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.

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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The Beckham Playoffs

photo by shady sp

photo by shady sp

There are a lot of great story lines going into the MLS playoffs – will Seattle be the first expansion team to win, will Columbus repeat, can Real Salt Lake cause a stir – all of these are great stories, but another story will dominate: David Beckham.

MLS has finally got David Beckham right where they want him: in the playoffs. It only took three years, but despite all the talk of the Beckham move being a failure, he is now in a position to prove his worth to the league. What began as a nightmare this year with a public feud between Donovan and Beckham can now turn into a fairy tale.

The Galaxy have been on a tear as of late and were able to win the Western conference and they have to be one of the favorites to win it all. They do have a tough road however. First, against arch-rival Chivas and then either Houston or Seattle in the semifinals. The league and ESPN are praying the Galaxy make it through to the finals. Beckham in the finals at a packed Qwest Field is what the league was dreaming about when they signed him and they are probably praying for a Galaxy-Chicago final ie (Beckham vs. Blanco final). A Galaxy run would also allow ESPN to go Beckham-crazy in their promotional efforts. ESPN has both Galaxy playoff games in the first round so expect a bigger than usual promotional effort, which would only increase the further they go. All of this would be good for the league and should draw greater interest to what should be an exciting playoffs. But this all begs the question: will Beckham prove his worth on the field, as well as off?

MLS playoff craziness

mls playoffs
Wow – what an end to the season. Heartbreaking late goals, a heart-warming and sentimental annihilation in New York and a once lowly franchise making the playoffs for the first time in their glistening stadium. Here are the highlights:

Red Bulls show some pride and spirit in their last game at Giants stadium by annihilating Toronto 5-0 and dumping them from the playoffs. This must be a hard one to swallow for our Maple Leaf friends north of the border, especially in light of another expansion franchise making the playoffs in its first year. Toronto looked sure to make the playoffs against lowly New York, now they are looking at another long offseason. In the collective bargaining talks this summer, expect the Toronto ownership to push hard for expanding the salary cap. They surely want to splash more cash to turn this team into a contender.

New England takes care of business and makes the playoffs for the eighth straight year. The Revs looked to be in the worst shape going into the weekend, playing at Columbus. But they got a late goal and knocked Colorado out of the playoffs. If the Revs didn’t play a million miles outside of the city, this would be one elite franchise. Steve Nicol just finds a way to make this team tick, despite all the injuries and departures. Shalrie Joseph may not win the MVP, but he is probably more important to his team than any other player on the planet.
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The Recession and MLS

recession-bloggersKristian Dyer’s great piece at ESPN arguing that MLS is well placed to survive the recession is a good read. MLS has seen attendance drop but so have other major professional sports. Part of the rationale behind MLS’ slow growth model was to ensure that the league survive in the case of an economic downturn. Fortunately, the league didn’t get caught up in the economic boom of the last decade and speculatively splash the cash and should be very well positioned as we hopefully emerge from this recession.
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MLS will end with one crazy weekend

With one game left in the season 4 teams (Chivas, LA, Houston, Seattle) could win the western conference, the supporters shield is still not wrapped up, and more remarkably six teams are vying for two playoff spots. So after a boatload of draws this season, everyone now has to go for a win.

DC was able to hang on to an early 1 goal lead in the puddle mud fest at RFK and stay in contention for the playoffs. There final game is at Kansas City and is very winnable. DC would currently be sitting in the final wild card spot, due to their -1 goal differential, but MLS puts head-to-head record above goal differential, therefore DC needs quite a bit to go there way. New England on the other hand again couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net and were largely outplayed by Chicago at home. Dallas is red hot with Jeff Cunningham a scoring machine, leading their improbable run to the playoffs with a win over playoff rival Colorado.
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Why Doesn’t DC ever play in Baltimore? – the case for regional outreach

Baltimore skyline -- photo by: NearDC

Baltimore skyline -- photo by: NearDC

With all the talk of DC United leaving for Baltimore – it does raise the question of why United doesn’t do more to reach out to Baltimore or even Richmond. Kartik at MLS Talk has talked consistently about the need to expand the MLS tv audience and part of this is drawing attention to the league in non-MLS cities – just as other big time American sports do.
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Baltimore United? Analyzing the chances

News is buzzing around that Baltimore’s mayor Shelia Dixon wants the Maryland Stadium Authority to study the feasibility of building a soccer stadium to lure DC United to charm city. Sound the freak out alarms. There are reasons for DC fans to be concerned about this development. BUT the basic fact is that DC has a new principal owner that took over the team with a full understanding of the stadium situation AND has just begun a new stadium search in DC. Unless Baltimore offers United the moon and DC does nothing then there is little reason to loose sleep – yet.

First, DC has a new full owner that has just begun to explore possible stadium options in the city. The change in ownership earlier this year with Victor MacFarlane giving up his stake to co-owner Will Chang, significantly increases the prospect for a stadium in DC. Why? MacFarlane didn’t buy the team to own a team, he bought it thinking he could use it as leverage to get a huge development deal (ie poplar point). After Fenty replaced Williams the deal that was in place at Poplar point was reconsidered and MacFarlane scrambled for another huge land give-away that could create substantial development. The only other possibility was in the suburbs but PG county after promising the moon, reneged due to popular backlash from the economic downturn. So MacFarlane realizing that owner United didn’t give him the pull for a big development deal walked away.
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