Category Archives: MLS

Bruce Arena’s USMNT Roster as of Today

With the Gold Cup over and as this over-the-top Michael Bay of a summer transfer window winds down to its absurd conclusion, it’s time to take stock of the USMNT depth chart. There were lots of words written about how the Gold Cup was needed to test out the deeper end of the player pool and find the right players to solidify the end of the USMNT’s bench. Some even went so far as to say that this objective was a higher priority than even winning the tournament.

While I’m not sure whether that was true or not, what is true is that the USMNT has only four official matches left between now and next June when FIFA World Cup 2018 kicks off in Moscow. And not only are those four matches vital, being that qualification for Russia is not secured, but they’re vital because there may not be much time left for experimenting.

With that in mind, perhaps it might be prudent (or at least amusing) to try and dive into the mind of one Mr. Bruce Arena and guess exactly which 23 players he likes the most right now.

One of my biggest pet peeves, especially from MLS fans, is that whenever a player is playing well there are natural calls for his inclusion into the Men’s National Team. However they do this without ever considering tactics, formations, or which players would have to be removed from the roster due to their inclusion. You can’t have 34 player on the USMNT. I always remember Jurgen Klinsmann now infamous platitude: “There are others ahead of him.” But it’s true. You can’t take them all. Cuts need to be made. And often times, cuts near the end of the bench are more about fit and need than talent which is why guys like Sacha Kljestan, Christian Roldan, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, CJ Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Sebastian Lletget and other guys MLS fan boys clamor for just don’t have a spot. In fact a lot of these guys aren’t really even close when you kind of map it all out like I did below. But I digress.

So without further ado, let’s predict who Bruce Arena might have penned (or merely penciled) in at the moment and then we’ll get into what my thoughts are.

The following picture is a diagram I designed to help flush out all the names in the player pool and how I think Bruce perceives them:

US Pool
Remember Julian Green?

Using this as my guide: I came up with the following roster:

us roster
Sebastian Lletget was my first man out.

Now let me explain how I got to these conclusions briefly before going player by player. I figure, after Klinsmann’s disaster in not having a backup for Jozy Altidore after his injury in 2014, I think Arena will attempt, for the most part, to take two of every position. For example, I think Dax McCarty will be on the roster simply to break in case of an emergency, i.e. a Michael Bradley injury. I’m not sure he’ll really have any other chance of starting alongside Bradley, save for a late 5-10 minute close-out. In that vein I arranged the roster in anticipation of Arena truly trying to build a roster rather than a collection of the 23 most talented football players in the country. This roster should be based on some variation of a 4-4-2 or possibly 4-2-3-1 (although as I’ll explain later, I wouldn’t be surprised if he whipped out the 5-3-2 again).

lineup

Forwards: I don’t think saying Jozy Altidore is a lock is any kind of stretch. The likelihood is somewhere around 99.4% that he’s starting the first game of the World Cup against whomever that is.

            Bobby Wood too should be fairly secure in his place. He’s played well for the States for a couple years now, whether off the bench or as part of a striker tandem. The only reason I didn’t lock him in is because when you’re playing in the Bundesliga your career can crater quickly with all the talent around you and there’s pressure to perform week in and week out. So long as he can start regularly he should be in.

As for what happens after those two is tricky. I think most of us still want Clint Dempsey to be involved even if it is as a super-sub. But for a 34 year old, with a heart condition on his medical history, 10 or 11 months is a long time and a lot can happen. I think Bruce should assemble his roster under the assumption that between now and next June Dempsey will dip in form or health simply out of due diligence.

If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Jordan Morris would be the last man in. Up until he scored the Gold Cup Final winner I had him as the first man out. Why? Because someone had to be. The way I see it, the biggest battles to be in or out of the squad are for those last forward/winger hybrid spots and they’re between Arriola, Morris, Zardes, and Lletget. I only see two at most of that four getting in. Maybe a third could get in if Dempsey is somehow out of the picture by next summer. I think guys like Rowe, Joe Corona, Dwyer, Agudelo, Chris Wondolowski, and Sapong are mostly out of the picture and they will be scrambling for a reserve spot with the last two in the first group. Remember you can only take 23.

But Morris’ versatility will help him, especially since we’re really thin when it comes to players who can play “out wide.” As of now, this roster really only has Fabian Johnson and Paul Arriola to supply width. While Nagbe and Bedoya may lineup in “winger” positions we all know that’s not who they are. By design much of the width will come from the fullback positions via DeAndre Yedlin.

The Dom Dwyer situation is harder to read. Being sent home early wasn’t good, but I could see him as the kind of guy Bruce calls for CONCACAF qualifiers and then leaves home for the big show. While his MLS production is excellent and while he probably is the 3rd best true striker in the US pool I still think he’s already done in terms of making the tournament roster. After that, it’s all really just a stab at a bunch of different albeit flawed candidates like Agudelo, Wondolowski, Aron Johannsson, Christian Ramirez, or whoever else.

The last question to ask is: Could Arena take a fifth forward? It’s definitely possible give our program’s predisposition for playing two strikers at a time. A hybrid forward/winger like Zardes could be useful in order to provide deep cover at two positions but I think he’s more in competition with the winger group.

Wingers: The reason I have Pulisic listed as a winger even though he will almost certainly play as a typical #10 is because in reality, for his Club Borussia Dortmund he’s a winger. The #10 role will require him to play further forward than he does at even his club because he’ll be expected to contribute goals not just assists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually wound up being more of a second striker in the end. Or maybe he will play as part of a three man midfield and Wood can start with Jozy. The possibilities are endless with him. Or maybe his talents may even permit the USMNT to play with Jozy Altidore a sole striker in order to get an extra midfielder in the center of the park which hopefully would prevent the USA from being once again overrun in the possession battle as we have been in the past with teams like Mexico, Ghana, Germany, Belgium, etc.

christian-pulisic-dortmund_1owiehz8v8uvzb2zvre10ez3
As an 18 year-old, Christian Pulisic is already the lynch pin to the USMNT offense.

As I alluded to earlier, this is by far the USMNT’s weakest position. It’s so weak in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point Bruce Arena whipped out a 4-4-2 diamond or a 5-3-2 just to find a formation which best catered to the strengths of our best players.

In fact, two of the four wingers I predicted Arena will select and utilize aren’t really wingers at all: Darlington Nagbe and Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya doesn’t even play as a winger for his club; he plays as a number 8, which is far more suited to his skill set and his tendency to hustle at both ends of the pitch. However, while Nagbe does play as a left midfielder for the Portland Timbers, you could easily find some very smart Timbers fans and MLS fans who don’t believe this is his best deployment. When Portland won the MLS Cup two seasons ago, they did so with Nagbe in the central of the park. But, Arena seems to agree with Caleb Porter that Nagbe is best suited as an inverted winger.

This point brings me to the only other full blown lock of the group: Fabian Johnson. Johnson is an excellent footballer playing at a consistent level in the German Bundesliga mostly as a wide left midfielder. While he is versatile and capable of playing a myriad of positions, I still have a sneaking suspicion he could wind up as a left back.

Why? Partly it is because I’m still not sold on Jorge Villafaña. It’s not the he’s a bad player, he’s a fine player and a good quality CONCACAF level player. But while he’s been a steady starter for Bruce Arena, I’m not convinced that his club career and his form will be steady over the next eleven months. He’s only made 35 appearances in all competitions over the past year and a half for Santos Laguna.

And partly it’s because I think Darlington Nagbe has made a nice little case for being one of the starting “wide” midfielders. Although I guess one solution to that issue could be to move Fabian Johnson to the RM or RW position in order to keep Nagbe wide. It’s not as if that RM position is anything closed to being locked down.

And lastly, I have DC United’s Paul Arriola as the final man in beating out the likes of Sebastian Lletget, Gyasi Zardes, Kelyn Rowe and Joe Corona (who really isn’t a winger anyway). It seems like Paul Arriola as much as anyone has improved his stock this summer between his game in Mexico City and the Gold Cup. He brings a youthful dynamic to the group and if needed can provide some width if it’s ever called for late in a game. In essence he’s Alejandro Bedoya’s back up who can pretty much do all or close to all of what he can do.

Who else could slide in? I guess Zardes with his LA Galaxy connections is always hovering around the selection and Jordan Morris is a nice fit because he can play two positions, but after that I’m not really sure. Could Bruce take 5 wingers? I doubt it as it isn’t a focal point of our tactics nor do we really have the depth at the position to justify it. Not to mention the fact that Pulisic is actually our best player at the position.

Midfielders: As has been the case for nearly 7 or 8 years now, Michael Bradley is the first name picked for the USMNT midfield whether positioned as a holding midfielder, a box-to-box guy, or even for a short time as a #10. These days he’s been regularly placed as as a #6 and the team has been essentially constructed around that deployment.

Because of this need to put Bradley into his favorite position, the USA often lines up in lesser known formations such as 4-4-2 diamond, 4-1-4-1, or the 4-1-3-2. While I’m not a fan of these they are oddly suited to the US personnel. The other common formation is the flat 4-4-2 which never seems to do Bradley any favors and in my recollection usually guarantees that the USA’s possession percentage will hover around 40%.

After Bradley it gets hazy quickly. As I said before I think Dax McCarty makes the roster simply as the poor man’s Michael Bradley. He’s the closest approximation to Michael Bradley when the Captain plays as a 6. In fact, at the MLS level, I really don’t see that much of a difference between McCarty and Bradley’s ability. Unfortunately for Dax his steady play has not yet translated to the international level. I think it could if he was able to play alongside Bradley in order to become this cycle’s Kyle Beckerman: a defensive minded player who gives Bradley more ability to help the team with all the good offensive things he does. But it doesn’t seem to be in the cards in Bruce Arena’s eyes. C’est la vie.

I think Kellyn Acosta is pretty close to being locked in. He’s a phenomenal MLS player and his upside will carry him farther than perhaps his performances alone would. I know the MLS crowd loves him and rightfully so, but I’m not sure I want him out there against France or even a Croatia in a World Cup group stage match. But I think as of today that may be Arena’s move.

The last man out for me was Sebastian Lletget-if he can get healthy and in form enough to get called into some matches-would be Sebastian Lletget. (I don’t know if it’s possible but maybe he could aim for a call up to the October World Cup Qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.) Again he may not be known as a top USMNT talent, but he has a couple things going for him. 1) Versatility. That’s always a good thing to have from a coach’s perspective. 2) Connection to Bruce Arena. Never hurts to have an “in.” 3) He was last seen scoring a goal in the 5’ minute of his USMNT debut. And like Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens (Admit it millenials, you have no idea who either of these guys are!) you’re always more fondly remembered if you go out when you were at your peak. If he gives Bruce Arena any reason to take him he will. In fact, I had him in and Jordan Morris out all they way through the Gold Cup Final. But Arena’s trust to start Morris in the semi-final and final changed my mind.

There's no way a regular EPL player isn't a USMNT starter, right?
There’s no way a regular EPL player isn’t a USMNT starter, right?

The big wild-card here of course is Germerican Danny Williams. After several years in the Championship with Reading, Williams has made the big move to Huddersfield Town AFC in the Premier League. I don’t have him on this roster because I do buy a little into the conspiracy theory of Bruce Arena as an MLS-approved candidate. I think that for a player based abroad to get selected he’ll have to be so much better than MLS rival that it will be impossible to ignore. Otherwise, I don’t think Arena will pick them. Now, I can’t claim to have seen a ton of Danny Williams at Reading. But I do know that if he gets 25 or 30+ starts in the English Premier League it would be unprecedented not to take him. Did you ever think the USMNT would be in a place where it would be turning down the chance to call up an EPL regular? I certainly never did.

Actually, the bigger wild card here is Jermaine Jones. The dude will just not die. He turns 36 in November and has been injured almost the entirety of the season. But even Bruce Arena couldn’t quit him. I was stunned back in March when Bruce Arena called Jones into the squad for qualifiers against Honduras and Panama even though Arena knew Jones would be suspended for the first game due to yellow card accumulation. And then he started him in a flat 4-4-2 midfield alongside Michael Bradley in the second game despite the fact USMNT fans have been screaming for years that alignment doesn’t normally pan out in our favor (which it didn’t in that game). He may not be healthy now, but I’m not going to count this guy out until he’s six feet under.

Fullbacks: As of now, I think the only lock at either fullback position is DeAndre Yedlin. He’s got pace, he’s got World Cup experience and he’s coming off a good season for Newcastle United in the Championship. But while I hear every USMNT fan and pundit writing him in as the starting RB with permanent marker, there are a couple things to worry about. The first is that Newcastle is in the Premier League now and they’re a big club. If he can’t do a job or has even one bad game, he won’t get the next start. Also worrying is the fact that Newcastle signed 23 year-old Javier Manquillo from Atletico Madrid (on loan with rivals Sunderland last season) in the transfer window. Even starting out as Newcastle’s opening day RB will be a tough battle.

For now Jorge Villafaña seems a likely choice. But why did I place Jorge Villafaña on Bruce Arena’s roster even if I think he could be up for a rough year at club level? Because Bruce trusts him and will want a true left back on the roster. But that doesn’t mean that he has to play him when the time comes to face off against a World Class international team. I would think that Johnson and Nagbe is a much stronger left side than Villafaña and Johnson. I have a hunch at some point Bruce will have this come-to-Jesus moment. Or maybe he’ll simply use Johnson as a LWB after adopting some kind of three centerback formation.

After those two the player pool gets murky. Graham Zusi got the key starts at the Gold Cup over Championship veteran Eric Lichaj. But Graham Zusi will be a 31 year old winger with only a season and a half of RB under his belt by next summer. I was amazed that he was more trusted than lifelong and steady professional right back Lichaj. But if his job is just to be there in case something happens to Yedlin, he may make the roster. His versatility and late dead ball ability may be something Bruce Arena really likes as a tool on his bench.

This last fullback spot was the roster slot I spent the longest time trying to figure out. So hard in fact that I think Arena may just figure Fabian Johnson and Jorge Villafaña are all the cover he needs at leftback and he can take someone else like Lletget or Zardes instead. But assuming he takes two true leftbacks, I chose Greg Garza for a few reasons. Firstly he’s similar in style to Villafaña. Secondly, it wasn’t long ago before his injury when Garza during his days at Club Tijuana was the LB from Liga MX du jour. He’s an MLS All-Star level fullback and he might already be the best LB in MLS, American or foreign. Also, he’s 2 years younger than Villafaña. But if Villafaña has already secured a roster position and Arena wants a like-for-like backup for him then Garza is his man.

The last man out for me was DeMarcus Beasley. Talk about people who never die. Beasley will be 36 years-old next summer and despite “retiring” from the National Team already, I can’t imagine he would turn down the chance to go to a freakin’ fifth World Cup (He’d be only the 4th person to do it; or tied for fourth if the corpse of Rafa Marquez also makes it, though that seems likely now with his legal issues). Beasley was last seen playing for the USMNT as a LWB at the Azteca. Could he rise again? I will never doubt him.

And as I’ll discuss later, I think the second left back spot could be sacrificed. It could be sacrificed because Fabian Johnson will be the backup left back or because for a fifth centerback. That fifth centerback would likely Tim Ream who can also provide the “break in case of emergency” cover at LB as well.

Could Tim Ream benefit from a need to take 5 CBs?
Could Tim Ream benefit from a need to take 5 CBs?

Another major player for a fullback position is Timothy Chandler. Again, like Danny Williams, it’s funny to think that the USMNT is in an era where it could seriously consider not taking a player who is a week-in, week-out starter for a German Bundesliga club. But, his bad play in a USMNT shirt, his seeming disinterest in making some of the call-ups, and the fact that Yedlin is almost certainly the starter make his selection far more doubtful than I could’ve imagined.

Centerbacks: The centerback position was fairly straightforward. Ideally Bruce Arena wants to take four centerbacks. Preferably two right-footed and two left footed. Luckily the top four centerbacks seem to fit that mold. If we presume John (don’t call me Anthony) Brooks and Geoff Cameron are the starters, then Omar Gonzalez (a long-time Bruce Arena disciple) and the left-footed Matt Besler make the most sense because they have such experience and familiarity with the program. Despite the talent of the “Matts” Hedges and Miazga it was Besler and Gonzalez that Bruce trusted in the end.

The only other player I could see fighting his way in is Tim Ream. Beside the fact that he’s Besler’s only real rival as a left-footed CB, I think the Fulham man would be a smart addition (if perhaps necessary) addition to the roster if Bruce Arena does go with a three centerback formation. When a team goes with three centerbacks it makes taking five centerbacks mandatory. He may benefit the most from that after he played so well as a LCB in the away match against Mexico.

I know the “Matts” will make a push and I agree that they’re very promising I just don’t see how they leapfrog Besler and/or Gonzalez. Simply put: “There are others ahead of them.”

Goalkeepers: OK, I lied. Goalkeeper was the most straight forward position to select. I have a gut feeling; actually it’s more of a hunch that Tim Howard and Brad Guzan will be the #1 and #2 goalies.

After that I had kind of a three way scramble for the final spot between Ethan Horvath, Bill Hamid, and Jesse Gonzalez.

Horvath is 22 years old and all the Brian Sciaretta types seem to think highly of him. If Arena thinks he’s the next great goalkeeper, maybe he takes him. Gonzalez however is 15 days younger than Horvath and in my opinion is already a top three MLS ’keeper. After all the fuss USSoccer made to convert Jesse from El Tri to the USMNT maybe he should be the one.

But I think it will be Bill Hamid. He’s 26 and, believe it or not, he’s been a pro since 2009. You’re going to want someone Hamid’s age (26) to bridge the generation gap between Guzan and Horvath/Gonzalez. Plus I think when push comes to shove if you actually had to put someone in a game I think you’d prefer Bill to Ethan or Jesse.

Reserves: And as for Bruce Arena naming those seven reservists/injury replacements? If I had to predict Bruce’s 7 I think we might be looking at something like:

Tim Ream (Fulham): You always want that extra left-footed CB.

Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest): He’s veteran professional capable of playing LB and RB

Danny Williams (Hudderrsfield Town): It will be tough to ignore an EPL player even if he’s only a part time starter.

Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy): He’s a Bruce Arena favorite and in his 12’ USMNT minutes he already has a goal.

Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution): He’s kind of like a slightly more athletic and versatile Brad Davis. But not as Good.

Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy): His game kind of reminds me of an American soccer version of Danny Welbeck. He looks like he should be good, but isn’t good enough in front of net to play striker. But coachable and dedicated enough to get starts out wide.

Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes): C’mon, look into your heart; you know it to be true.

But that is a total stab in the dark.

WHAT WOULD I DO?

And with all that said, we now come to what I would do, if I were picking the USMNT roster. Here’s how I’d have it and why.

As I’ve continually reiterated throughout this overly lengthy analysis, there does exist a more than just a token chance that Bruce Arena does something funky. Look, if after only three days to practice he can implement and play a three centerback formation at the Azteca with mostly backups then he can do it in preparation of the World Cup. Yes he may be unwilling to implement it again down the final four game stretch of the Hexagonal, but once the October games are over, provided the USA qualifies, Bruce Arena will have nearly four months to plan and scheme.

Once he starts all his little plans and schemes he’s going to realize a few things. One that Omar Gonzalez is a better centerback than Bedoya is a RM or Kellyn Acosta is a CM. I also think he’s going to realize the best wide players on the pitch are Johnson and Yedlin. I also think both those players make for better wingbacks than fullbacks as both lack the defensive discipline for that at the international level. I’m also convinced that at some point Danny Williams is going to become impossible to ignore. I also think he’s going to realize that he wants Johnson and Nagbe on the pitch together to maximize our talent (ability to maintain possession). And I personally, I am really in favor of this. I really think this could be our eventual formation and lineup.

Could we wind up in a 5-3-2?
Could we wind up in a 5-3-2?

For those of you counting at home the league breakdown of the starting 11, it is: 4 MLS, 3 German Bundesliga, 3 EPL, 1 Liga MX.

For my fantasy roster as a whole it is: 13 MLS, 5 German Bundesliga,  3 EPL, 1 Championship, 1 Liga MX.

(Turns out my roster is far more MLS-centric than I figured it would be. But then again the USMNT is far more MLS-centric than it probably should be.)

So once you’ve admitted to yourself that three centerbacks are the way to go, and once you figure out your starting XI, then you can begin to mold the back end of the roster. So ideally you want a backup at every position. My bench would be almost a like-for-like replacement of every position save for Omar Gonzalez. You don’t need to bring six centerbacks, even if playing three at the back. That gave me the chance to bring an extra forward/midfielder who would ideally be Clint Dempsey… but you never know.

Yes, missing out on nice promising players like Arriola, Acosta, Morris, Hedges, or Miazga may seem cruel, but are those guys really going to be the difference between us winning a game we might not otherwise have won? No, I don’t think so. One other criticism I would anticipate is that the lack of youth on the team doesn’t keep the team “hungry” and “energized.” People will point out Arena’s failure at FIFA World Cup 2006 was largely due to the fact that he picked an old squad that aged overnight and was complacent.

While Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber aren’t spring chicken’s anymore, I don’t think you’d have to worry about complacency with either of them. Both would be totally energized at the prospect of playing in a World Cup-Kljestan for the first time.

Also some of the “older” players like Dax McCarty, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi would have their own reasons for being motivated. Dax because it’s his first trip, Zusi because he’s at a new position, and Dempsey because he’s Deuce and is as fiery as they come, especially now that he’s been doubted.

Guys like Danny Williams, Tim Ream, Darlington Nagbe would also all be first timers and motivated. And several young guys like Pulisic, Yedlin, Brooks, Wood, and Jesse Gonzalez would play integral roles pushing guys to maintain their energy levels.

As for the reserves I think these seven would be good:

Matt Hedges-Best young American CB in MLS.

Jorge Villafaña/Garza-Either would work for me as true LB.

Eric Lichaj-I like his experience.

Kellyn Acosta-He’s still a talent.

Paul Arriola-Love the energy, but he wouldn’t have a position in the 5-3-2.

Jordan Morris-If a striker goes down he’d be the next in line.

Dom Dwyer-Can never have to many out-and-out goal scorers.

Also aside from Acosta, who could serve a role on this roster, Morris nor Arriola are going to have a fit because of the lack of width. I guess Morris could play as a striker, but he’s not as good as solo striker as Jozy or Wood.

In the end, I do expect this three centerback formation to pop up again in an important spot for the USMNT. But no, I don’t expect my roster to be Bruce’s even if he does go back to 3 CBs. In fact his 3 CB formation might implement wingers as he used more of a 3-4-3 at the Azteca in March.

Anyway I hope we’ve had a good look at the depth of the player pool and what exactly the USMNT roster looks like at this particular moment in time. Again it’s easy to say someone deserves a look. It’s much harder to pick the 23 and start cutting people when you realize you have to make choices. Maybe we’ll update this after the two September qualifiers as we see Bruce integrate the European contingent for the big home match against Costa Rica in Harrison. Those two lineups will tell us a lot about what he learned during the Gold Cup.

I’ll be back in a few days to break this down from the Mexico National Team perspective. Vaya con Dios mis amigos.

Promotion and Relegation: Never?

Is There Such A Thing As Too Many MLS Teams?

Only a year ago, people thought Don Garber was over-promising a 24 team league.
Only a year ago, people thought Don Garber was over-promising by announcing a 24 team league by 2020.

It was this time last year, during the All-Star weekend, when MLS commissioner Don Garber dropped the bombshell on MLS fans that he wanted a 24 team league by the year 2020. Since that declaration, all but one of the remaining spots were gobbled up. Almost as soon as the news broke, NYC FC and Orlando City franchises were officially announced as teams 20 and 21. Not long after David Beckham’s team was tentatively slated for Miami pending a new downtown stadium. Most recently, Atlanta was officially announced as the 22nd team, with Miami still being the unofficial 23rd. And all of a sudden, within a year, only one spot remained.

Yet, while speculation has been rampant, there has not been a clear frontrunner for the final spot. Several cities and franchises have asked to step up. NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions have made the most noise. It might make sense as MLS has had success in cities with basketball as their only pro sports team, such as Portland, Salt Lake City, and now Orlando. Minneapolis appears to be a city poised to host MLS team #24 considering there have been reports that both the Vikings and Twins owners have inquired on the subject of ownership. St. Louis, with its soccer rich history, has maintained its place as the sentimental favorite for a franchise, though no ownership group seems interested. In July, stories broke that MLS met in Las Vegas with a potential ownership group as well as the city’s mayor. And this week, there are stories that the Sacramento Kings’ owner has sought to invest into the Sacramento Republic franchise for the purpose of making an MLS bid.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s five cities as potential landing spots for our last MLS franchise. Almost all of those cities make sense as homes for a club, so my question is: what is MLS to do?

This Train Ain’t Stopping At 24

Somewhere Don Garber is smiling. While soccer writers questioned the pragmatism of a 24 team league, one which is bigger than any first division in the World, Garber has instead created a demand for a surplus of potential suppliers. While some thought he was over-promising, he knew exactly what he was doing. But all these ownership groups stepping up to the plate got me thinking? Could MLS be setting the groundwork for an MLS and MLS2?

Could This Even Perhaps Be The Precursor To Promotion And Relegation?

It only took a year to go from 19 teams to 23.
It only took a year to go from 19 teams to 23.

It’s unlikely. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely. It’s so unlikely, that while I was writing this post the following news came out: http://prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com

If you ask me, what’s far more likely is that Garber, who as a former NFL guy believes in conferences, divisions, local rivalries, and equal distribution of revenues, wants to someday have a 30 or even 40 team league where each conference kind of acts as its own league and the MLS Cup Playoffs will almost act as a sort of de facto Champions League.

Garber has the benefit of having an American sports scene where 30 or 32 teams is the standard, so fans will be pre-programmed to accept it with MLS as well. Someday we’ll probably have an Eastern and Western Conference with Central, North, South, and West divisions in MLS where teams within divisions are playing one another 4 times a year. Personally, this kind of thing makes me want to throw up. I hate unbalanced schedules, almost as much as I hate amateur drafts and salary caps. But while I can stomach the latter two, the first is really sinful as it messes with the integrity of the league. Not to mention the fact that it really strays from the soccer norm around the globe.

But what if there really were too many quality ownership groups to turn away? Could two leagues really be the answer?

Perhaps. And I say that because I believe Don Garber wants to cap the league at 24 teams about as much as I believe that the moon landing was faked.

HUMOR ME

If there are multiple ownership groups worthy of an MLS franchise, why stop at 24?
If there are multiple ownership groups worthy of an MLS franchise, why stop at 24?

Does there exist a way in which MLS can do promotion and relegation that is lucrative for everyone, especially the original investor/owners? I say there absolutely is, and the MLS would be foolish not to ponder it seriously.

The first step in that process would be a buyout of, or merger with, NASL. In fact, I think this is inevitable, and I’m convinced that is what NASL ownership has been pining for all along. Much like the ABA/NBA merger, the ABA got four of its teams into the NBA and the league took off thereafter making everyone involved richer, the same could happen for MLS and NASL. It wasn’t long after MLS President Mark Abbott’s “never” comments that NASL commissioner Bill Peterson responded with a counter opinion in regards to promotion and relegation : http://www.si.com/soccer/planet-futbol

Despite the big talk by NASL and the constant disdain of that league by MLS, the truth is the league has some intriguing properties. Minnesota United and the San Antonio Scorpions are both NASL teams. Their presence in markets like Tampa, Carolina, Indianapolis, and Oklahoma City are also intriguing. And of course, there is also the property that is the New York Cosmos. MLS and the Cosmos can pretend that they dislike one another, but I still believe, and I believe they both secretly know, that there’s a great opportunity in joining forces. But MLS would want to make sure that the Cosmos knew who’s the boss.

So how does this all relate to promotion and relegation? Don’t worry, I got you.

If MLS were to really ever head down the road to promotion and relegation it would need, by my best guess, 40 franchises at minimum. This, as I said before, might be the goal for Garber anyway. And all 40 franchises would need to be under MLS control to assure the investor/owners of MLS that they’ll still get a slice of the MLS pie even when they’re in MLS2. You would have to give MLS teams almost a 5-10 year warning before implementing a promotion and relegation format.

But there’s also another issue. As we’ve learned with the most recent expansion fees, entry in the league is not cheap. MLS has done all it can to keep the league exclusive. But at the same time, they’ve discovered expansion fees are the quickest way to make money (Another reason  I don’t believe in MLS capping the league at 24 teams). In 2007 Beckham got a cut-rate $25 million dollar fee for a franchise built into his MLS contract as a reward for legitimizing the league, which at the time only had 12 teams. Beckham got a deal, because Orlando City and Atlanta by comparison had to pay $70 million entrance fees. And the glamour franchise of NYC FC, backed by big Manchester City money was given a $100 million fee which their Emirati owners scraped together from underneath their couch cushions.

MLS already controls tier 3 of the US Soccer Pyramid
MLS already controls tier 3 of the US Soccer Pyramid

So, in this hypothetical scenario, in order to set up the proper setting for such a transition, MLS would have purchased the 13 team NASL. Add in the fact that the MLS already quasi-“owns” the third division USL Pro league and now MLS would have control over 44 teams thereabouts. This is perfect because some teams would overlap territorially, such as the Atlanta Silverbacks with the new Atlanta MLS team or the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers with Beckham’s new Miami franchise. It would be necessary therefore for MLS to contract or merge a couple franchises.

After that was done by either buying out owners or giving them a stake in other properties, the two leagues, MLS and MLS2 would need to be aligned. And so, without further ado, here’s a realistic scenario of how the two-tiered system could work to start off:

Major League Soccer

Western Conference

Vancouver Whitecaps

Seattle Sounders

Portland Timbers

San Jose Earthquakes

LA Galaxy

Chivas USA Rebrand

Real Salt Lake

Colorado Rapids

Sporting Kansas City

FC Dallas

Houston Dynamo

San Antonio Scorpions (For argument’s sake, let’s say this winds up being MLS 24)

Eastern Conference

Chicago Fire

Columbus Crew

Toronto FC

Montreal Impact

New England Revolution

New York Red Bulls

NYC FC

Philadelphia Union

DC United

Atlanta Franchise

Orlando City SC

Beckham Miami Franchise (hopefully)

 

MLS2

Western Conference

Sacramento Republic (From USL)

Las Vegas Franchise TBD (Expansion Franchise)

Arizona United (from USL)

FC Edmonton (from NASL)

Minnesota United (from NASL)

St. Louis FC (From USL)

Oklahoma City (both NASL & USL have a planned franchise in the city; this would have to be negotiated)

Austin Aztex (from USL)

Eastern Conference

Ottowa Fury (From NASL)

Detroit Franchise TBD (Expansion Franchise)

Indianapolis Eleven (From NASL)

Pittsburgh Riverhounds (From USL)

Louisville City (from USL)

New York Cosmos (From NASL)

Charlotte Franchise (possible merger of Wilmington Hammerheads and/or Charlotte Eagles of USL and/or Carolina Railhawks of NASL)

Tampa Bay Rowdies (From NASL)

That’s kind of an example of what the two tiered system could look like. I know what some of you real soccer junkies are thinking: “What about some lower tier teams with good histories like the Richmond Kickers or Charleston Battery”. Unfortunately for this to work, the leagues would need as many top 40 metropolitan areas as possible. Cities like Richmond and Charleston just aren’t economically feasible. They’d be better served in a Tier 3 alongside the likes of LA Galaxy II and the Rochester Rhinos or Harrisburg City Islanders and focusing their efforts on the US Open Cup. Perhaps over time there could be a system for them to be promoted to MLS2, but not to start. The owner/investors need to keep the number of slices to as few as possible so that they each keep receiving their lucrative revenue checks.

The Nitty-Gritty Details:

You can't ignore the fact NASL has some nice properties.
You can’t ignore the fact NASL has some nice properties.

So, now we return back to the problem of how to get MLS’ owner/investors to agree to the possibly of going down to MLS2 after being in an uncontested top tier for so long. You explain to them that:

A) by being in MLS2, you are still an MLS investor and you are still welcome to a slice of all MLS revenues, albeit it would be 1/40th rather than 1/24th (Actually, it could pay out 1/28th or 1/33rd if there were still teams yet to pay their expansion fees).

B) You further explain that since not all MLS2 franchises will be MLS caliber either on the field and/or off it; that teams can only be promoted if they 1) pay a $70 million dollar expansion fee before their first promotion which will only be distributed to teams that have as of that moment been MLS teams before and 2) Meet certain predetermined MLS criteria regarding financials, stadium infrastructure, fan base, and local TV deals.

The first criteria is simple enough. Pay up the expansion fee or you don’t get a piece of MLS’ earnings. Teams could even pay before qualifying to be promoted to MLS so as to become part of the family sooner. Secondly, you set up a minimum for things such as cash on hand, a soccer specific stadium with a capacity minimum (I’m thinking at least 15,000 people), an average attendance figure (perhaps around 8,000-10,000) and finally, you’d need a local TV contract which allowed for all your games to be aired. If these standards were not met, or you could not pay your expansion fee, then you would not be entitled to be promoted to MLS, even if qualified for promotion via the standings.

As for how promotion and relegation would work competitively: this is how it would go: At the end of every season, two teams would be automatically promoted. The winners of MLS2 Western Conference and Eastern Conference would go up and replace the last place teams in MLS Western and Eastern Conferences. Therefore, teams will always remain in the same Western or Eastern Conference designations regardless of whether they’re in level one or two. Then, the second place finisher in each MLS2 conference would play a single elimination game on the road against the penultimate finishers in each MLS conference. However, if teams can’t pay the expansion fees or don’t meet the minimum MLS requirements, they can’t be promoted. In fact, there could be years where no one is promoted because they don’t qualify as tier 1 franchises.

The only way to ensure all markets are passionate about MLS is to have promotion and relegation.
The only way to ensure all markets are passionate about MLS is to have promotion and relegation.

For example: let’s say the Montreal Impact finish last in MLS and the Philadelphia Union finish second to last, under my hypothetical rules, the Impact would automatically be relegated and the Union would have to host the second place finisher in the MLS2 Eastern Conference for a single elimination playoff. But let’s say, that the Pittsburgh Riverhounds finish second and they are nowhere close to playing in a soccer-specific stadium and they only average 6,000 fans per game, don’t have a TV deal and don’t have close to $70 million dollars on hand.  Well then, they’re staying in MLS2 and the Philadelphia Union are now saved from the possibility of relegation. And let’s say that the MLS2 Eastern Conference champion was the New York Cosmos. Obviously the Cosmos would be the most likely team to have all the required criteria to be promoted. So if they qualified, now the Cosmos would have to play the Montreal Impact in a single elimination game for the right to be promoted.

It’s a little convoluted, and it would probably be years and years before all 40 teams were capable of promotion, but that’s a good thing. And as for there being a likelihood of having several years with no teams moving up or down, that’s OK. In leagues like Mexico and Argentina it is very hard to be relegated, and even when it happens it’s only one team that goes down.

The world of soccer has a long history of promotion and relegation. For me, when I first heard about it, it nearly blew my mind. It instantly attracted me more to the world of soccer. I thought it was the most brilliant idea. Certainly better than worrying about lazy owners, greedy owners, dumb owners, ping pong balls, or tanking seasons. If you deserved it, you stayed up and earned the money. If not, adios, learn to do business.

Unfortunately, while I never believe anyone when they say never, promotion and relegation in MLS is likely to be 20 years away minimum. Maybe it is 50 years away. Maybe, it will only happen when Garber and Abbot have long since retired and a young traditionalist is in the commissioner’s office.

But either way, I’d say we’re more likely to be headed for two big leagues. I’d Say This Is A More Realistic Future:

Major League Soccer

Western League

Northwest Division:

FC Edmonton

Vancouver Whitecaps

Seattle Sounders

Portland Timbers

Sacramento Republic

Pacific Division:

San Jose Earthquakes

LA Galaxy

Chivas USA Rebrand

Las Vegas Franchise

Phoenix FC

Midwest Division:

Salt Lake City

Colorado Rapids

Minnesota United

St. Louis FC

Sporting Kansas City

Southwest Division:

Oklahoma City Franchise

FC Dallas

Houston Dynamo

Austin Aztex

San Antonio Scorpions

Eastern League

Northeast Division:

Ottowa Fury

Toronto FC

Montreal Impact

New York Cosmos

New England Revolution

Mid-Atlantic Division:

New York Red Bulls

NYC FC

Philadelphia Union

Pittsburgh Riverhounds

DC United

Central Division:

Chicago Fire

Detroit Franchise TBD

Indianapolis Eleven

Columbus Crew

Louisville City

Southeast Division:

Charlotte Franchise

Atlanta Franchise

Orlando City SC

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Beckham Miami Franchise

What MLS may not realize is that you kill teams and seasons if this is all that matters in an MLS season.
What MLS may not realize is that you kill teams and seasons if this is all that matters in an MLS season.

Not quite as sexy is it? Two separate leagues of 20 teams each. I can already predict how it will work: you’ll play 2 home and 2 away against each team in your division and 1 game each versus all other conference opponents for a total of 32 games. Top team each in each division goes to the playoffs and the next best 4 Wild Cards advance to the MLS Cup Playoffs which will include 16 teams. Ugh. American sports at its most typical.

But, you can’t argue it will line pockets. Or can you? Personally, I think my idea could be as lucrative, if not more lucrative, than a 40 team league. Mostly because I believe a two-tiered league could be put together far sooner, in just a few years, because it will utilize more pre-existing organizations. It will give MLS2 franchises time to grow their organizations organically while playing good soccer and it will give the original MLS investor/owners bigger slices of the financial pie in the meantime. Sometimes when people are making a lot of money, they don’t see just how much more money they can make.

One Last Thing

The final piece to this puzzle may not seem related, but it absolutely is. MLS needs to launch a network. And I mean need. They could probably get one up and running for the price of an expansion fee. Not only is it a source of revenue and something which adds to MLS’ financial evaluation, but its the best advertising tool possible for MLS. While ESPN and Fox Sports may have signed lucrative deals to cover MLS, an MLS Network could be used to highlight teams that don’t get national recognition, MLS2 games, US Soccer youth tournaments, NWSL games, and it should even be the home for US Open Cup (which would definitely need to be highlighted if you had two levels of MLS). The truth of the matter is, that MLS and US Soccer’s relationship, especially through Soccer United Marketing, has only gotten stronger, and they can and should work hand in hand to promote that tournament as an extension of MLS.

The new ESPN, Fox, and Univision contracts are great, but MLS needs to depend on itself.
The new ESPN, Fox, and Univision contracts are great, but MLS needs to depend on itself.

This is the perfect time for MLS to launch a network. If you are a soccer fan in the United States, there is no channel where you know that you can plop down on the couch, turn on the TV, and check out soccer or soccer news. MLS, by launching the channel now beats everyone else to the punch. By doing that you will force soccer junkies to tune in to MLS as a matter of necessity. I have said it a million times and I will say it a million more times: there are literally millions of soccer fans in this country that don’t watch MLS.

And filling the lineup would be easy and cheap.  The NBA Network has had a raving success with their show “The Starters”, a former Toronto-based podcast. With the soccer world forced into podcasting by the mainstream media, there would be no shortage of good talent. And cheap talent at that. Not to mention there are plenty of soccer leagues the network could televise cheaply to fill air time: Scottish League, A-League, heck, even French league or Dutch League. Why not?

The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL all have fantastic networks and they don’t even have all that much original programming. If MLS is to be their equal, they are going to need one as well. Aside from a morning highlight show, these league owned networks have some shows from about 5-7pm and some wrap-around coverage in the evenings. MLS wouldn’t even need that as games are only occasionally played on weeknights. There’s so much revenue to be had that I don’t know how the league’s owner/investors can’t want to build it immediately. It’s the next step in the league’s organic growth.

To be sure, I’ve rambled enough. Especially since nobody will read this. And I understand Don Garber has a vision and I understand that it’s a brilliant vision, but it needs to be amended. Rather than be an NFL carbon copy, he needs an even bigger vision. That’s the truly brilliant approach.

Time for a New MLS All-Star Game Format

Has MLS moved on from needing European stars?
Has MLS moved on from needing European stars? It doesn’t seem so.

There’s been plenty of discussion recently about whether MLS is on the cusp of transitioning to “Version 3.0,” as if anyone knows what that really is.

And while the consensus seems to be that we’re not quite into the third era of MLS’ history, we are close. MLS, slowly, has begun fitting in better to the rest of the soccer world. Key elements like a Fall—Spring schedule (totally OK with this, a necessity right now) and promotion and relegation (which I hope to see someday, but not holding my breath) seem almost distant impossibilities. But, generally MLS is doing what it needs to do to be as pure a soccer product as it can. But, because our country has four major sports leagues with rich histories, they’ve each lost a bit of their own unique identity by borrowing ideas readily from one another. There has become, for better or worse, a set “way of doing things” in American Sports.

Thankfully MLS has been obliged to stay away from such things as timeouts, commercial breaks for no reason (an American sports broadcasting staple), and the notion that every game must end with a winning team and a losing team. But some American traditions have found their way into MLS, such as collegiate drafts (communist), playoffs (necessary), conferences (unfortunately semi-necessary), unbalanced schedules (a pure manifestation of evil), goofy team names (at least there’s no more Wizards, Burn, Fusion, or MetroStars to contend wit), and of course the All-Star game.

But, you know what? I love the MLS All-Star game. I love All-Star games. As a kid growing up I had a hard time grasping the subtleties of baseball, but I certainly didn’t have trouble grasping the idea of star powers. I was riveted by guys like Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Tony Gwynn, Ricky Henderson, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux. I would see these guys play during the All-Star game and I learned all about the league and baseball by following what these guys were doing and where they were doing it. Same went for basketball. And MLS should be no different. Kids can discover Bayern Munich on their own, they don’t need MLS to introduce them.

We know who these guys are, we don't need MLS to introduce us.
We know who these guys are, we don’t need MLS to introduce us.

For a growing sport in this saturated sports market, highlighting premier players is obviously vital for MLS. This goes double for the league that invented the concept of Designated Players and has always focused their marketing around stars. It makes sense therefore, to have a summer event which brings these players together and allows the casual fan to celebrate the top talent in the league.

And if there’s one thing MLS does have, it’s top talent, MLS has made sure of that ever since they brought in David Beckham.

But for me, the real question is whether the style of MLS’ All-Star Game is the most viable?

While pitting MLS’ best versus one of the World’s best teams is intriguing, I truly feel that the league and its players have outgrown the format of MLS All-Stars vs. touring European team in preseason. MLS can’t claim that it has a new depth of talent, yet at the same time, only name one team of 23 players as All-Stars. In fact, MLS names nine players as “inactive” All-Stars due to a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In a league of 19 teams, soon to be 21 teams, there are 437 players. Naming 35 All-Stars and having two teams of MLS All-Stars isn’t too many.

If beating a UEFA Champions League team in one-off friendly could earn MLS worldwide esteem, I’d be all for it. But it can’t. It’s a futile exercise in gaining credibility. Instead we need to show the United States that there’s more than just 30-year-old plus designated players.

It doesn’t allow for young players, the MLS lifers, or the American players to be promoted sufficiently. Instead, it simply trots out the Designated Players whom are already well known, or in World Cup years, USMNT players. Before we get into a discussion about what format should be implemented, or what players should be there, let’s look at who’s on the roster for next Wednesday’s game:

Will Torres, MLS' one Mexican of note, get to play enough over legends like Henry, Keane, and Donovan?
Will Torres, MLS’ one Mexican of note, get to play enough over legends like Henry, Keane, and Donovan?

Goalkeepers: Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid

Defenders: Matt Besler, Aurélien Collin, Omar Gonzalez (to be replaced by Sean Franklin), Chad Marshall (to be replaced by Bobby Boswell), Michael Parkhurst, DeAndre Yedlin

Midfielder: Osvaldo Alonso, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Tim Cahill, Clint Dempsey, Will Johnson, Diego Valeri, Graham Zusi

Forwards: Jermain Defoe (to be replaced by Dom Dwyer), Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane (to be replaced by Maurice Edu), Obafemi Martins, Erick Torres, Bradley Wright-Phillips

Everyone is there. All the players MLS thinks you want to see. Which is all well and good, but the casual fan isn’t going to learn more about the league by being shown the same 20 players over and over.

The team is jam-packed with DPs. And with guys like Jermaine Jones, David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Kaka coming into the league next year, will there be room for anyone else but elder foreign statesman?

Despite twice making MLS' Best XI team, this is Marshall's first All-Star Game.
Despite twice making MLS’ Best XI team, this is Marshall’s first All-Star Game.

In this squad only Erick Torres (who, as the league’s only Mexican of note needs to be signed to an extension and kept in MLS), Will Johnson (who’s selection is based more on last season’s performance) are non-stars. That’s it. Two players. Thankfully due to injury (ie. Wanting to rest), players like Dom Dwyer, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin will be showcased.

You might be able to add Chad Marshall to the list, who despite being named twice to the MLS Best XI list, is an All-Star Game debutant in his first season at one of the league’s signature franchises.

In short: this is not fair. Any All-Star game’s mission should be twofold: to promote the leagues stars, yes, but also to get the best players together to share their skills with one another. Even if it’s only for a couple days, someone like Torres or Dwyer can learn an immense amount from being able to talk to a Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane as equals.

All-MLS LIFER STARTING XI

There are so many great American MLS lifers who should’ve been highlighted throughout their careers. Here are some just off the top of my head. Most have already been All-Stars, but they still got buried beneath the praise heaped on the DPs.

Goalkeeper: Dan Kennedy– Nobody can say Nick Rimando hasn’t been given his due after being an All-Star for the fourth straight year. But poor Dan Kennedy has been toiling away at Chivas USA for years and will soon be their all-time leader in appearances. Yet, he doesn’t really get his due as a good keeper.

Left Back: Todd Dunivant– Since Dunivant’s second stint with the Galaxy began in 2009, the left back has been one of Bruce Arena’s most reliable players. Although he’s been injured this year, this is the kind of MLS lifer that needed to be given his due in the past. Being one of the best players on a team that won back-to-back championships should earn you some recognition.

Center-Back: Nat Borchers– Keeping guys like this away from Scandinavian leagues should be the exact kind of thing the MLS should seek to eliminate. MLS players should only be going to Norway, Sweden, or Denmark if they can’t handle the league. It shouldn’t be seen as a step up. We’ll forgive Borchers for a quick detour through the fjords and recognize he’s been one of the league’s best center-backs both in Denver and Salt Lake City.

Center-Back: Chad Marshall– As I mentioned earlier, left unrecognized in Colombus, Marshall had never before been an All-Star until he finally was recruited to settle down Seattle’s defense. And his effects have been felt immediately.

Right-Back: Jack Jewsbury– The one-time All-Star has already become a Timber through and through. And despite right back not being his best position, he plays there because that’s where he’s needed. Even when a guy like this makes an All-Star team he doesn’t get to play enough.

Left Midfield: Brad Davis– He’s so underrated it’s ridiculous. At 32, Brad Davis has had a great MLS careers and is still one of its most clutch performers. He’s one of the reasons that . In my opinion he’s going to be one of the top five careers of any American MLS players.

Central Midfield: Kyle Beckerman– The dreadlocked USMNT regular is the poster boy as to why we need to highlight more MLS players. It wasn’t until Beckerman was almost 32 and had 7 All-Star games to name that he caught the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann.

Central Midfield: Jeff Larentowicz– The redheaded Ivy-Leaguer put in two good years for the Rapids, one of which he earned an All-Star berth for. But he’s been a solid MLS lifer, the kind you can bring in to settle a midfield.

Right Midfield: Graham Zusi– Sporting’s newest DP might actually be underrated at this point. After an average World Cup which drummed up little to no interest abroad, fans seem to forget he’s an elite playmaker in this league. Despite becoming an All-Star game regular, players like Zusi deserve to start and play 60 minutes not make brief cameos as 23 All-Stars shuffle in and out of the game.

Forward: Mike Magee– Chicago is bad. But Mike Magee isn’t the problem. After years of being one of the “other guys” in LA, Mr. Magee showed us all how good he can really be when he won the MLS MVP last seaosn. Perhaps if the All-Star game had been more inclusive we would’ve noticed him earlier?

Forward: Chris Wondolowski– By now, everyone knows Wondo’s triumphant story of persistence. And these are the exact kinds of guys we need to make room for in the All-Star game: players who are late bloomers but have thrived in MLS.

OTHER FORMAT OPTIONS?

A player of Javier Morales' caliber should never miss an All-Star Game.
A player of Javier Morales’ caliber should never miss an All-Star Game.

There have been alternative All-Star game formats bandied about over the past several years such as MLS versus the USMNT. Beside the fact that it would be difficult logistically, that idea is now stale because the majority of the national team is in MLS (as it should be).

Could MLS develop an even stronger relationship with their rivals to the south by playing against a select team of Liga MX All-Stars? Intriguing idea certainly, but doesn’t cure the problem.

The bottom line is: more MLS players need to be highlighted. With this as the goal, the MLS would have three format options: a traditional Eastern Conference All-Stars v. Western Conference All-Stars matchup, a USA/Canada All-Stars v. World All-Stars (which would work considering around 55% of MLS starters are American), or an NHL style pick-up game format with big stars as “team captains”.

Certainly there’s no difficulty in arranging East versus West. Guys like Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber, Javier Morales, Gonzalo Pineda, Frederico Higuain, would be rightfully given their props. Or perhaps one of New England or Colorado’s youngsters would be shown to the world.

The pick-up game format could be fun by giving MLS another signature event with the selection show and it could allow for a more casual atmosphere where a player’s personality can be highlighted, but in the end, it’s just too gimmicky.

But I’m really intrigued by the idea of a USA v. the World format. The NBA and MLB have flirted with the ideas in the past, but soccer really is the World’s game and the teams would really be equal. Here’s what a World XI for MLS might look like:

Higuain might have the most pure talent in MLS. I want to see him play amongst and against MLS' best.
Higuain might have the most pure talent in MLS. I want to see him play amongst and against MLS’ best.

Goalkeeper: Donovan Rickets

Center-Back: Aurelien Collin

Center-Back: Victor Bernardez

Center-Back: Jamison Olave

Left Midfield: Oscar Boniek Garcia

Defensive Midfield: Osvaldo Alonso

Central Midfield: Frederico Higuain

Central Midfield: Javier Morales

Right Midfield: Diego Valeri

Forward: Thierry Henry

Forward: Jermaine Defoe

You back that starting XI up with guys off the bench like: Robbie Keane, Jose Goncalves, Jaime Pinedo, Darlington Nagbe, Marco Di Vaio, Tim Cahill, Mauro Diaz, Cubo Torres, Steven Beitashour and all of a sudden the USA team is given a tough opponent.

What would that team look like? Just riffing, but how about:

I want to see how good the US talent in MLS really is. And I want to see these two together again.
I want to see how good the US talent in MLS really is. And I want to see these two together again.

Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando

Left Back: Chris Klute

Center Back: Matt Besler

Center Back: Omar Gonzalez

Right Back: DeAndre Yedlin

Left Midfield: Brad Davis

Center Back: Kyle Beckerman

Center Back: Michael Bradley

Right Midfield: Graham Zusi

Forward: Landon Donovan

Forward: Clint Dempsey

Add Chris Wondolowsi, Maurice Edu, Seth Sinovic, Bill Hamid, Benny Feilhaber, Will Johnson, and a few more from the team I previously mentioned and now MLS has everyone playing that you want: the high priced European DPs, the USMNT stars, with some MLS up-and-comers and lifers sprinkled in.

For me, this is what MLS needs to do. Embrace the “World’s Game” aspect of soccer. Give those fans who only watch US Soccer a chance to root for their team, albeit in a roundabout way. I would recommend selecting 17 All-Stars per side, thus creating two game day rosters.

I think the USA/Canada versus the World accomplishes the goal of being unique without being gimmicky. If MLS is serious about the non-DP signings in our league, then its time it backed it up with some actions.

It’s nice to show off Bayern Munich. But it’d be nicer to show off MLS’ product wouldn’t it?

The Great Soccer City That Is New York

The Pacific Northwest has become ground zero for soccer passion.
The Pacific Northwest has become ground zero for soccer passion.

In the United States cities like Seattle, Kansas City, Portland, and perhaps even Columbus have laid claim to being Soccer City, USA. But trust me, there is no city with a soccer passion like New York City.

What? New York City? They can’t get anyone out to Red Bull Arena! Nobody talks about New York as a soccer Mecca! They would never put a World Cup qualifier for the USMNT anywhere near New York City!

That may all be true. But there are defenses for each of those accusations.

Red Bull Arena is in Harrison, NJ, not in New York as Cosmos fans have been chanting for several years from their suburban college football stadium. (Oooh! Burn!)

MetLife, CitiField, and Yankee Stadium routinely pack the house to watch games between European clubs and national teams.

That’s because USMNT fans would be outnumbered at MetLife, and possibly even Red Bull Arena.

The bottom line is, because of New York’s diversity and hipster culture, MLS has yet to catch on in the five boroughs. New York quite simply, in soccer parlance, is populated with soccer snobs; one of the three principal soccer fan groups of the United States.

That’s right. There are three kinds of American soccer fan, each with its own distinct culture. And they most often ignore each other; if not at times downright disliking one another. MLS has done a good job at marketing to the first of the three and turning them into their own brand of fan, but their efforts to recruit the other two pre-existing groups have been lacking. Although NYCFC and Orlando City seem to want and reach out to one of the two demographics MLS has long failed to attract.

But what are these three fan groups? OK, I’ll tell you. So, without further ado, here are the three major soccer fan groups in the United States:

I'd be willing to wager the majority of AO's are MLS fans.
I’d be willing to wager the majority of AO’s are MLS fans.

1)      The MLS/USMNT Fan Boy: These fans played high school soccer and grew up in the suburbs. These are the people who know who Simon Borg is. They refresh Taylor Twellman’s twitter account every few minutes. They believe Portland-Seattle is the best derby in World football. They know MLS.com is a solid site for soccer news. They know what the Supporter’s Shield is. They believe the USA has been the best team in CONCACAF since 2002 and that winning the World Cup is inevitable. They’ve called in to Best Soccer Show or American Soccer Morning. To them DC United is steeped in history. They can explain what a Designated Player is. They wear scarves in the summer and their American Outlaws bandanas to MLS games.

2)      The Soccer Snob: These fans live in cities. These are the people who wake up at 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays to watch Crystal Palace play Norwich City in a bar. They are in love with Rebecca Lowe. They believe the Men in Blazers are funnier than Jon Stewart. They’re obsessed with Borussia Dortmund’s style of play. They’re convinced the level of MLS play is somewhere akin to the Conference. They kind of root against the USMNT because they play such ugly football. They believe the US will never win the World Cup and they root for the national team of their European heritage. They’re willing to pay absorbent sums of money to watch Champions League teams face off in baseball stadiums. And they won’t watch MLS out of principal.

Mexican-American soccer fans are a breed unto their own.
Mexican-American soccer fans are a breed unto their own.

3)      El Fanatico Mexicano: These fans know Univision has better soccer coverage than Telemundo. They’d rather watch El Tri in Spanish even if they don’t speak it than have to listen to Fernando Palomo and Alejandro Moreno. They believe El Tri are the United States’ most popular national team. They know their league is messed up, but still not as messed up as MLS. They have the same LigaMX team as their cousins or parents. They laugh when Americans whine about anti-American bias in Europe. They follow Tom Marshall on twitter. And while Carlos Vela is public enemy No. 1 they are all secretly proud of his accomplishments.

MLS obviously, off the back of the part-time USMNT fan has built a solid following. There’s no doubt the atmosphere at Galaxy, Sounders, Timbers, and Sporting games have become first rate.

But despite this loyal fan base, there are literally millions of soccer fans in this country who have little to no interest in MLS, many of whom reside in the New York Metropolitan area. The television numbers too back this up. While in-game attendance for MLS matches is good, if not great, the TV ratings remain dismal. While last year’s MLS Cup game between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake drew meager ratings, around half a million people, NBC averaged about the same number per game in their much ballyhooed coverage of the Premier League. As for Liga MX, their final drew almost five million viewers north of the border.

Personally, I started out as a hybrid of fan types 2 and 3. I’ve always had a love for El Tri instilled in me by my mother and as a kid who grew up a New York Yankee fan, I’ve always been obsessed with the dozen or so teams over in Europe with Yankee-like cache. But over the past three seasons I have come to respect and support MLS, despite the fact I don’t have a team. I do this because it’s our league and the success of that league directly affects the US Men’s National Team, a team I support.

While MLS’ current trend of returning USMNT players home may attract the more casual soccer fan that uses the national team as their springboard for the sport, the league’s track record of attracting the other two types of fans has been mixed to say the least.

Many MLS fans consider Rafa Marquez the worst DP signing of all time.
Many MLS fans consider Rafa Marquez the worst DP signing of all time.

In regards to attracting the Mexican soccer fans, the results have been downright disastrous. Chicago has tried a couple experiments attracting Mexico fans with varying degrees of success. Kansas City too with Omar Bravo has given it a shot. And of course, the New York Red Bulls went big when they brought in El Tri captain Rafa Marquez from FC Barcelona. That was a disaster on several fronts. Fans of the USMNT already wanted to hate him before he stepped onto the field and Mexico fans didn’t even know he was there.

I can still remember going to MetLife Stadium for a Gold Cup game in 2011 and on the train ride back I began talking to some El Tri fans who complemented me on my Rafa Marquez Barcelona jersey. When I mentioned he played for the Red Bulls, none of them even knew he was on the team. Great marketing from the Red Bulls huh?

And of course, there’s the disaster that was Chivas USA. Once upon a time MLS needed an influx of new blood. They thought bringing in the brand name that is Chivas de Guadalajara would be a good option for Los Angeles’ second franchise. Problem is: Guadalajara, for as beloved as the team is by its followers, those who have other teams truly loathe the Goats for their history of success. And in the past several years it had become clear that the ownership in Guadalajara had no interest in putting effort into his MLS property as the product in Guadalajara struggled. Thankfully, those days are behind us as Chivas USA is earmarked to be rebranded with new ownership next season.

But the question remains, how will MLS bring the millions of Hispanic and Mexican soccer fans already in the United States into the fold? Or better yet, does MLS want to recruit that fan? I certainly hope so. That would be like the Premier League refusing to bring in German players because they are England’s rivals. Although comments like Sounder’s owner Joe Roth’s about Chicharito do show they do understand the effect a true Mexican superstar would have on the league. But don’t hold your breath for something like that to happen anytime soon.

NYCFC refuses to go unnoticed.
NYCFC refuses to go unnoticed.

On the Euro Snob front, clearly bringing David Beckham to LA was the first major move to bring in the fan that had previously ignored MLS. And certainly that made a splash that is still rippling to this day. Subsequently New York answered back by recruiting Arsenal legend Thierry Henry (along with the aforementioned Rafa Marquez) who has likewise been a huge success with the Red Bulls fan base. But other than the obsession with old Italian players in Montreal, there hasn’t been too much courting of the European fan either. Although in fairness, the cost of those kinds of players is prohibitive and the players are almost certain to be on the wrong side of 30 when they arrive.

Although, it looks like things are be about to change. MLS’ newest clubs NYCFC and Orlando City seem keen to bring in high profile Designated Players with long European resumes. With David Villa and Frank Lampard already in the fold for NYCFC there is plenty of buzz among New York soccer snobs as their interest has been fully piqued.

Even despite the failure to lock up Xavi as well (which would have been an incredible threesome with which to start the franchise), NYCFC has nailed their first two DP signings and are still likely to snag a headline name for their third slot. Add in Orlando City’s glamour signing of Serie A legend Kaka and all of a sudden MLS is a place for those in love with European soccer.

THE FUTURE OF NEW YORK PROFESSIONAL SOCCER

All of a sudden NYCFC, with a Manchester City pedigree, and a beloved (if not awkward) home field in Yankee Stadium has created a proper stir. A stir, which RBNY fans have long claimed they haven’t had, despite high profile DP’s such as Henry, Tim Cahill, and Marquez.

Which begs the question? With Henry and Cahill almost certain to leave the New York Red Bulls by the end of the season, what will become of the team amongst the new NYCFC fervor? Even now, despite the Red Bulls beautiful Arena outside Newark, the team can rarely fill every seat. Even for the Red Bulls historic Supporter’s Shield clinching game last season, the stadium didn’t look packed.

If the NY Red Bulls want to keep up and make a splash, they'll go get Jozy.
If the NY Red Bulls want to keep up and make a splash, they’ll go get Jozy.

So can the Red Bulls, who have often tried to attract New York’s European soccer fans with their designated player signings out-do the flash and sizzle of their new rival? Not likely. So what is this team to do? While Red Bulls’ have deep pockets, their Austrian owners seem to operate in abstentia for the most part.

But, if I’m the Red Bulls I would go the other way entirely. Rather than try and outdo their new sky blue rivals, they should build on all the MLS history and culture which they’ve built by bringing in three USMNT players. They should be doing everything they can to pry Jozy Altidore away from his Sunderland prison. Then they should go and get Mix Diskerud from Norway and a third player, perhaps a Sasha Kljestan or Alejandro Bedoya type.

Red Bulls fans seem to be confident there won’t be any loyalty defections next season, but there is guaranteed to be if the Red Bulls refuse to respond to NYCFC’s shiny new signings. I don’t have an MLS team, but I do frequent Red Bull Arena because it’s the only place I can go to watch professional soccer. And I will say I’m slightly concerned as to what they will do. Just because people, like me, came to Harrison to watch professional soccer, does not mean they are Red Bulls fans.

Whatever the strategy RBNY brass employs, I hope they realize the pressure they’re under, because next year is the year New York City is revealed not just a great soccer town, but an MLS town.

An Olympic Effort

Watching the Montreal v. New York game after having watched the historic UEFA Champions League Final only a few hours earlier did take a bit of the shine off watching a regular season MLS game. It’s a stark reminder just how much quality still needs to be attained by MLS players. But the bottom line is: I’m a huge Red Bulls fan and I wasn’t about to ignore the fact that the Red Bulls had a chance to win their fifth straight game to stay atop the Eastern Conference standings.

All soccer fans will remember the 2012 Champions League Final, but none of us more so than Bastian Schweinsteiger.

And as for that epic final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich, there isn’t much to say other than Munich choked. To score with only eight minutes remaining and then to go about acting as if the game was over was inexcusable. When Jupp Heynckes pulled Thomas Muller  it was obvious that he was allowing Muller to get an encore hand from the crowd rather than doing what was best for the team. And as heroic as Didier Drogba‘s goal was with 2 minutes remaining, Arjen Robben‘s failure to convert on an extra time penalty kick was equally pathetic.

And poor Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bavarian midfielder who seemed inconsolable after hitting the post on Bayern’s final penalty kick opportunity. He’s always been one of my favorite players and I hope that he is able to redeem himself with Germany in Euro 2012. Certainly he will be a vital part of that squad. For me, Deutschland is still the favorite, even more so than España.

So, without further ado, let’s break down the Red Bulls big 2-1 road win in Montreal:

Victor Palsson didn’t make the most of his start when he got sent off in the 58th minute.

This Larry Bird guy is pretty good. While the real Larry Bird is busy watching his Pacers give the Miami Heat hell, his doppleganger Ryan Meara is quickly becoming an elite MLS goaltender. He once again performed great under pressure. While he remains great at coming off his line and being aggressive, it was his ability to make old fashioned saves which most impressed me Saturday. Of his five saves, he made two at full extension which really seemed to prevent goal scoring opportunity’s for Montreal. It’s easy to get excited when things are going well for a team, but Ryan Meara is playing like an established veteran. I find myself each week being unable to find anything wrong with his play. In fact, his goalkeeping may be as an important a factor in the Red Bulls first place position as any other. I never would have thought that a rookie would have been the Red Bulls answer in goal, but Meara keeps doing a superb job.

Depth, we have depth? Iceland winger Victor Palsson has been struggling to get playing time. After getting a rare start Saturday, he let the team down with big mental error early in the first half. With the score tied 1-1, Palsson’s dumb shove cost him a second yellow card and gave the Impact a big opportunity to take three points. But the Red Bulls once again showed that they’re more than a bunch of talented international players, that they also have depth. With guys like Brandon Barklage and rookie Connor Lade filling in  for key players, the Red Bulls not only survived the man advantage by Montreal, but scored a go-ahead goal.

Oh that MLS officiating: Unfortunately, the first half of the game was defined mostly by first time referee Ismail Elfath. His awarding of two questionable penalties put a damper on the game and didn’t really allow the game to find its own way. But then again, the MLS officiating has always been subpar. Let’s chalk this one up as Elfath being overzealous and hope he does better next time because we’re going to need better officiating if this league is to grow. From a Red Bulls standpoint however, the bad calls are bound to come and it’s nice to see that they can thrive despite them.

 

Joel Lindpere, after struggling early, has looked great in central midfield recently.

The Golden Boot? There is no doubt that Chris Wondolowski is having yet another fantastic season. But so is Kenny Cooper. While MLS fans have known for years how good Wondolowski is, American fans are starting to realize that Kenny Cooper is too. MSG announcer Shep Messing, has actually declared on broadcast that Cooper and Wondolowski are the USA’s best two strikers and that Jurgen Klinnsman should take notice. I’m not sure about that, but they certainly remain intriguing choices with National Team favorite Edson Buddle playing so poorly. In the meantime watching Cooper thrive, even without Thierry Henry present has been a lot of fun. The big target man has shown that he is not a product of playing alongside the all-time great Frenchman. Still only 27, he does seem bound to earn USMNT attention. But for now, I’ll settle for the intrigue of Cooper trying to win the Golden Boot.