MLS and ESPN should work together to schedule transatlantic doubleheaders

espn studio

ESPN studio show could anchor transatlantic doubleheaders; Photo by Bob Oroshi

Coming on the heels of a pulsating MLS playoff opener in Seattle, it’s a big derby weekend for soccer on ESPN with Arsenal v Tottenham on Saturday morning and the first Beckham playoff game on Sunday afternoon. Those two games are both pretty strong draws, but there is more that ESPN and MLS can do to capitalize on top European leagues to build audience share for American soccer: schedule transatlantic doubleheaders.

The north London derby is always one of the most exciting games of the year and is probably the second biggest rivalry in English soccer behind Liverpool v Manchester United. The energy and passion on display—even at the normally subdued Highbury—will bring an electric atmosphere into American’s homes on Saturday morning. The Gunners total domination of Spurs over the last decade has taken some of the impact out of the game, but also added bite for Spurs fans desperate to beat their hated rivals in the league for the first time in a decade.

On Sunday afternoon, MLS and ESPN will finally get what they’ve been waiting for since the Beckham experiment began, a showcase playoff game with its most marketable star. Even though John Harkes erroneously calls it a superclassico, the LA derby will feature both Beckham and Landon Donovan in the first game of what many supporters of soccer in America (Chivas USA and other Western conference fans aside) hope will be a long playoff run. Continue reading

About last night…

"Outnumbered" photo by: slippery joaquin
If you were in a coma for the past 20 years and suddenly awoke with ESPN2 on the tv you would have thought soccer has become huge in this country, and maybe it has. Last night’s opening playoff game was a great moment for the league.The game had a little bit of everything – a brawl, blood, and exciting back and forth action – all it was missing was a goal, and it deserved one. Here are some thoughts on last night:

Outstanding coverage. The coverage from ESPN had all the trappings of a big playoff game in any other sport and was very professional. (Footiebusiness has more on the coverage). Starting with the cool NFL films lead-in featuring a nice montage and a dude with a deep authoritative voice. I thought John Harkes, JP Dellacamera and Alan Hopkins did a very good job throughout the night. And the pre-game features, such as Hopkins walking with the band – could have been cheesy, but they came off well and captured the passion of Sounders fans well. The in studio stuff was also strong. They also did a good job of not preaching too much about how soccer is growing. They are right, but the coverage was highly focused on the actual game, which is important for the league.

In defense of the referee. I maybe the only one in the country who thinks this, but I think the ref did a good job last night. There seemed to be a broad consensus on twitter and in Seattle that they got hosed in this game – most vividly by the goal that was disallowed. On Jaqua’s “goal” – the referee should have allowed play to continue, but rarely do you ever see a ref allow play to continue when a hopeful long ball is played and then return the ball 60 years back to the spot of the foul if it came to nothing. But he did blow the whistle before the ball came down and Onstad had clearly stopped playing well before the Jaqua shot. Frankly I don’t think Jaqua scores there.
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MLS playoffs start tonight

seattle sounders qwest

MLS couldn’t dream of a better matchup to start the playoffs (okay Beckham isn’t in it). Houston is playing at Seattle at 10pm tonight on ESPN 2 in what could be a real barn burner.

Houston is a very solid solid team with a few elite players in Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark. Ives made Geoff Cameron his defender of the year, Bobby Boswell is a veteran defender and well fine Brian Ching ain’t that bad either. But Seattle is going to be amped up for this one. Playing at home, with that support, I would not be surprised to see Houston have a bit of a deer-in-head like look to them. The verve of Ljungberg, Montero, and Zakuani for Seattle are balanced well with the size of strength of Jaqua upfront and should keep Houston off balance. But this series should be really tight. But I am going to go with Seattle 2-0 tonight, but I think they lose 1-0 at Houston and squeak through on aggregate.

For more detailed previews of tonight check out WV Hooligan: preview here. He has Seattle winning 2-1. Robert Jonas at MLS Talk highlights some things to watch for and goes for the 1-1 draw. Soccer By Ives gives the key matchups and also goes with Seattle.

Arsenal-Spurs Preview

SOCCER Arsenal 12

Will Spurs be partying like its 1999?

This weekend at 8:30am on ESPN the north London derby will be front and center – and this year it certainly feels different. The shit talking has already started, with Keane, saying Spurs squad is deeper than Arsenal’s (unfortunately for Spurs they will see if he is right since Modric, Defoe, and Lennon are all out). This quickly led British commentators to predict a Spurs drubbing this weekend, after all Tottenham have not beat Arsenal in the league in a decade and away from home in 16 years! Sure every year Spurs fans approach the first Arsenal game with dreams of top 4, but too often Spurs have already stumbled out of the gates and sit well back of the top and of Arsenal. This year Spurs and Arsenal both have 19 points and Spurs ambitions doesn’t seem quite as fanciful.

What’s on the line:

While I argued that the Man U and Chelsea games were not as important to Spurs’ top 4 ambitions as was made out to be – for Tottenham it is about getting results against the bottom half of the table something they failed to do in previous years – this game is different. Realistically, for Spurs to break through into the top four it will need either Arsenal or Liverpool to fall off. Therefore, getting points from both those teams – Spurs already beat Liverpool – is critical. But it is also important psychologically. A Spurs win at Arsenal would raise Tottenham’s confidence and belief to perhaps an inappropriate level. Having not beat Arsenal in the league in a decade, a victory would certainly get the proverbial monkey off their backs.

For Arsenal, they have at times looked like title contending world beaters, but have also looked woobly at others (see Fulham and West Ham games). A win would not just further confirm their dominance in north London, it would also go some ways to discrediting the view that this Arsenal team is weaker and thinner than ones in the past. However, a loss would certainly raise more questions about Arsenal’s sturdiness, renew criticism of Wenger’s limited transfer policy and could increase the din of rumors surrounding Fabregas.
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Meat Pies and Orange Slices

spurs new uniform

Here are some things on the intertubes and some thoughts:

Spurs submit stadium plans for planning approval and it looks sweet.
Despite the recession and the lavish spending of the last few years, Spurs have managed their finances well and are now seeking to build a stadium on par with their north London rivals. Spurs have tremendous support and their is a long waiting list for tickets so the increase in capacity by 20,000 should not be a problem whatsoever. This should also help Spurs in their goal of challenging the top four. More on this to come.

Hull City in total disarray – finances in shambles, and Brown reportedly fired but then team denies rumors. Fortunately, this is a loan move for Jozy and hopefully the off the field shenanigans won’t impact him and he will get on the pitch more. I have mixed feelings about Phil Brown. Hull have been very poor for about a year now and he was too negative tactically at times, but despite the recent blow up, he did seem to really believe in Jozy. Lets hope if a new manager were to be appointed he sees Jozy’s potential and we don’t have a Derby county-Feilhaber situation where the manager gets sacked and he ends up riding the pine. That being said if Hull’s financial situation as bad as reported I doubt they have the money to fire Brown and hire someone new.

MLS playoff hype is growing.
In what is a great matchup, Seattle takes on Houston Thursday night on ESPN. For a playoff preview see, Greg Seltzer’s here, WVHoolign’s here.

Brad Guzan cements his status as the next great American keeper. One game does not a superstar goalie make, but Guzan sure did gain the spotlight in the UK after saving four penalties (one in relegation and three in the shutout) to see Villa advance. The British press went gaga, calling him Villa’s hero and Martin O’neil was asked, “tell me about the goalkeeper, where did you pick him up from?” Martin O’Neil preceded to glow endlessly about him, saying Guzan was a “marvelous prospect” and confirming that he is Friedel’s replacement. Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, added “Their keeper had one of those nights he will remember for the rest of his career.”
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Virginia is Just a DC United Negotiating Chip

Not even close to there yet
Steve Goff is reporting that on top of DC United considering Baltimore, the team is talking stadium to a Virginia county outside of the beltway – likely Loudoun. None of this should really come as a surprise (see my take on the Baltimore news). United has to keep their options open and need a credible alternative to improve its negotiating hand with the District. In fact, Kevin Payne indicated that the DC city council is waiting on United to submit a few ideas, so in essence the ball is in United’s court.

I feel pretty hopeful that United will be able to work a deal with DC. Chang is now the 100 percent owner and simply wants a profitable place for the team – not some major development deal and is willing to scale back hopes of a jewel of a stadium. Furthermore, we are clearly past the time – due to the recession and past stadium dealings – when the team would expect the city to break the bank for a stadium. With expectations in line, a scaled back proposal, no need for a big land give away, Fenty not wanting to lose a team in an election season, and momentum behind soccer growing with the World Cup – I think it is quite possible a deal could actually get done with the District.
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The way MLS could get relegation

relegation-tableSteve Davis is right. MLS will almost certainly never have promotion and relegation. American owners would simply balk at the idea of their prize investments getting sent down to the minors. Owners like to avoid risk, and relegation is a big risk. However, there are two somewhat feasible ways to imagine promotion/relegation coming about in North America – but in both scenarios it would require massive growth in the game’s popularity and would likely take at least a generation or two. So how could it come about?

1. Massive expansion.
This would take many decades, but if the sport continued to grow in popularity and the league continued to put franchises in more and more cities – growing past 30 teams, or essentially was to double in size – creating a second MLS division and instituting promotion and relegation could be a logical response to the need to both create a manageable league and to expand soccer into more markets. A 35 or 36 team league could essentially split in two, creating two eighteen team leagues with the bottom three or four dropping. The US Open cup would then take on a new level of importance and would allow second division MLS teams the chance to prove themselves.
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