Assessing US Soccer After the World Cup – Our Floor is Higher Now on the Field, We Turned a Corner Off

Every four years a presidential election allows us to take stock of the state of the nation – where the country stands on issues, its demographic shifts, and its cultural views. The World Cup does the same for same; it allows us to take stock of the state of the American soccer nation.
So what did we learn about U.S. soccer after Brazil? On the field, the team looked a lot like the ones before, but the we now have a better foundation for which to build due to MLS. Off the field, we turned a real corner off the field, and shocked the world with the level of our support.

The 2010 Team was better, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t progressing. When looking to judge the progress of American soccer, we usually ask is this team better than the last? But in many ways this last cycle was going to be one of transition. We changed coaches a year in and our two best attacking players Donovan and Dempsey were now over 30.

Not only were Donovan and Dempsey both in their prime in 2010, but often forgotten about the 2010 cycle was that three massive injuries devastated the squad prior to the tournament. In September 2010, Charlie Davies almost died, Oguchi Onyewu the next day tore his ACL, and Stuart Holden got DeJunged with a broken leg right after moving to Bolton in a March friendly. It is safe to say that if those injuries didn’t happen those three players would have been among our best 10 outfield players. Holden and Onyewu still made the 23 man roster but clearly weren’t ready. With those three players a starting 11 of Altidore and Davies, Dempsey and Donovan wide, Holden and Bradley in midfield, and a Bocanegra-Onyewu-Demerit-Cherundolo (the back line that anchored the 09 Confederations Cup) would have been formidable. Instead, our depth was challenged and Bradley had to tinker to find replacements. This cycle we were actually quite fortunate with injuries until the Great Hamstring Outbreak struck during the tournament (…not to mention Klinsmann’s own-goal of leaving Donovan behind). But based on the collection of players it is fairly apparent that the quality in the 2014 cycle just was not quite as good as the 2010 cycle.

…But that doesn’t mean we aren’t progressing. While the 2010 squad was probably better, it was also heavily Euro-based. This is why we can feel pretty good about the progression of American soccer. This team was an MLS based team. Against Germany seven of our starters played in MLS and showed throughout the tournament that they were in the same class as their opposition. That players like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Kyle Beckerman showed so well on the world stage after playing their whole careers in MLS is something that should make us optimistic about the future, as MLS has shown it can produce quality players. This doesn’t mean players shouldn’t still look to challenge themselves in better leagues. But for many, like Kyle Beckerman, that opportunity may just never materialize. Yet Beckerman’s career shows that you don’t have to leave MLS to develop and to be a key cog in the UMNT. That’s very very good news for US soccer.

With the progress in MLS, we can now expect going forward to have a much deeper USMNT player pool, which should help ensure that we are always competitive. In other words, the ceiling for the 2010 team may have been higher than 2014, but the floor was also probably lower. Due to MLS, the floor for the USMNT is now much higher than it was.

But there’s some reason to be a little nervous… Continue reading

Why the World Cup Worked and What We Need To Do About It.

So why did this particular World Cup galvanize America? How is it that we seemingly put to rest the long-standing question of whether soccer has arrived in the US? The early excitement of the tournament and the incredible displays of attacking soccer coupled with several stunning finishes certainly helped. The success of the U.S. in the early games also generated widespread interest for the casual American fan. However, unlike any other sport, a soccer match tells a story. Sometimes the story can be incredibly boring, 0-0 affairs like Dutch/Argentina semifinal reveal this sad fact. Other games produce horror books that we can’t put down, e.g. Brazil v. Germany.Some games are gut wrenching dramas that leave us wanting more as was the case in Manaus where we watched the pulsating draw between Portugal and the United States. Soccer always plays itself out like this, but to experience the incredible highs and lows in a story you have to invest yourself from the very start.

Through ESPN’s incredible coverage, the entire nation bought into the World Cup from the very beginning. Will the momentum continue? Will more Americans watch the EPL or MLS for that matter? yes, it is undeniable. It won’t be sea change, but the numbers and the economics indicate that our nation is moving that way (more to come on that later). Finally, a nation’s soccer team, unlike any other sport I know, takes on the collective zeitgeist of a country. The Italians play it best, but only do it when they have to. The Americans will fight you to the death, regardless of the odds. The Brazilians will play with emotion whether it benefits them or not. It is no coincidence that Americans are falling for soccer, we love reality shows and soccer is easily the best running sports reality show on television.

Jermaine-Jones-celebrates-scoring-for-USMNT-against-Portugal

Now that the country has bought in, US Soccer must figure out how our players can access the top leagues in the world. It is no secret that Americans own several of the top clubs in Europe: Roma, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal (partial ownership), and Aston Villa to name a few. It is incumbent on these American owners to bring American players on the roster. Failure to do so misses the chance to build the sport here in the US and achieve a significant return on investment. For instance, how rich of a commodity is Tim Howard now? Won’t Everton make a small fortune marketing Howard based on his World Cup performance? I would bet so.

Not only are Americans good enough, they are also grossly undervalued in the world market. Much like World War I and II, it will take an army of Americans to fly overseas and prove their worth to Europeans. On a much less skillful and more personal level, whenever I play pick up overseas I am usually picked last as soon as they figure out I am American. It might have something to do with how crap I am, but more than likely my global playing partners are biased and think I will suck. Let’s just hope that after Timmy’s performance they won’t stick me in goal next time. I can think of no better way to put our nation’s finest footballers in the best leagues than by infiltrating the economic ranks of the best teams and force feeding Americana on the English, Spanish and Italians- consider this the new Marshall Plan for American Soccer.

Is Arsenal the best place for Brek Shea?

Arsenal not the best Euro destination for Brek Shea; photo by Albumen

News that Brek Shea will join Arsenal on a two-week trial following the USMNT’s games in Europe against France and Slovenia is big news and clearly an indication that the FC Dallas left-winger is likely the next American to make the leap to Europe. But are the Gunners really the best landing spot for Shea? I don’t think so, and that’s not because of this blog’s general antipathy to Arsenal (Max is a Spurs fan after all). Shea needs to play in an environment that is conducive to his development, and Arsenal just doesn’t fit the bill right now.

The lure of playing for one of the Premier League’s and Europe’s top clubs is obviously strong. And the Gunners are still in the Champions League and are climbing the table with four straight league wins after a rough start to the season. But you can’t shake the feeling that Arsenal’s restive supporters–having endured six straight seasons without a major trophy–are just a couple of bad games from returning to the mood of the early season when Wenger’s position seemed very much in doubt. Continue reading

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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Why Bob Bradley At Villa Makes Sense

Bob Bradley has no Premiership or European managerial experience. He has never operated in the European transfer window. And his club coaching experience in MLS is hard to compare to the Premier League. Despite all of that, he makes a ton of sense for Villa.

There are a few atmospheric things working in his favor that have little to do with him.

First, he is easily gettable and comes cheap. He would jump at the job.

Second, the chairman would not have a manager that would pressure him into bankruptcy and would be able to control the finances by selling players they need to sell.

Third, he and US soccer is hot post World Cup. While Bradley has little experience in the European transfer market, there are very few people in soccer that have a better knowledge of the American talent pool. After the World Cup, this is now seen as a plus.

Fourth, the fan reaction has been more positive than I would have expected. Some say no way, the more delusional want Hiddink, but most sensible fans seem somewhat open to the idea. In Vital Villa poll on the next manager, Bradley is currently third with 12%, behind Hiddink 36% and Martin Jol 19%. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but since the other two aren’t really plausible that’s not too shabby.

Fifth, Villa are not in real danger of implosion. With O’Neill gone, Villa’s ambitions to challenge the top four are likely gone as well. Yet Villa also have the talent to avoid the drop should Bradley prove a disaster. This is what made Bradley a bit more of a risk at Fulham. The Cottagers are not as deep as Villa and a string of defeats and muddled performances under a new inexperienced manager and it is quite plausible that Fulham wouldn’t have the talent to lift itself out of the relegation battle. Yet Villa like Spurs a few years ago, have the talent to recover from a disasterous start. So in the event that Bob Bradley is a total failure – ie Villa get 2 points from their first 8 games as Spurs did under Juande Ramos – a change can be made to bring in a more veteran Premier League manager.

Yet, none of these make up for the fact that he still has no Premier League or European experience and that makes hiring him a real leap of faith. But a closer look at what Bradley’s attributes I think mitigates his lack of experience and makes him a safer bet than people realize and mitigates this a fair amount.

He is a motivator who controls the locker room. The come from behind spirit of the US, not just in the World Cup but throughout qualification, is a very good reflection on Bradley. When punched in the gut, Bradley’s teams responded. Additionally, there was little locker room drama or conflict throughout the entire World Cup cycle. A Premier League dressing room is a hell of a lot different than a more humble US locker room. At the very least he will get Villa motivated to play.
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MLS Can’t Stop At 20 Teams – It Must Become A National League

WV Hooligan is adamant that MLS take a break from expansion at 20 teams. This makes sense since at 20 teams the league will have reached the size of other big time leagues, it will give it time to consolidate and will give time to allow for the quality of the league to improve. All these points are true. But frankly MLS has to get bigger than 20 teams, because even at 20 teams it will still not be a national league.

MLS lacks national reach and it is not just because three of its teams are/will be in Canada, but also because the league specifically targeted smaller niche markets like Columbus and Salt Lake City in order to have less competition from other sports. Both these franchises have largely paid off and the coming conquest of the Pacific Northwest with Portland and Vancouver – similarly small or midsize markets – were probably wise expansion moves, especially considering the down economy.

But lets get real for a second. The key to growing a leagues revenue is the growth of television viewership and therefore TV rights. Hence, leagues need to go where the people are, since they need to expand its viewership base. Many millions of America will never live close enough to an MLS team to regularly go to the games. To connect with these folks the league needs to not just put out an engaging product, but it needs to give these people a team to route for. All other major pro sports have 30+ teams (NBA, NHL, MLB all have 30, the NFL has 32). MLS doesn’t need to get close to that number soon, but it does need to have a presence throughout the country.
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Merge Gold Cup and Copa America for genuine tournament of the Americas

Merge continental tournaments into true Copa Americas

This is the second post in a series of five recommendations for USSF President Sunil Gulati

International tournaments are soccer’s Holy Grail. Club soccer has exploded around the world and changed the business of game, but it’s still the World Cup that grabs the attention of fans like no other competition. Europe’s continental championship is just a tick below the World Cup and South America’s is well above other such competitions. These tournaments are not just great for fans, however, as consistent high-level competition is a huge advantage for national teams. Our continental championship, the Gold Cup, is a very poor tournament that does little for fans or players. A merger of the North and South American competitions in a true Copa Americas makes sense on competitive, fan interest, and importantly, financial grounds.

While the US national team has several years until its next truly consequential game, the first match in qualifying for Euro 2012 is just a few months away. The qualification round is the best of both worlds for the development of top European teams, as there is a mix of very weak teams and strong sides with a reasonable margin of error to get through to the tournament finals. The weaker and middling sides allow teams like Germany to bring younger players into the squad in competitive matches against weaker opponents while there are enough tough games to keep the team sharp. This works for fans too, as it’s just a short World Cup hangover until meaningful games begin again. And needless to say, the national soccer federations reap huge windfalls from playing numerous qualifying games on top of another major tournament. Continue reading