLS 2017 power rankings: Median, mean and ???

I’ve compiled power rankings / predictions / odds from several sources and presented them below in order of median. I chose to emphasize the median over the mean to diminish the influence of the rogue picker. But you can also see the mean as well as the standard deviation as a measure of how much disagreement the pundits have for each team.

Rankings are from FiftyFiveOne, Matt Doyle (MLSSoccer.com), Nate Scott (Fox), ESPN FC, SI, SBI/USA TODAY and Bovada.

 

 

The 2017 pyramid plan (and pro/rel myths)

In many ways, 2016 was the year the promotion/relegation movement grew up. The shifting landscape, with MLS pushing its expansion plans and the lower divisions getting a makeover, could make such a system more feasible. And some rational folks made a serious effort to wrest control of the movement from the conspiracy theorists and random hate-mongers who have dominated the discussion for too long, like so:

https://twitter.com/DanLoney36/status/813771705801998340

(I’m less skeptical than Dan, having had some decent conversations with some people this year. And yes, a few random dudes who seem to be into soccer more for the feeling of geek superiority than any actual enjoyment of the sport.)

We even have people who have decided concrete steps toward a traditional pyramid might be something other than just yelling at people like me who are nowhere near the decision-makers. Check tech entrepreneur/NPSL team owner Dennis Crowley or the UPSL, which intends to take pro/rel beyond local amateur leagues to a regional semi-pro league. And you can find a few earnest attempts to suggest modified pro/rel, at least as a transition to a more traditional approach down the road.

Of course, that’s not enough for the most zealous pro/rel advocates — or “pro/relouts,” in Steve Holroyd’s terms.

But I’ll offer up a guide for newbies, explaining why those people deserve no attention, a little later in this post.

What I’ll offer up here is an idea for, say, 2020. It includes promotion/relegation at several levels, eventually leading to a pyramid that’s at least as “open” as the one in the Netherlands.

First, let’s define some goals: 

  1. Stability. We don’t want to lose more clubs. We want clubs to have the confidence to build new facilities and invest in youth academies. We want fans to be assured their local club will be there in some form.
  2. Good competition with meaningful games. Exciting and demanding. Those are sometimes mutually exclusive, as anyone who’s ever watched a dour late-season slugfest between two relegation-threatened bus-parkers can attest. (Or a very tentative Cup final, which isn’t just an MLS thing.) But the good usually outweighs the bad.
  3. Fans’ dreams. One of the allures of pro/rel is the notion that a smaller club may one day work its way up the pyramid. The drawback in a lot of leagues around the world is that only a couple of clubs have a reasonable shot at the championship. Ideally, we’d let fans dream about both. (Yes, I know — Leicester City. A classic case of the exception proving the rule.)
  4. Simplicity. My previous attempts at this have been too complicated.

Now here’s an unusual premise, at least in terms of U.S. soccer history:

  1. Distinct “league” and “Cup” events. This gives us a chance to do some intradivisional matches in Cup play, mitigating risk by making it more likely that a “D2” club’s fans will still get a chance to see Giovinco, Morris, etc., in meaningful games.

THE PLAN

League structure:

Division 1: 16 teams, single-table, double round-robin.  League champion crowned in late May/early June (depending on World Cup, Copa America or Gold Cup timing). No playoffs. Bottom three relegated to Division 2.

Division 2: Initially 14-16 teams, mimicking Division 1, but might expand and break into regions — perhaps a 20- or 22-team league in which teams play each team in their region twice and every other team once. Then minimal playoffs — maybe two regional champions play for league title while two regional runners-up play for promotion place.

Divisions 3, 4, maybe 5: Regional pyramids. D1/D2 reserve teams are eligible to play. Structure can vary by region depending on travel needs, climate and other logistics. (Just see how often England has reconfigured leagues at D6-D10 level, and in that case, we’re talking about “travel” that U.S. workers would consider “commutes.”) Promotion and relegation is common, but Division 3 clubs must meet professional standards. Clubs that wish to remain amateur can still go as high as Division 4.

U.S. Open Cup structure:

The biggest change would be condensing much of it to the summer. Early rounds would be played during whatever major international tournament is going on. Late rounds would be played before college season starts, giving PDL and NPSL teams a chance to make runs. Condensing it may also drive up interest — the current Cup suffers from its long dormant periods between rounds.

MLS or U.S. Pro or Anschutz or Wilt or Garber … actually, let’s make it the Eddie Pope Cup:

First round overlaps with regular-season play in October/November. Two-leg aggregate until neutral-site warm-weather final on Dec. 24.

Twelve (12) qualifiers:

  • Top four teams from Division 1 get byes. (Side benefit: At least two of them will also be in CONCACAF play, so the byes will limit fixture congestion. A little.)
  • The next four teams from Division 1 qualify.
  • The top three teams from Division 2 (each of whom has also been promoted) also qualify.
  • The remaining spot goes to whichever professional team advanced the farthest in the Open Cup. (Clubs may opt to pass, in which case the spot goes to the next-best Open Cup team.)

The calendar

January: Winter break, secondary transfer window.

Early/mid-February: Friendlies in warm-weather venues.

March-May: D1 plays 15 league games. D2 roughly the same. D1/D2 champions crowned. Regional leagues play some league games and some Open Cup qualifying rounds.

June-July: International break and several Open Cup rounds. Also potential here for friendlies or mini-Cups within regions — maybe three D1/D2 clubs and the reigning champion of the nearest D3 region, for example.

July-August: Primary transfer window.

August: Open Cup final and start of D1/D2 league play.

August-November: D1 plays 15 league games along with any CONCACAF or early-round Pope Cup games.

December: Pope Cup semifinals and final.

The rules

Sounds almost like England, doesn’t it? The exceptions are that the League Cup analogue should draw a bit more attention, while the FA Cup analogue bows to the reality of amateur teams dependent on college players.

But we’re going to add a few policies that should ease the transition from the MLS single entity and mitigate risk.

  1. Salaries are limited by a “luxury tax” akin to baseball. This gives clubs the freedom to keep together a “superclub” but forces revenue-sharing so other clubs have a chance of keeping up.
  2. Division 1 and Division 2 clubs have shares in SUM.
  3. Clubs own their own trademarks. If a club is no longer capable of competing at the Division 2 level, it is permitted to self-relegate to Division 3.

So that’s the plan. Enjoy. Modify. Debate. It’s a trial balloon. And I plan to do some reporting in the next year to see how much of it is feasible.

THE REALITY CHECK

I like this plan. I really do.

But if it doesn’t come to pass, you know what I’m not going to do? I’m not going to accuse everyone who speaks up against it of being part of some shadowy conspiracy. I’m not going to hold my breath until my face turns blue or sneer at supporters of MLS clubs, Liga MX clubs or whomever.

Because I’m not one of the people — MLS club owners, sponsors, etc. — who has invested millions of dollars into the sport and is looking at the books while bearing responsibility not just for my own investment but for the livelihoods of employees and the credibility of the sport.

It’s really easy to spend other people’s money. It’s a little more difficult to risk your own. That’s why MLS is structured the way it is, and it’s why the NASL never got anywhere close to its goal of attracting so much investment that it would become a de facto top-flight league with so many clubs that it would simply have to do pro/rel.

The NASL had several years to build its sought-after fan base of U.S. soccer supporters hungry for an alternative to MLS. Those fans didn’t care that MLS had the “D1” tag and the NASL did not. And the NASL was free to find sponsors who believed in its model.

It failed.

A few clubs like Indy and Carolina (along with a handful of USL clubs) figured out how to fit their markets well, and one of my goals with the plan I’ve put forth is to give those clubs a clear path to follow Seattle, Portland, Montreal and other “promoted” clubs into Division 1 and all it entails.

Most people understand this reality. Some don’t — at least not yet. Some are beyond hope — they’re clinging to the age-old claim to hipster superiority for loving a sport that the people around them are too stupid to comprehend, like the tedious people we all knew in college who insisted R.E.M. recorded nothing worthwhile after Fables of the Reconstruction. (Coincidentally, Leaving New York just popped up on my Spotify shuffle. Beautiful song.)

But some people are well-intentioned. Some are newer to the conversation — younger, or perhaps new to the sport or to the USA.

And rather than repeat and rehash the myths that have long driven pro/rel talk in this country in 140-character bites on Twitter, I’m going to summarize them here. (Again.)

 

THE MYTHS

Lack of pro/rel is the only thing keeping us from overhauling England, Mexico, etc.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? And no one directly says it that way. It’s generally more like “Why do you think Manchester United is more popular than Columbus?”

I can think of many reasons:

  1. History. The recovery from Munich.  Decades of brilliance under Busby and Ferguson.
  2. Three European championships.
  3. Twenty top-tier championships.
  4. Global brand-building. Their shirts are all over the world. They get money from that and from global television.
  5. Good players, many bought with the money they’ve accumulated from 1-4.
  6. The name “Nobby Stiles.”

It’s not because they were relegated in 1974.

But promotion and relegation make clubs better because they have to compete to avoid the drop!

It’s more incentive for the yo-yo clubs, sure. But even that has pros and cons. In MLS, a team playing out the string with no hope of making the playoffs (which rarely happens until the last month) can try out young players and give veterans one last shot to prove they should come back. In the EPL, you have Aston Villa last season and Swansea this year. Just wretched.

In any case, this assumption would be stronger if I saw the occasional Sunderland shirt. U.S. supporters love Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Celtic and other clubs that aren’t going to get relegated unless they financially implode (Rangers). Those clubs are historical powers that are difficult to dislodge because they have the confidence to spend freely, knowing they ain’t dropping from the money leagues. (Which is actually why you sometimes hear calls for a two-tier Premier League to spread the TV money a little more broadly.)

I do enjoy the Eric Wynalda story about an angry player throwing a boot in a German locker room. Then again, I’ve seen a whiteboard with a freshly punched hole in it in an MLS locker room after an early-season game.

MLS, SUM and U.S. Soccer are conspiring to keep down promotion and relegation!

MLS was founded because FIFA demanded a legitimate First Division league as a condition for hosting the World Cup. Hosting the World Cup is an odd thing to do for a country that doesn’t want anything to threaten the NFL.

If they thought pro/rel was the best business model moving forward, they’d do it. They’ve yet to be convinced, despite all those years of … people yelling at journalists on Twitter. Gee, I thought that would’ve worked.

But they’re all NFL owners

Only a few, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Seattle’s partnership with the Seahawks has been a worse deal than Chicago’s partnership with nobody. And a lot of these owners just love sports. Stan Kroenke has ownership interest in MLS, the NBA, the NHL, the NLL, the NFL … and Arsenal. Lamar Hunt is in three Halls of Fame — soccer, American football and tennis.

Soccer United Marketing is … evil

Hey, the U.S. women’s soccer team has some questions about SUM as well. It’s an easy target. Its books are private, and there’s little question that the goal is to get a piece of the action of any soccer in the USA, televised and/or at U.S. venues.

That said, MLS would have collapsed in 2002 without it, and it has helped lure tons of new investors. And if you think U.S. pro soccer would’ve somehow been better off if MLS had gone under in 2002, I don’t think you’ll find many people who know the facts and agree with you. Soccer was a risky investment in the USA for a long time. Still is, to some extent.

SUM, like MLS itself, was designed to mitigate risk. That’s because everything that had come before it had died before it even had enough clubs to think about pro/rel.

You’re just a paid MLS shill 

A sample:

https://twitter.com/againstMLS/status/815249625934417920

https://twitter.com/againstMLS/status/815241130203815937

https://twitter.com/stevesharptonfc/status/815373967997353985

(I didn’t know I was supposed to finish my D license and then coach a U10 travel team as a prerequisite to writing.)

I’m not sure what else I can do to prove otherwise. Maybe I should take pictures of all my mail every day to show that there’s no paycheck from MLS or SUM? Shall I release my bank records?

I hardly even write about MLS any more. Since I left USA TODAY (where I was already writing far more about UFC than MLS) in 2010, my freelance work has been much more in women’s soccer than men’s. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It’s just that if ESPN emails and asks if you want to go to Germany for the Women’s World Cup, you’re not likely to say, “But I’ll miss three D.C. United games.”

My Twitter feed is diverse. I do much more unpaid shilling for curling and biathlon than I do for MLS. I haven’t counted tweets, but I probably tweeted more in the past three years about Liverpool than I have about any MLS club.

I haven’t been in an MLS pressbox or interviewed an MLS player in a couple of years, so you can’t even raise the “access” argument.

As for others — even TV personalities who are paid to talk about MLS don’t shut down controversy. Alexi Lalas loves debate. Eric Wynalda pushes the fall/spring schedule every chance he gets. Taylor Twellman spends about half of each game broadcast griping about the refs.

You may find a lot of people in journalism or just randomly on Twitter who happen to think soccer in the USA is better with MLS than it would be without it. It’s fair to say MLS isn’t paying all of them.

For the record — I wrote a few fantasy soccer columns for MLSNet (the forerunner of MLSSoccer.com) about 15 years ago. I believe they were run by MLB Advanced Media at the time, and that hasn’t stopped me from saying mean things about baseball. I also wrote a book on MLS history that probably would’ve sold a lot more if it had been more controversial. Maybe we’ll get pro/rel in my lifetime and I can write a sequel.

Or maybe the whole pro/rel controversy is good for my sales? So says a fellow soccer historian who has worked for the Cosmos:

(I love this tweet, David.) 

And here’s the funny thing: I’ve written many posts suggesting ways for pro/rel advocates to move forward and others suggesting actual transition plans (and so on).

U.S. journalists know nothing about the global game

Sports Illustrated and ESPN have gone global in a big way. Fox’s main analysts — Lalas, Wynalda, Brad Friedel — all played in major European leagues, so they just might know a little more than your typical pedantic youth soccer coach on Twitter.

Personally, I grew up with Soccer Made In Germany on PBS. Then I listened to shortwave radio and fussed with my antenna to see if Coventry City had managed to escape again — or I browsed the league tables in Soccer America.

These days, we can just wake up and flip on the TV to watch the Premier League or the Bundesliga. If we have the right cable package, we can watch any live game from the Premier League or the Champions League. (Which is not as easy to do in a lot of other countries.)

We get the concept of promotion/relegation. We just have access to a lot of other facts that point out why it hasn’t happened … yet. (Well, it did a little in the late 90s with the USISL, and it’s part of many amateur leagues.)

There’s no reason the USA should be different from the rest of the world

But it is. Read whatever history book you like — Soccer in a Football World by the late, great Dave Wangerin is the gold standard, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism is also insightful, and a few other books have noted the cultural forces that held back soccer for generations.

The short version: The USA has always been a little insecure about a national identity. We still see it today in our fights over immigration, and those have deep roots. As Dave Chappelle once said (yes, I know I’ve cited this before): “I saw two Irish guys beating an Italian guy — these people are specific.”

So we invent new sports like basketball. Or we invent creation myths like Abner Doubleday’s “invention” of baseball. Anything to avoid doing things associated with the old country.

As someone who worked in journalism in the 1990s and had to fight for every bit of soccer coverage, I can tell you how ingrained that cultural antipathy really is.

It’s changing, yes. Millennials, generally (but not always) more enlightened about race and ethnicity, have embraced soccer. Kids at my sons’ schools wear plenty of Messi and EPL shirts.

But it has taken a long time. And when you’re evaluating decisions made in 1993 or 2002, you have to bear that in mind.

If we had pro/rel, tons of people would invest in small clubs

This happens on occasion overseas. A tycoon buys a favorite club (say, Hoffenheim) and climbs the ladder. Or a club like AFC Wimbledon replaces a club that moved elsewhere. But it’s not frequent (in part because sagas like Wimbledon-to-Milton Keynes are infrequent, at least outside of Mexico).

Besides, England barely had any clubs move from the fifth tier to the fourth for generations. The Netherlands has barely eased into pro/rel between the two pro divisions and the amateur ranks in the past decade.

Actually, if you want someone to take over your local club and move it up, the current U.S. system works pretty well for that. A lot of current MLS success stories were in lower divisions over the years. But at the same time, a lot of clubs have dropped from the professional ranks to go amateur. It’s cheaper. It’s less risk. They’re not interested in being “promoted” to a professional league in which their teams would be overmatched and they would play a longer schedule in which they couldn’t use college players.

If we can get new leadership at U.S. Soccer, we can make it happen

I’m looking into this. I’ve pored over thousands of pages of U.S. Soccer governance documents. I found nothing about pro/rel discussions and a whole lot about mundane issues like referee certifications.

Whatever you do, though, you can’t simply impose a system that immediately devalues investments that have been built up over the last 20 years. You have to come up with something that works for everyone, which is what I’ve tried to do above. Otherwise, you’re going to be in court for a very long time, and U.S. soccer history shows such battles don’t result in something better.

You also can’t sanction a league that has never been proposed. U.S. Soccer can’t make the NASL and USL play nicely together as is. They’re not in a position to make one relegate to the other. But perhaps, given the current turmoil in lower divisions, there’s an opportunity for the federation to take a leadership role and encourage clubs to come together and try something different.

THE GOOD NEWS

I think pro/rel is much closer to reality than it was 10 years ago. The soccer audience in this country has grown exponentially. MLS may soon have nearly 30 clubs with the infrastructure to play Division 1 soccer, and a handful of lower-division clubs may also be ready to make the leap. And the notion of having national “lower divisions” is proving less and less feasible — better to have regional pyramids.

So my plan is designed to get us partway there. If you think it’s too incremental, may I once again point you to the Netherlands and other countries that have only recently opened the pyramid in full (and even now have some limits and modifications)?

If I had all-encompassing power over soccer in the USA, I’d make my plan happen and then see how it goes. Maybe in a few years, we’d partially open the gate between Division 2 and Division 3, as they did in the Netherlands in the late 2000s. Maybe a few years after that, we could have the system England fully implemented in the last couple of decades.

But it doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen without a lot of capital that has to be raised with sound business plans. And it doesn’t happen by being obnoxious on social media. If it did, we’d surely have a nine-tier pyramid by now with hundreds of fully professional club, and the last I checked, we didn’t.

Garbage in, garbage out: Soccer analytics and economics

Academia and sports each have a tension between number-crunchers and those who believe the numbers simply can’t capture the real world.

We in the media are ill-equipped to cover this dispute. We’re generally not good at math. Twice, I’ve had to explain to a fellow journalist that 1/4=0.25. (“Do you have a quarter in your pocket?! How many cents is it worth?!!!”)

When I say I’m farther along in math than probably 95% of journalists, I’m not bragging. I’m highlighting a problem. I did really well in AP Calculus in high school. That got me one semester of math credit at Duke, and I took a second semester of calculus. (In which I did not do really well, though in my defense, my teacher wasn’t so good at communication.)

In retrospect, I would’ve taken a statistics course. Or two or three. That’s about all anyone can take without taking linear algebra, for which that second semester of calculus is a prerequisite. (Yeah, I passed, but I wouldn’t have been very comfortable.)

screenshot-2016-12-07-at-1-47-50-pm
There’s an app for that.

I’ve actually enrolled in a series of Data Science courses from Johns Hopkins via Coursera. So far, I’ve learned how to download the programs that I can use to do data science.

 

So I am not capable of saying much about this analysis of the MLS Audi Player Index by sports analytics student Kevin Shank other than to say I wholeheartedly agree with a saying mentioned herein that I always heard in my computer science class (now otherwise totally outdated) and other endeavors involving numbers and programming:

Garbage in, garbage out.

A lot of soccer journalists would go farther than that and say numbers can never, ever fully describe the impact of a soccer player. They might lack the mathematical background to critique anyone’s linear algebra and mathematical modeling, but they’re not necessarily wrong.

To give another college story, I was in a class called Symbolic Logic, which I took because (A) I was a philosophy major, and this was a philosophy class and (B) I had done so well in Logic. But the way it was taught at Duke at the time, this was no philosophy class. This was an advanced math class. The professor was startled to learn that a couple of us hadn’t done mathematical induction before. To which I was tempted to reply, “Then make the relevant math class a freaking prerequisite so we won’t sign up for this thing and torpedo our GPAs with a class that will take all of our efforts just to pass.”

I mention it because the professor did mention that Immanuel Kant was skeptical of some of the tools we were learning. So it was awfully tempting to sit down for the final exam and write “Kant was right,” then get on with the rest of my exams.

So a lot of journalists would say the equivalent of “Kant was right.” And with good reason. We can argue how well or how poorly numbers can tell the story of a soccer player’s success. One school of thought insists that the amount a soccer player runs in a game, a new metric you’ll see on sophisticated broadcasts, is less of a measure of a player’s work ethic and more a measure of tactical naivete. In other words, maybe that player is running so much because he/she doesn’t know how to play the danged position and is always in the wrong spot.

I would say analytics are useful — to a point. I don’t get too excited about the Audi Player Index because I have no idea what it’s supposed to measure. Telling me a player completed only 50% of her passes from midfield — OK, that I can understand. And yet that player may still be valuable for reasons that can only be described subjectively. Until someone can quantify the impact of Abby Wambach dropping the f-bomb in the locker room (new stat idea: Carli Lloyd goals per Wambach curse words), we’re going to face limits to what numbers can describe.

And that brings us to a field I have long disparaged: Sports economics.

It’s not that economists have nothing to offer the sports world. Frankly, someone should’ve sat down with the people who bought the UFC and explained to them what will happen to TV rights fees as ESPN, Fox Sports and company try to adapt to cord-cutting.

But we’re more likely to hear from sports economists in the context of players wanting more money. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but these economists tend to rely on the same assumptions as the players.

Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner had the classic retort as he watched an economist testify in the MLS players’ lawsuit at the turn of the millennium: “For an entire session, this totally fictitious exercise dragged on, as the good Professor Zimbalist revealed charts and calculations to ‘prove’ what must have happened had a whole series of improbable conditions existed. They never did exist.” (See the original column as a PDF, which also features MLS players absurdly testifying that they don’t know whether the “First Division” in England was the equal of the Premier League, and check out a free excerpt of my book in which this quote plays a key role.)

Gardner, to my knowledge, has no economics degree. But he had significantly less faith in the APSL’s ability to rev up a price war with MLS than Andrew Zimbalist had. And Gardner knew quite a bit more about the APSL than Zimbalist did.

“History simply trumps economics” is an argument I’ve made before. I made it in a discussion with Soccernomics’ Stefan Szymanski a couple of years ago. I appreciate his willingness to engage on the topic, but I stand by my objections. The tools he’s using to analyze U.S. soccer’s growth and potential are simply insufficient, no matter how sound the math may be. (Example: He argues that U.S. soccer resources will not grow much faster than Belgium’s because the U.S. economy won’t grow much faster than Belgium’s. But Belgium is a mature soccer nation and the USA is not. And the USA has a unique capacity to lure players — I can’t quantify the numbers that lead a Giovinco, a Bradley or a David Villa to play in North America instead of Europe, but lo and behold, they’re here.)

But the Soccernomics folks have a lot to add to our soccer discourse in this country, and this week, their blog offered up a terrific piece: “US Soccer and Conflicts of Interest.” And I’m not just saying that because it coincides with my deep dive into U.S. Soccer Federation governance.

Colorado academic Roger Pielke raises some good questions. The soccer community at large won’t spend much time discussing whether the “Risk, Audit and Compliance Committee” can suffice as an “Ethics Committee.” But we have plenty of talk on this one: Should U.S. Soccer’s officers and board members have fewer ties to Soccer United Marketing, the MLS-affiliated company that has rights to so many soccer broadcast properties, both domestic and foreign?

Here’s the part that tripped me up: “The business and non-profit functions currently under the umbrella of US Soccer should be clearly separated into completely separate organizations.”

I initially read this as suggesting USSF should split into separate federations, one business and one non-profit. I can’t imagine how that would work, and I think FIFA’s reaction would be a multilingual “Huh?” But another way to look at it is simply separating SUM from USSF as much as possible. I don’t think you could do it entirely — I can’t imagine the USSF board operating with no MLS representation, and MLS representation means having an implicit tie to SUM. Yet some sort of firewall, like the one newspapers traditionally have between its business and news operations, might make sense. The devil would be in the details.

Pielke says USSF president Sunil Gulati and others with the federation have been receptive to his ideas. That’s good. Because I’m going to have a lot of follow-up questions.

Featured image is from Kevin Stark’s Tableau page. I have little idea what that means, but I hope I’ll know in a few months.