As I type this, a rather beautiful silver shield is winging its way from Real Salt Lake to Chivas USA, to the next group of MLS supporters who get to celebrate their part in creating it. The Supporters' Shield is a trophy made by MLS fans to honor the team who tops the regular-season standings, is now in its second physical incarnation. A new fan-funded trophy has taken the place of the original — one that had filled up with more engraved history than its originators perhaps dared hope for.
The original trophy grew out of the legendary North American Soccer Listserv, which predated MLS, though not by much — the '90s boom of the web running pretty much concurrent with the latest version of Division One soccer in North America. That paralleling with Internet history is a crucial characteristic of the social fabric of contemporary U.S. and Canadian soccer support — for better or worse it’s a digital league. The original Listserv featured many voices who would become key players in the first wave of organized MLS supporter culture, as well as figures like Phil Schoen, the current beIN TV announcer, who ended up being an inadvertent driver of what, for the time, was the ambitious form the first shield took.
The U.S. Soccer Federation is 100 years old today. For a game with “no history” in this country, that’s a lot of history.
As a kid in England, taking my first tentative steps toward knowing my own local soccer history, I was fascinated by the team names of the competing FA Cup finalists listed in the historical records. With no frame of reference other than the names themselves, the exploits of Royal Engineers, Wanderers, Corinthians, and Old Etonians seemed impossibly exotic and fascinating. Learning more about the actual history behind the names was actually bittersweet — for one, the team names acquired a fixed geographical place when you learned about them, whereas up until then they were just floating signifiers, abstract forces that might feasibly show up in my street, not that much different from Batman. Discovering and growing with the knowledge of what, for example, Old Etonians actually were could only be disappointing — David Cameron is no Batman. And also, in my intense-little-guy reasoning, if a team was actually a place and the team didn’t exist anymore, than that must mean places might not exist anymore, and then
Essentially, thanks for teaching me about death, Martin Tyler, with your so-called Story of Football.
Soccer viewership on English-language stations in the United States is growing. Last week's match between the U.S. and Mexico drew a 1.6 overnight rating and 2.39 million viewers on ESPN, more than double the previous high for a World Cup qualifier on the channel. Fox Soccer Channel may be shutting down, but Champions League broadcasts are a key element to its replacement, Fox Sports 1. NBC paid $250 million for the rights to English Premier League games for three seasons and will televise six live games a week. Executives hope the matches will help grow the presence of NBC Sports Network.
Which brings us to Major League Soccer. In 2011, NBC bought broadcast rights for a fraction of what it paid for the EPL, reportedly $10 million per season. Ratings are improving but are still relatively small. A recent rivalry game between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders had 209,000 viewers on NBCSN and came at the end of a 10-hour blitz of MLS coverage. The fact that NBCSN would air the domestic soccer league for an entire Saturday is undoubtedly progress, even if the ratings are climbing only incrementally. But national figures are one thing; after attending a few New York Red Bulls games and watching a few more on MSG, I wondered how MLS was doing on a local level. Specifically, were more fans watching games in person or on television?
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Landon Donovan. It was March 28, and the most famous American soccer player in the world was speaking to reporters on a conference call, his first contact with the media since retreating from the soccer world in December 2012. Earlier last week, he had rejoined the Los Angeles Galaxy, training with the team and accompanying the MLS Cup champions on their visit to the White House. President Obama had jokingly offered to let him take Air Force One down to Mexico to join the U.S. Men's National Team at Azteca. But while he didn't take the president up on his offer, he was, for all intents and purposes, back. On the phone, his voice was its familiar soft monotone, at once seemingly passive and yet entirely sincere.
Listening to the conference call, I was struck with how long Donovan had been playing professional soccer, how long he had been part of my soccer world. It was fourteen years ago, 1999, when I’d first heard of him. I was 18 — on my way to play soccer at Wake Forest University with all the glory of a “recruited walk-on” — when I heard about this 17-year-old phenom at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, scoring goals and running the "Beep Test" like Edgar Davids.
Never let it be said that the Designated Player backs down from a fight. Whether it’s demanding that The European cuts a few of the makeweights to bump my salary up to a living (large) wage, or calling out my rookie left back on Twitter (“@genericclogger22 My level = not you #achieve #1998UEFACupQF #respectlearnit #whentopmanfreePASSit”), the D.P. is right there on top of it, giving third-person, off-the-record briefings and generally showing his stomach for the fight. A stomach, natch, that was recently described as “box-to-box” on something called Les Cahiers du Football.
So when I heard that MLS had come up with a Rivalry Week, and that not only that, but a team of 150 NBC staff was going to be producing a mammoth 10-hour, countrywide production devoted to the first day’s play, that really threw down the gauntlet. The Designated Player is worth the equivalent of 177 mortals and a diabetic bulldog, so matching the human resources being thrown at Rivalry Week by the NBC peacock shouldn’t be a problem. Not only that, but I intended to emulate their lead anchors and announcers Russ Thaler, Arlo White, and Kyle Martino by also covering the first game live at Red Bull Arena. Then while they were Cannonball Run–ning their way up to their state-of-the-art studio facility in Connecticut to host their experimental two-and-a-half-hour, four-game MLS Breakaway show, I’d be reclining in my luxury PATH train on the way to my state-of-disarray Brooklyn apartment to doze fitfully through the rest of the day.
Andy Roxburgh is talking about Bruce Arena. He’s not been at New York Red Bulls long, but it appears the new Sporting Director may have already been asked one too many times about the management model at the Los Angeles Galaxy, and can’t resist a wry little dig at the head coach and general manager of the current MLS champions.
Roxburgh barely pauses on the aside, though, launching straight into a detailed breakdown of the new Red Bulls management structure: “What happens in this case, is this model is based on the French FA. The French FA when Gerard [Houllier, Red Bulls global director of soccer] was there, was the technical director and the CEO, and one didn’t answer to the other. They were in partnership, they linked occasionally, when appropriate. But each one of them was responsible for his own area, and the person who was above them is only one person, who’s the president. Now, it’s the same model here.”
Enough talk about the dire states of Arsenal and Liverpool, it's time to get #Positive. In this week's pod, the Men in Blazers revel in the otherworldly form of Tottenham's Gareth Bale as well as the first-ever trophy for Swansea.
More trumpets! A new season of Major League Soccer is upon us! Just as two former MLS mainstays, Brek Shea and Kei Kamara, made an impact for Stoke and Norwich last weekend, it's now time for the league's 18th year. To mark the occasion, Michael and Roger celebrate the MLS-ification of the EPL by welcoming GBOP (Great Bro' of the Pod) Kyle Beckerman for an in-studio visit to the Crap Part of Soho. The Real Salt Lake veteran discusses his love of Ping-Pong, how the league has grown since he was just a dreadlock-less lad, and his preference for grass. A true American hero.
Last week’s news that Robbie Rogers had come out, while also “stepping away” from soccer, was both encouraging and discouraging for the context and reaction it received. Encouraging, in that Rogers’s announcement was met with overwhelming support, and that this was a young athlete in the prime of his career making the decision to come out. The discouraging aspect was that the coming-out was allied to the “stepping away” — with many of those supportive of Rogers’s decision sad that he didn’t see a way forward playing the game.
For his part Rogers doesn’t owe anyone anything, and as a young man who’d made his way in the modest financial climate of MLS, he’s hardly alone in having to think about life beyond the game sooner than other professional athletes. So it’s possibly a little more complex than a homophobic culture forcing him out of the game despite its lucrative lure — though god knows, when thinking about comparably paid careers in the wake of announcing one’s sexuality, it’s understandable to choose one where that decision was not considered fair game for on-field and off-field trash-talking.
“Welcome to the family. We’re happy to have you. Stay humble, but stay hungry.”
Making his way off the stage he’s just shared with MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Andrew Farrell nods earnestly at the short greeting by his new head coach, Jay Heaps, and looks down at the New England Revolution scarf now draped round his neck. At the other side of the hall, at the ESPN broadcast desk, analysts Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman are now praising the no. 1 pick in the 2013 SuperDraft — Lalas is noting the young man’s confidence playing the ball out of defense, while Twellman, a former no. 2 overall draft pick for the Revs, and club hero, is praising second-year coach Heaps, for exciting a beleaguered fan base by trading to secure the top player on the board.
Farrell is just relieved that the process is over. With Toronto initially holding the first pick and Farrell’s star rising at the Combine, it had been widely expected he would be headed to Canada, until New England made the draft-day move for its first-ever top pick — a bold gesture of faith in a young player who elicits stock phrases such as “significant upside” but who is, like all his peers, untested at the professional level. “I tried to stay away from all the mock drafts and blogs and all that," says Farrell. "Until they call your name, you’re never certain. I heard one or two things from my agent that there’s been a a trade, and I’d spoken to New England and liked them. A lot of the teams I’d spoken to said nice things, but were, like, ‘We’re too low of a pick to get you’, but they (New England) didn’t really hint at anything like a trade from fourth to first.”
“It was tough out there on the wing — that side of the field is really hard. I think they use it for cricket ... ”
I’m talking to a young hopeful at the MLS Combine, the selection trials for the SuperDraft, after he has dragged himself off the field to talk to the few reporters gathered here at the Central Broward Regional Park stadium. I look out in the general area of where he is pointing, and see that there is indeed a dry, hard square of dirt at the far side of the field, large enough to accommodate a particularly unforgiving wicket, if not being quite so accommodating to a sprinting soccer player’s cleats. The player looks irritated — the state of the field out there has compounded his frustration at being played on the wing instead of his normal forward position, and he feels he hasn’t done himself justice on the biggest stage of his footballing life so far. As he slopes off to the locker room, he gives another last grimace at the dusty patch of ground. It’s doubtful that he’ll be consoled when he returns for his next game two days later to find the dirt has been painted green. Welcome to the lowest rung of MLS.
The Seattle Sounders boast Major League Soccer's strongest fan base, with an average of more than 43,000 packing into CenturyLink Field for the team's home games. Soon, they might have one of the strongest analytical units as well.
Over the past few years, data and statistics have played an increasingly prominent role in soccer. During the 2012 MLS All-Star Game, Adidas debuted the miCoach system, data trackers embedded in uniforms that allowed coaches (and fans) to track players in real time. GPS monitors, heat maps, and other location-based data-collection devices are available to clubs. The league partnered with Opta, a company that collects and displays additional facts about performance, ranging from miles run to sprints completed.
Since joining the Sounders in 2009, head fitness coach Dave Tenney has slowly been building up a sports science unit, attempting to make sense of it all.
Happy New Year? Just checking. According to Bruce Arena, 2011 didn’t end until June 2012, at least if we’re to believe the epic MLS Cup postgame press conference, which itself finished sometime around January 3, 2013, some 32 days after the final whistle. While most of the L.A. Galaxy players were still on the field cavorting after their win, and as David Beckham’s brand conducted a complicated transatlantic farewell merger with itself in front of the L.A. fans, in a shower of confetti and symbolic multiple-flag donning (with a side order of fruit of loins), elsewhere, deep in the bowels of the Home Depot Center, a press conference that stretched into Samuel Beckett territory was getting under way. (“It’s been a long season. Is it over? Yes. Well? Shall we go? Yes, Let’s go.” They do not move.) Sometime during the third hour, a weary Bruce Arena was asked about the two halves of his side’s Hyde-and-Jekyll season and he volunteered the idea that after their MLS Cup victory the previous year, the 2011 season never ended, what with postseason tours, injury-prompted reshuffles, CONCACAF Champions League preparations, and so on. Only the MLS champions’ visit to the White House in May (at which point the Galaxy were woefully out of form) finally gave a sense of closure and started the turnaround that led to another Cup.
In footballing terms you can have sympathy with Arena’s position, but on the other hand, one of the perils of following MLS in tandem with other leagues — which is the general lot of all but the most parochial of American soccer fans — is that there is no such thing as an offseason. No sooner had I turned the key in my rental car, leaving the Home Depot Center to the more diligent cleaners a few hours after the final whistle of MLS Cup, than I found myself checking my phone and thinking idly, I wonder what the mood’s like in Sunderland right now.
On Tuesday, Arsenal lost on penalties to Bradford in the League Cup. This is astonishing because Bradford is in the fourth division of English football and Premier League–side Arsenal is still good (or they might be ... they are in the last 16 of the Champions League, after all). And it's not every day that you get to follow a team to (what you think is) its nadir.
If you're Jonesing for some schadenfreude, you could OD on it by reading the post-match comments over at Arseblog, maybe the top Gooner-centric destination on the Web. The big takeaway is that the "Wenger out" groundswell now seems to be about the size of the Sudetenland. Some of the club's current struggles — just 10 wins in its last 25 matches, peppered with some other dreadful losses (Norwich, Swansea) in between — are indeed manager Arsene Wenger's fault. He did bring in Gervinho, who seems to be in some secret competition with the on-loan Nicklas Bendtner to see who can miss the most unmissable sitter (Gervy locked up the contest against Bradford). And the extent to which financial issues may have forced his hand in selling any or all of Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy, Alex Song, and Robin Van Persie, while relevant, is an entirely different discussion. The fact is he has sold really good players and replaced them with less good players.
No, fault aside, Wenger isn't the problem. Or more accurately, sacking Wenger — and really, Arsenal fans, whom do you think you can bring in if you shitcan Wenger? — won't solve the problem. That's because the problem is bigger than the manager; and if anything Wenger is still the last best hope for staving off the looming disaster of the real problem: Stan Kroenke.
It’s been a funny few weeks with Hurricanes, snowstorms, Beckhams, and playoffs in my part of the world, not to mention the three days I spent in a darkened room as I processed the concept of Gerard Butler as a Celtic legend, and the week spent on a Manhattan Beach vision quest with Landon Donovan (before he took the decisive penalty in the MLS Cup final it occurred to me that I’d seen that squat before, just before he hurled marshmallows and peyote onto our campfire).
But the bills have to be paid, and with the second draft of my rewrite on the next Lifetime made-for-TV movie due next week (I can’t say too much about it, but the title is L’étranger and the tagline is “Lindsay Lohan IS Hope Solo”), and the confetti just about settled at the Home Depot Center, it’s time to turn our thoughts to looking back on this year’s MLS campaign.
So without further ado, here are the Designated Player 2012 MLS awards:
Over in England, Surprise Scoreline has wrestled all headlines away from lesser, more predictable characters. In yet another wild weekend in the Premier League, Rafa Benitez's Chelsea fell yet again, Manchester City relinquished points to United, and Tottenham continued their crawl up the table to claim fourth. Michael Davies and Roger Bennett review all the significant developments from England in this week's Men in Blazers podcast, though it's the announcement of the royal baby that heightens the drama.
Stateside, a Brit has dominated the week's headlines as well. Sure, L.A. Galaxy beat the Houston Dynamo 3-1 in a well-deserved team effort, but it was David Beckham spraying passes across the park, being ridiculously good-looking, and generally building the almighty brand that drew the most attention. We at Men in Blazers would like to wish Becks godspeed on the next stage of his journey and thank him for all he's done for the development of soccer and men's tighty-whities here in the U.S.