Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yallop should be next

Tom Soehn has finally been fired.


Tom Soehn has finally been "fired". Apparently even he had to point out to his superiors what a disaster he was. It was one of the weirdest terminations of a head coaching tenure I've ever seen. But whatever, the decision was effectively taken out of Kevin Payne and Dave Kasper's hands. All signs point to the head coaching job going to someone unexciting and not on the level of Peter Nowak.

So with my favorite scratching post gone, and my fire hydrant (Juan Carlos Osorio) gone too, who am I going to complain about next? How about San Jose's Frank Yallop? If Soehn was MLS' worst in-game tactician (and he was), Yallop has got to be its worst judge of talent. One wonders sometimes which league he thinks he's coaching in. General Manager John Doyle is either still gamely cleaning up after Yallop's disastrous expansion draft, or gets paid by the trade. Either way, I haven't seen a less coherent personnel strategy since the gory days of the Golden State Warriors up the road. Even Soehn had to deal with a brutal multi-competition schedule and a rash of injuries.

Forget the players Yallop puts on the field, just look at the players that have left San Jose since the rebirth of the franchise. Nick Garcia, Cam Weaver, Kei Kamara... see a pattern here? These are all guys who were supposed to be in San Jose's core, but failed in those roles and wound up being effective role-players elsewhere. Garcia was brought over for the number one overall draft pick that wound up being Chance Myers, and doesn't San Jose wish they had him around right now! Kamara came over in a trade for the expansion-drafted Brian Carroll, who has been way better in defensive midfield in Columbus than anyone has in San Jose.

Yallop was behind on all of those early moves, and is simply phenomenal at getting no return on any investment he makes. By all accounts the players love him, but I have a feeling they'd love a playoff chase more. And in the case of a few (Brandon McDonald?), they clearly love him in part because he's the only coach in the league that would ever send them out there in the starting eleven.

This team needs defense, sure. But what it really needs are professionalism, resolve, and chemistry, or they will continue to watch Alvarez weave around defenders, Johnson slice deftly into the box, and the team lose the game 3-1.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Courting the Everyday Fan

Soccer fans remain something of a cult in the United States. We still sometimes exchange an understanding nod with a total stranger if we pass on the street both wearing soccer jerseys. It’s an instant recognition code that we belong to an underground society, and that although the two of us will never meet again, we will, with those like us, periodically gather after dark to partake of highly stylized rituals that outsiders don’t understand or want much of a piece of.

American soccer fans want to see the game go big in our homeland, but it cannot be denied that there is a definite thrill in being part of a small, self-contained community, quirky, different, an outspoken minority who are proud of what sets us apart. And with that, we must admit, comes at least a hint of Shakespeare’s famous aphorism: “the fewer men, the greater share of honor... we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

MLS fans from the outside must look like we’re pretty bunkered in. We tend to be downright obsessive, which hardly sets us apart from the fans of other sports, except that the more pervasive nature of that obsession may make it harder for the casual fan to approach us.

For example: the Oakland Raiders have the Black Hole, sure, but turning on the game at home (assuming that the local coverage isn’t a Black Hole itself that week) doesn’t mean to the casual viewer that they have to go as gung-ho about the whole deal as the revelers in masks and spikes. They don’t even have to wear a jersey as they sit in their living room catching up on their email while the game plays in the background. The point is that they can engage at their own pace and level of intensity. The experience of football fandom is, on the whole, unintimidating and inviting.

Now consider DC United, and my proud perch inside the Aerie with the rest of the Screaming Eagles. Given 1) the effort it usually takes to be a soccer fan in America, and 2) that the level of play in MLS is far below the big-time leagues of Europe and South America, there is really no such thing as a casual MLS fan. If you’re in that stadium, or even watching on television rather than following the English Premier League on cable, you’ve got to want it. Pretty much anyone who follows the league is by definition way more than a casual fan.

Now, it is true, splendidly, wonderfully, joyously true, that someone attending the first soccer game of their life at RFK is almost guaranteed to be blown away by the atmosphere that the entire DC United experience produces (and I know that most of the league can replicate it). I remain convinced that MLS’ best possible business move would be to stand outside a local major league baseball game and hand out free tickets. It may have the look of desperation, but once you get genuine sports fans inside an MLS stadium, at least a small portion of them will be instantly hooked. The MLS experience can handle its own, and then some, when given a chance.

But there is another viewpoint to consider. Casual sports fans look at other sports and see a shower head exuding warm water that they can dip themselves into, and then slowly make warmer at their own pace. I think there are more than a few who look at MLS like the water in our shower is a hell of a lot hotter – up where we all like to nudge it after we’ve been in for ten minutes. But right now, they’re bone dry. Jumping straight into a stream that hot would require a few moments of really painful adaptation before subsiding to nice and toasty.

People go to an MLS game, and while they may love the passion that the jumping, chanting masses generate, it doesn’t mean they want to be just like us, at least not right away. If we can be the Black Hole (and make no mistake, MLS supporters’ clubs are usually well beyond that level of raucous), they will happily take up the role of the more relaxed viewer -- the NFL is a bad example, but let’s say the people who go to three or four baseball games a year -- that populates the rest of the stadium.

MLS can only grow so large living on obsessive die-hard fans like myself without reaching out to the people I’m describing. They are massive in number, they have televisions, the assertion that they are incapable of becoming soccer fans is just plain wrong, and they’re seemingly not the target of any of MLS’ marketing plans.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Just a few weeks in and already I've got the four men I think are most likely to be filing for unemployment before the season is over.

Tom Soehn, DC United: I've been calling for his head for at least a year now, and I hope I'm wrong, but I think he's got about ten games to go before I get it. Soehn is a victim of a little bit of "what's different" reasoning (more on this later), but mostly it's the in-game tactical idiocy which makes him endangered. Take last night, when he watched his team dominate the midfield for 45 minutes, and made two halftime substitutions, including Clyde Simms. Fifteen minutes later, Christian Gomez, who had been their best player on the night, knifing through and around New England's defense and setting up most of the chances, was yanked, leaving DC with no subs remaining for the last half hour. United came away with a draw despite these changes, not because of them.

Soehn is also the league's worst violator of one of the cardinal rules of any sport: play to win, not to not lose. When you're starting Andrew Jacobsen four games into the season after two draws and a quality win, you're clearly more interested in preventing collapse than making use of the talent you have to make some kind of move. Remember when Craig Thompson and Dan Stratford were making starts last year? Remember when United couldn't hold a one-goal lead to save their lives because the word went out immediately to cease all attacks and let the opponent come to them? When you look the list of his predecessors, Arena, Hudson, Rongen and Nowak, it should astonish anyone that Soehn still has a job.

Robert Warzycha, Columbus Crew: What's different about the Crew this year? Their roster isn't noticeably worse, in fact it's basically what won them the double last year. But Sigi Schmid is gone, making huge waves with a team he just assembled, while his top assistant is struggling with the defending champions. It's not a foolproof system, but sometimes asking "what's different" and coming up with the answer "the head coach" can explain a team's sudden fall from glory. See also: Peter Nowak to Tom Soehn, who in his defense won a Supporter's Shield with a roster mostly assembled by others before the downturn began.

Juan Carlos Osorio, Red Bull New York: In most sports, the hot seat is basically the permanent address of any head coach in New York. In MLS you have to actually deserve it, but Osorio is going to feel his cheeks warming soon. More people have started noticing that last year's playoff run was the exception, not the rule, total roster overhauls destroy team chemistry, Jorge Rojas is not the next Javier Morales, Danny Cepero was never that good to begin with, Juan Pablo Angel needs a strike partner, Khano Smith is just slow, and yes, the defense really is as bad as Seattle made it look. Osorio basically gets to take credit for all of this, as he has put more of an imprint on his team than any other coach in the league besides Schmid. Not content to tweak his roster slowly to build chemistry and mold the roster around a style of play, a la Denis Hamlett, Osorio apparently believed all his own hype. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that he also believed the hype of any number of guys who play for him.

Schellas Hyndman, FC Dallas: He may have ten black belts (!), but any team this bad has a coach on the hot seat. I blame the front office more than Hyndman, as their strategy has been totally unfathomable. What was the grand vision they had? Instead of building around a decent if unspectaculare core, they sold Juan Toja, willingly dismantled their own defense, made Kenny Cooper the only viable star, and started picking up all the oldest players they could find. Hyndman shrugs and says he'll do what he can, but if Jeff Cunningham and David Ferreira aren't the answer, the rest of the season will basically consist of DC United's 2008: throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks. Note: this strategy never works.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Garber hints at moving DC United: bluster or storm clouds?

In an interview with the one and only Steve Goff, who it must be said has more inside access to MLS than any other reporter that I'm aware of, MLS Commissioner Don "The Don" Garber said, well, ouch. If you really feel like reading the whole thing, you're more than welcome, but the gist of it is that DC United may move if a replacement for RFK stadium is not found.

Truthfully, I'm better off just linking to Ed Morgans' post, as he writes much of what I was going to. I say that DC United will move, and probably within about five years, unless someone makes a move, which at the moment doesn't seem likely. As Goff's commenters point out, the real owner of DC United is the same as the real owner of any other MLS team you care to name: Major League Soccer.

And if there's one thing we've learned about the Don in the last few years, it's that he is a shrewd financial mind who prizes the league's financial stability above all else, for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. But we have got to know, as DC United fans, that this same legendary frugality makes the millions United loses in RFK rent each year stick out like a big flashing red light on Garber's desk that never turns off.

If I take my Screaming Eagles hat -- er, scarf -- off, and think like an MLS fan, I think United should find a new place to live if the next couple rounds of DC Council elections don't remove the blood clot stopping their fiscal heart. It's a tragedy, because it's one of the best fan bases in MLS, of which I am a proud member, that is already paying the price for the pigheadedness of polticians in DC who clearly see it as a guarantee that a United deal would go as bad as the Nationals Stadium deal did, despite them being two totally different situations.

Prince George's County: frankly, with the scarf off, I though this was not the greatest deal for them either, but refusing unanimously to even study it, after the bill was held up just to make sure the language contained absolutely no financial committment -- what can we even say to that?

If this untenable situation persists for a few more years, the league can just throw open the bidding process to anyone that thinks they can land a deal, and that may be enough to seal the deal. The sponsorships cover the roster salary already, drop them in a SSS in a city that wanted an expansion team, and they'll be on their way to eventual profitability.

I don't think this is bluster. I think it could be the future.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

And the ultimate solution to all the league’s problems is to...

... move the camera in?

Yes, that’s right. Ish. Right-ish. Well, I suppose technically it won’t solve all the league’s problems, but I seriously think that it will make a big difference. Way bigger than you think some piddly little adjustment like that could possibly do.

This has bothered me forever, and before forever started, it bothered me then, too. When I finally figured out what the hell was different, I immediately had the urge to write this article. It has taken until now.

The fact is that the way major European leagues are filmed, particularly the Premiership, is waaaaaay more conducive to highlighting the speed, skill and athleticism of the players than we currently do it in MLS. Specifically, in Premiership matches, the camera is much closer to the players, and its height above the players relative to its distance from them is greater, giving the impression of looking down on them rather than across at them. The camera moves more frequently and further across the field each time it moves to keep up with the action and follow the ball. The ball is not allowed to wander across the screen, instead the ball is what forces the camera to keep working. The action cuts to close-ups of the players whenever possible to highlight one-on-one duels along the sidelines.

It looks like a totally different frickin’ sport. And a way cooler one, honestly. It also has the added benefit of making the viewer feel much closer to the action, as if they were inside the stadium itself. Think I’m a nut? Maybe. But watch highlights from the MLS all-star games against Chelsea and West Ham. We’ll call this the “control”. Then hook up Fox Soccer Channel and watch the exact same London-based players being filmed in England. MLS’ camera work yanks everything that looked special out from under them and sends them sprawling to the ranks of looking like normal humans. In front of the home lenses, they look like bloody gods.

What follows from this, and what I would dearly love to see, is that MLS players would get much the same boost from the cameras at Upton Park, or wherever. The next time you watch a Premiership game, try to mentally substitute the bright orange of the Dynamo or the blue-green of Seattle onto the pitch. I can’t even do it. My brain fails to compile the data and short circuits, because the level of potential but impossible coolness is incalculable.

The point being, a proper display of what makes these guys professionals instead of just dudes in shorts will be a part of what draws non-fans to the sport. When we watch sports, we want to be amazed. Let’s give MLS players a hand at being amazing.

On a totally unrelated note, I dreamt last night that a friend and I got lost trying to drive to Moscow (!) and instead wound up at a soccer camp where John Terry was mentoring a bunch of kids, and he invited us to come with him to his family’s nearby estate, where a bunch of us drank and talked for quite a while. Really, really nice guy.

Like, what the fuck?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Power rankings after three puny weeks

Can we tell anything from just these few games? Well, I can. I already know everything that will happen for the rest of the season, and who will win what. But to humor you, I will pretend not to.
  1. Chicago Fire: Winning 1-0 over New York at home isn’t that impressive in itself. Doing it without Cuauhtemoc Blanco and with ten guys on the field is a little more so. Preseason ranking: 2
  2. Seattle Sounders FC: No Montero, no problemo. Preseason ranking: 11
  3. Chivas USA: Eduardo Lillingston and Gerson Mayen are stone killers in red and white stripes. And the defense is performing admirably. Big clash with Seattle on the 18th. Preseason ranking: 6
  4. New England Revolution: Old, hurt, and still winning. Do they really have the talent level and the energy to keep this up for long? I’m still skeptical, but I’m having fun watching. Preseason ranking: 7
  5. DC United: Beating Houston is good. Beating Houston with defense is spectacular. Dejan Jakovic deserves a week in Aruba for his effort against those big forwards. Preseason ranking: 8
  6. Real Salt Lake: The destruction of the defending champs was phenomenal. But it’s looking like Yura Movsisyan won’t be repeating his surprise 2008. Paging Findley and Johnson. Preseason ranking: 4
  7. Toronto FC: This needs to be Guevara’s offense or DeRosario’s offense. It can’t be both. And a solid center back has got to be top priority for a midseason acquisition. Preseason ranking: 5
  8. Houston Dynamo: It’s not time to panic yet. It is, however, time to think about playing through the wings a little more as long as Brad Davis is outplaying Stuart Holden. Preseason ranking: 3
  9. Columbus Crew: Somebody call Dr. House, because something is wrong with these guys, and no one seems to know what. I know I have no idea. Preseason ranking: 1
  10. Colorado Rapids: Congratulations to Conor Casey on a great game against LA, but the Rapids would have lost the exact same game to any team in the league that actually plays defense. Preseason ranking: 12
  11. Kansas City Wizards: A solid performance and a deserved three points over San Jose. But they’re going to have to continue to be opportunistic, as they don’t seem to have the talent to be more. Preseason ranking: 15
  12. Red Bull New York: With a decent performance in the losing effort in Chicago, it’s too early to say that I was right and everyone else was wrong about the Red Bulls. But I’m looking at the clock. Preseason ranking: 9
  13. San Jose Earthquakes: Well, the offense appears to be back to normal. In 90 minutes in KC they really never managed to look threatening or make any passes up the field. Preseason ranking: 11
  14. Los Angeles Galaxy: Remember when I said the defense would be somewhat better than last year? I lied. Preseason ranking: 13
  15. FC Dallas: I think we can now accept that Kenny Cooper will find a way to score goals. Do we need any more proof that Dallas needs something else to happen, too? Preseason ranking: 14

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The case against a second New York team

The following is, more or less, the rebuttal I wrote to an email from one of the Borough Boys, supporters of a second team in the New York metro area, this one inside the city limits, written to MLS Rumors, supporters of the same concept.

Who, today, ran this. Man, do I hate being right all the time.
Let me start by saying that I want the same thing that the Borough Boys and MLS Rumors want: a second New York Metro Area MLS team, this one within the bounds of the five boroughs. The difference is that they want it as soon as possible, and why shouldn’t they? That just indicates their passion for the cause. I, on the other hand, want it when it would be the right time for the city and the league, and that time is not now, and is not 2012, either. I have some comments on the editorial in favor of a NYC ’12 team down below.

There’s absolutely no doubt that when MLS is respected as a major sports league in the United States, and a major soccer league in the world, there will be a second team in New York City. Or more accurately, a first team in New York City, since the MetroStars/Red Bulls have spent their entire existence in New Jersey, and will now continue to do so in Red Bull Arena in Harrison.

It has long since become obvious that the New Jersey-based franchise, whatever you call them, has utterly failed to catch the imagination of New York sports fans, and that their location is the primary reason why. So: should we, as the Borough Boys lobby for, bet that a second franchise will be commercially successful when New York has largely ignored the first one? Will its location turn the trick, or should the league demand some evidence that the Red Bulls are succeeding first?

Two points to start out: first, it's not a huge secret that MLS planned, from the very beginning, to harness the awesome power of the New York media market and the fanaticism of the sports fans who live there to make the New York franchise the most recognizable in the league. People outside the country who know nothing else about MLS were meant to assume not only that there is a team based in our country's flagship city, but that they are among the best and best-supported in the league. They have never been either.

Second, a huge part of the reason New Yorkers make their love of the various New York teams is that the teams are with them from the cradle. They walk into Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden from the first time at age 6. Their passion is greater than the average American sports fan, but their willingness to expand beyond their existing horizons is lesser. This is another reason, beyond geography, that the Red Bulls continue to play in front of a cavernous Giants Stadium to fans that, well, did you follow that link I provided up above?

Seriously, and I say this as someone who’s spent a great deal of time in and around New York City, refusing to take the PATH train to a game in Harrison is just plain bullheaded. And the problem fans have with it has not a damn thing to do with distance.
The truth is that the Red Bulls could play on the water in Weehawken, in a stadium connected to midtown Manhattan by a rail bridge over the Hudson with high-speed trains leaving every five minutes, and New Yorkers would still refuse to schlep way the hell out there to New Jersey to watch a game.

The fact is that New Yorkers tend to have an attitude about New Jersey that an outsider would think places it 800 miles away. That attitude is the worst excuse for not supporting a team that I’ve ever heard. Toyota Park is in Bridgeview, IL, four miles from the nearest train station, getting to Home Depot Center is pure Southern California hell, but run a PATH train practically into the penalty box at Red Bull Park, and all you get is “it’s not on the subway.” And MLS is supposed to hear that and grant the city another franchise?

You know what? This stops right now. The argument that a second New York team would instantly create a roaring, passionate derby with the Red Bulls is, and has always been, patently ridiculous. And the comparison to Los Angeles even more so. The fact is that derbies are indeed the first thing that soccer leagues should look to for excitement and outside attention. They are a key to the identity of many a soccer city – when both teams have legions of passionate supporters throughout the city.

Kind of overlooking that part, aren’t you? The Red Bulls’ legion of feet on the street, taking over their half of the metro New York area, letting any visitor know that this is the part of town that bleeds red, yellow and white, where those Borough Boys better not get caught after dark? Nonexistent. If the Red Bulls were capable of generating a fan base large and passionate enough to form half of a bitter derby by the year 2012, they would have existed long before now.
The SuperClasico, or as some of us like to call it, the Battle of Los Angeles, actually makes sense.

Two teams with different major fan bases, separated from one another in large part by geography, style of devotion, and even heritage to a large extent. You have your part of town, we have ours. It’s not Roma-Lazio, but it’s like derbies are supposed to be. Comparing what New York has right now to what Los Angeles has is absurd. The city had enough fans to support two teams in 2005, while in 2009 New York can’t support even one.

That’s not to say it never will, and that this derby has no potential in the distant future, but answer me this: if all the fans of New York City proper would rather die than support the Red Bulls, as it appears, where are those passionate Red Bulls fans going to come from? Is the state of New Jersey going to somehow pile into Red Bull Park and propel them to prominence and fiscal stability, with no help from across the Hudson? Should we be praying for a best-case scenario of turning the Red Bulls into the New Jersey Nets of MLS? This promises to be the tamest derby ever seen.

And what about that New York half of the rivalry? I have nothing but respect for New York soccer fans who fight hard for a team within the city limits, whether they call themselves the Borough Boys or not, but let’s be honest – there aren’t nearly enough of them to justify the awarding of a franchise. It’s not Garber’s job to close that excitement gap by plonking a team in the boroughs, it’s the fans’ job to convince an investor that a team will succeed. I want nothing more than for the Borough Boys to win out in that endeavor, but, MLSR’s support notwithstanding, they’re not close to that kind of ground level support yet.

Yes, the Sons of Ben were instrumental in getting Philadelphia its own franchise, but they did it by stirring up support on the streets, not by spending their energies bending ears at league headquarters. Garber wants to see a passionate fan base already in place before the team is created. Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland, Vancouver: these were cities that coalesced around the idea of being home to an MLS team. Walk around New York and listen to the people: the city is not talking about getting their own team, or about the league, or even about the Red Bulls, who, you know, already exist.

When the league decides on new teams next year, they will be looking at the Toronto-Seattle-Portland model, and those fans are in places like St. Louis and Montreal. When they look out the window of the corporate headquarters, they can see that their long quest to make New York an anchor of the league's success has failed. If they started play in 2012, a second team would be considerably less successful than the first one.

So in conclusion, Borough Boys, let’s all band together and get you that expansion franchise. But you can’t just convince the league that you deserve it, it serves no purpose to convince the readers of MLS Rumors, and you certainly don’t have to convince me. Your job is to convince the sports fans of New York City. Until there’s some evidence that you have, MLS should not put a second team in New York.