US Choses Stability Over Change In Keeping Bob Bradley

Change can be difficult. But sometimes change is needed. In the decision to keep Bob Bradley I was one in favor of change. This is not because of some ingrained Bob Bradley hate. I have defended him throughout the last World Cup cycle and think he would have done a good job at Aston Villa. Keeping Bob Bradley is no disaster and was likely the right decision for US soccer after US soccer likely failed to get Juergen Klinsmann for a second time. But the real question now is whether Bradley can move the team forward and take them to the next level.

Our chief problem as a national team in my view, is that we have no third gear. We seem to have just two gears 1st or 5th. As we saw in the World Cup the US team would too frequently start like zombies in 1st gear but would kick it into 5th gear when their backs were against the world. But teams in a 90 minute game need a 3rd gear. They need to develop a way of playing that can be sustained over 90 minutes, that puts teams on the back foot through skill, guile, and possession, instead of sweat. To instill this new gear I felt the US men’s national team was in need of fresh eyes and of refining its style of play. And I am not sure Bradley is the man for that job.

How This Likely Went Down

What looked to have happened here is both US soccer and Bob Bradley essentially broke up their marriage for a brief period and went looking for something better. Bradley was trying to throw his hat in the ring in England, first with Fulham than with Aston Villa. Sunil Gulati of US soccer examined what other possible candidates were out there and went back for Juergen Klinsmann. In the end, both these flings didn’t materialize.

For US soccer the pursuit of Klinsmann again made sense. But it is likely that Klinsmann again wanted too much control over the direction of player development – a big issue in 2006 when Gulati went after him then. Perhaps that is both a small price to pay and something that is sorely needed. But I think in the eyes of Gulati, US soccer player development is already moving in a new direction and continues to produce better players and as a result better national teams. In other words, it ain’t broke. So handing over substantial control to a foreign coach who we know thinks the US development system is crap and that college athletics is no way to develop talent, could rock the boat so much that it capsizes. Furthermore, for US soccer there really aren’t that many great coaches out there. They all have jobs – except for Sven Goran Erickson.
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Time To Panic Over Benny Feilhaber’s Club Future

Lyle Yorks, Benny Feilhaber’s agent, needs to get cracking. Feilhaber is on the cusp of having to stay with his Danish club, who got relegated to the Danish second division. The inability thus far for Feilhaber to secure a move is evidence of an incredibly slow transfer market, in which cash-strapped clubs are unable to get financing to bring in new players. But playing second division Danish soccer should not be in the cards for Feilhaber, who was one of the shining stars for the US in the World Cup.

I have long praised Feilhaber. In my view, he is the best American passer of the ball and is a true play making #10. In the World Cup, he demonstrated his technical quality and was a hugely important attacking influence.

Feilhaber did have an unsuccessful spell at Derby County, who quickly crashed out of the Premier League. One could point to that to say he couldn’t cut it at the highest level. That is nonsense. Derby County not only sacked the manager that brought him in, but Feilhaber was a luxury that a team like Derby county could not afford. Relegation battlers are focused on survival and often adopt negative defensive tactics to eke out draws. Feilhaber is a creative force, not a midfield battler.

The problem now for Benny is that this is the moment where his value should be highest. He proved his quality on the World stage and at 25 he is in his prime. While it is not all doom and gloom as his Aarhus are likely to be promoted this year, playing second division Danish league soccer for a whole year is still a major set back in his development. With just a day left in the transfer window lets hope something happens, but there is thus far little chatter in the rumor mill and the fact that he played 90 minutes over the weekend probably indicates he won’t be sold.

Also, one aspect about having a well connected foreign coach like Klinnsmann, is that they are better able to talk up their players and put them on the radar of European club managers.

No Need To Rush On Bob Bradley

Frankly, people need to chill. The mantra coming from bloggers, fans, and the press to “just get it figured out already” or “to do something” is wrong. US soccer and Sunil Gulati is right to be methodical about this.

We are not in some race against the clock here. This isn’t 2006 where the US had a bad world cup and had fired Bruce Arena and was left rudderless and directionless for six months when the team was in desperate need of an overhaul and was facing 2 tough tournaments in June of 2007. And despite the supposed “fiasco” that was the 06 process, it is not like that worked out poorly.

US soccer can totally take their time here.

First, they have a good coach in place for the next 4 months. Let’s say that no one new is hired in the next month, Bradley doesn’t get another job and remains at the helm for the October friendlies, even though US soccer has no intention of keeping him on. So what. One of Bradley’s strongest attributes was his ability to bring in young talent. Frankly, I would probably rather have Bradley manage that game than a new manager that isn’t familiar with the player pool. It is not like he is going to slack off and phone it in – and anyone who thinks so isn’t giving Bradley any credit. Would this be a missed opportunity for a new manager to work with the team? Perhaps, but guys, we have 3 years until the next really meaningful competition.
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Doh! Rapids Marketing Director “Would Kill For” What Seattle Has – An Urban Stadium

The great blog Footiebusiness has an interview with the Director of Marketing for the Colorado Rapids. I have noted before that soccer specific stadiums were no panacea for MLS teams, especially when placed in far out suburbs. The argument goes that playing so far outside of town prevents that young 20 something urbanite – the demographic group that is the core of the hardcore fan – from getting engaged. Well it turns out that the Rapids agree with this assessment:

FB: Although still in its infancy, Seattle is being trumpeted as a “model” franchise for purposes of marketing and fan outreach. Are their any lessons that an established franchise like Colorado can take from Seattle’s efforts?

KC: Sure. All the teams in the league have heard that success story. There are certain elements to their success. They set their club up right from the get go. They are very involved in their supporters group. They also have some of the benefits that we may not be directly benefiting from like a stadium directly downtown. They have bars that you can walk to which is something we would kill for.

So the Rapids would now “kill” to have bars in walking distance. Hmm, maybe they should have thought about that when they built there stadium out in the middle of nowhere! Seattle’s situation isn’t unique – other cities can also be like Seattle, provided they locate their stadiums in central urban areas, work hard to develop an authentic and engaged fanbase, and put out a good product on the field.

What MLS teams didn’t count on in going after the family friendly Disney like suburban environment is that to build a sustainable franchise you have to make people care and want to follow. Not just attend, but to follow. Making the experience an authentic and emotionally powerful experience as possible is critical to developing a following. The Rapids have figured this out by setting up a supporters section and limiting the day-of game promotions.

But ultimately one the key’s that Seattle has discovered is that they have made going to games part of the nightlife entertainment scene and therefore it has become part of the cities social fabric. And its not just about the game, it is also what happens before the game. The Sounders have been a boon to the bars near by and the walk to the stadium before the game is a fantastic community/crowd building event. In short, the Sounders, much as Barra Brava did with DC United have built a community around the team.

It seems hard for me to see how this can really be created by the Rapids in Commerce City or FC Dallas in Frisco. Perhaps the Rapids could provide a shuttle bus for supporters back to downtown or to other parts of the city.

The Case For MLS Clubs Going Regional

While I think MLS teams are doing a relatively good job in their own local markets, especially with attendance, I think they are missing big opportunities to grow their brands and potentially the leagues TV revenues. TV numbers for MLS on ESPN are not great and the notion of the World Cup tv bounce appears to have been a myth. To grow TV viewership, which is key to financial growth of the sport, teams need to think regionally and should play some games in other surrounding cities.

While this won’t work for all teams, there are certain teams that can definitely expand their reach. The nature of professional sports in the US is that most fans of a team are unable to regularly – if ever – attend their team’s games. Hence, the importance of tv ratings and viewership. Teams like the Redskins aren’t just DC’s team, they are Virginia’s team. The Patriots and Red Sox aren’t just Boston’s teams, they are New England’s as well. The Braves aren’t just Atlanta, they are the south’s team. In other sports, cities and regions surrounding professional teams have coverage of this team on local tv and in the local newspaper. MLS teams tend to get coverage almost exclusively from their direct locale, not from surrounding cities in their region. They need to try to broaden their reach.

MLS teams play a substantial amount of games in the league, US Open Cup, Superliga, Champions League, a few games a year can be played elsewhere. DC United for instance already does this with the US Open Cup playing some games in the Maryland Soccer Plex in Montgomery County. The Boston Breaker of the WPS recently played in Hartford to good effect.

One way to do this is for MLS clubs to play a few games a year in neighboring cities. MLS clubs play a good amount of games in a lot of different competitions from the league itself, US Open Cup, Superliga, and CONCACAF Champions League, if the NFL can spare a home game to play in London, MLS clubs can do the same.

Now in some places this won’t work – attendance will be low, logistics will be too complicated, facilities won’t be suitable or won’t be available. But for some of the lower profile games such as in the US Open Cup, I don’t really see how teams could do much worse in terms of attendance. Furthermore, the novelty aspect of an MLS team playing in a city that likely never gets professional soccer, should prove to be a decent draw and will draw some local media attention as well. For instance, if DC United were to play a game in Richmond or Virginia Beach local press would give that game considerable coverage. Additionally, some potential rivalry games could be played at neutral sights – ala the “World’s largest cocktail party” between Georgia and Florida is played in Jacksonville. One could imagine Columbus and Philadelphia playing in Pittsburgh for instance or Philadelphia and DC playing in Baltimore.

Now doing this would have some drawbacks. In some cases attendance would be pathetic, it would cost clubs money by sacrificing a home game, it could step on the toes of smaller clubs in those markets, and it could annoy overtaxed players. But really the downside in trying to do this is very low.

Here are some teams that would benefit from going regional:
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Spurs vs. Stoke – The Premier League’s Detroit Pistons

This was a high quality win for Tottenham and gets their Premier League campaign started off well. Winning away at Stoke is a tough task, especially with Spurs playing with only one fit striker and employing a new formation and new central defensive and midfield parings.

While the first goal was fortuitously scored off Gareth Bale’s face, that shouldn’t detract from the move that got Bale in that position. In the first half Tottenham bossed the game and controlled possession and with Aaron Lennon and Bale on the wings they gave Stoke all they could handle. Bale’s second goal will be in the highlight reel EPL mashup at the end of the season. But Lennon’s threatening run from deep in the midfield and his well waited cross is one that should not be over looked. In the second half, Spurs were put under more pressure from Stoke. Spurs failed to spray the ball wide to Lennon and Bale and as a result looked less threatening.

It is no doubt that Spurs have quality and some depth, but they still lack a proper #9. Tottenham for the first time in recent memory deployed a 4-5-1 with Crouch as the lone striker. The thing with Crouch is that he is not a true #9. While he can hold up the ball, he is not a goal poacher. He lacks the pace and closeness of control on the ball to threaten defenders. But more importantly he is a player that can win aerial duels and knock down the ball to his fellow strike partner. Without a striker partner Crouch had no one to knock the ball down to and many aerial balls sent up to him resulted in turnovers.

Stoke’s dirty play.

This isn’t sour grapes, this is just stating the obvious – Stoke play dirty.

Lets start with the dirty goal mouth tactics. Any Premier League manager about to face Stoke should vigorously talk about the fact that Stoke intentionally seek to interfere with the goal keeper on set pieces. While Gomez was just marginally interfered with on Stoke’s lone goal – yes a call could have been made, but the referee wasn’t wrong for letting it go – but on almost every set piece Gomez was deliberately interfered with – and not in some “sporting” way of setting a pick. On one corner Gomez was tripped by a Stoke player who with his back to Gomez extended his leg straight back, merely to obstruct. On another Gomez went to punch and a Stoke player straight up pushed him. And on the controversial “goal” in which the ball was ruled not to have crossed the line, Robert Huth with two hands deliberately pushed Gomez preventing him from punching the ball over the bar. This was such an obvious foul that it was shocking it wasn’t called.
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How Chelsea Can Win the League, and Why They Probably Won’t. (Part 2)

Ye Old Chelsea

Although this pains me to say, I have to admire what Sir Alex is doing in Manchester this year. The youth movement, for better or worse, is a shift that must be made by a big club every 5-7 years.  Or, if you are Arsenal, every 2 years. Over the last few seasons Chelsea has tried to fight this philosophy with a Botox strategy – buying a few younger players to make the club look young on the surface but deep down the wrinkles are there, trust me.  Not only has Sir Alex committed to moving towards a younger squad, he is actually playing them, and I am not just talking about the Carling Cup fixtures.  Sure his hand was forced a few times due to injuries, but more often then not we have seen a young upstart in the starting 11 for United in a key fixture with a healthy Giggs or a Nani on the bench.  Such strategy is the proper way to groom your younger talent.  Conversely, I cannot remember a big game in the last three years where Chelsea gave a start to a younger player.  Don’t get me wrong, in their older age, the likes of Drogba, Anelka, and Terry are still pacey and powerful, but father time will win, and when he does I am not convinced that Chelsea will be ready for it.

Injury Bug

The number one contributing factor in a team’s success in the premier league is the health of their stars.  In this department Chelsea has been more than lucky.  Sure Essien has had his issues – so has Peter Cech, Ricky C (of Madrid fame) among others, but in last year’s campaign Chelsea remained relatively healthy in key positions.  Lampard’s Ripken-like run has been remarkable. John Terry and Didier Drogba’s have also maintained their healthy form throughout the grueling league and cup campaigns, whereas their northern competitors have had no such luck.  Last year United was forced put an ailing team on Rooney’s saddle, that is anyone that was left to play. Liverpool also played long stretches without Number 9 and several key defensive players, Skirtel and Agger among them. This left Jaime Carragher to unsuccessfully defend the kop, poor Pepe. Then there is the Arsenal, who consistently prove that they are just too fragile for this league, nothing more to it than that.  Call me a pessimist, but I am afraid to say that Chelsea’s luck in the injury department is surely to run out this year.  As a result, this will force Chelsea to play unproven quantities, which brings me to my next point.
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