Sunday, February 5, 2017

Consecutive Wins

Every once in a while you'll see consecutive win streak for superclubs across the world. Because of social media, it may seem like a more common occurrence than it is, but it does seem to happen much more in open leagues.

In MLS, consecutive wins = pure evil. Why? The theory is that team parity is a key driver in interest in the league. Simply put. If your team sucks, nobody shows. For the most part, this is true. Especially in a closed league. You HAVE to have some hope year to year because there is no chance at glory in the league you drop down to.

There is also a business reason. Well, not also. Business IS the reason. Here, you can't have chronically underperforming teams when you are sharing revenue. A poor performing team in key revenue/interest generating areas (example: Chivas USA) becomes an anchor to the other investors.

The Chicago Fire are in this situation right now. They are not an asset to MLS. They should be, however, so the league is placing the annual MLS industry meet and greet they like to call the all-star game at Soldier Field.

All this said; Outside of the fact that MLS controls player contracts, it has dozens of rules in place to ensure teams do not get too good or too bad.

Here are all the teams since 2000* that have managed 6 or more wins in a row >

Consecutive Wins, Team
7 : Sporting KC (2012)
6 : New England Revs (2015)
6 : DC United (2007)
6 : DC United (2006)
6 : Miami Fusion (2001)
6 : San Jose Earthquakes (2005)
6 : New England Revs (2005)

*There were no draws before 2000.

What's interesting here is that we don't even have to look up as to why these teams somehow managed a nice run of form. Starting from the top - KC... new ownership, completely new rebrand and new stadium. It was a huge win on and off the field for them. The momentum has been sucked away, though. 2015 Revs signed Jermaine Jones. That's basically it. In 2005 they had Clint Dempsey. That Miami team is basically a who's who of MLS now. Current RSL coach Jeff Cassar, Kyle Beckerman, Brian Dunseth, Preki, Nick Rimando, Pablo Mastroeni. The DC team also had Rimando one year and Perkins the next, but were lead by Ben Olsen (current coach), Bobby Boswell, Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez. The 2007 added Greg Vanney (who now coaches in Toronto).

Columbus hasn't managed to win more than two in a row since the end of 2014.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Montreal Impact are from San Jose, California

The scoreline through two preseason friendlies for Crew SC against Brazilian competition isn't pretty - 10-0, if the handful of reports online are true.

You will not find that on the Crew social or site news feeds. Some might say that it isn't meaningful enough to comment on. But, is it not? And what of the larger picture of general talent levels this rare event of an MLS team traveling outside their comfort zone gives us?

What is happening in Brazil can't help but overshadow training when your team isn't able to manage a single goal after conceding ten in just two sessions/games. Is part of the mission to get some important team building time in and learn a new system? Absolutely. But, players are competitors. None of them play at a pro level without having won a lot at some point in their life.

Because of the complexity of purpose in the preseason, this doesn't mean that what is happening down is Brazil to the Crew is necessarily bad. After all, failure is an important part of learning. It is entirely possible that when the team returns back to the MLS bubble to play in South Carolina they will be two steps ahead. Maybe even closer as a group for having made the journey. But, you see? This is the very part of what matters about preseason. Why it is important to think about how this impacts the group going into 2017.

The second part of this unusual expedition by Columbus to a foreign land is that it gives us a rare opportunity to see MLS players outside of their comfort zone. You can even lump the overall USMNT program into this. All of them are accustom to playing in friendly and familiar environments.

Much of this is extremely planned out, not for the sake of getting better but for the sake of building a positive narrative. Positive momentum. Look at your EA FIFA game or even Sega's Football Manager. The player ratings and value of MLS and USMNT players is so far inflated when you put it up against reality... it's ridiculous. Look at where players are. US born and trained players rarely transfer for over $500k and there are practically zero performing at all, let alone well, in the top five leagues in the world.

The US Soccer Federation has done such a remarkable job at creating a "product" by carefully curating when and where things happen that it has many believing a fantasy.

Did you watch the "January Camp" USMNT games this past week? Another example of "preseason" and the excuses we get along with it. Excuses flowed for below standard players and lack of energy despite having a new coach while playing in extremely friendly confines of carefully selected cities that MLS wants to squeeze over 100 million dollars from.

All of this is okay if you look at it for what it is, but that doesn't happen as often as it should. The narrative of "it's just warming up" took hold for the USMNT this past week because the play was not good. Imagine if results against a Serbian "C" team (jumping 4 time zones) and a Jamaican team, who look like they were just scrambled together, went well? Now imagine if this USMNT made up of MLS players traveled to Serbia to play or even a neutral site.

The reality of the situation is that if the US played more of a balanced international home and away schedule the marketability of the product would suffer (take a look at the US record away the last few years, or even games in Texas or southern California). We are starting to see this with the women's national team as well, although the forces at work there are different in regards to the global game.

Going back to the rare event that is the Columbus Crew making the trek down to Brazil.

Well... back up. I'll get to the Crew in a minute.

Let's go back a few years to 2014 when Fluminense FC traveled up to Orlando to play in what then was called the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic. A fun tournament and a great way to see a lot of teams all in one place in a short period of time.

U23 Fluminense FC, March 2014
The way the tournament was constructed you could watch four teams in various stages of preparation and play at any given moment. In front of you might have been a match between, say the Philadelphia Union and NY Red Bulls and behind you, in clear view, was Columbus Crew SC warming up and Toronto FC players cooling down.

That year Fluminense FC fielded a U23 team in the tournament that in reality was mostly a group made up of teenagers.

What was immediately and strikingly different was the way Fluminense handled each of these stages. Their pregame warm-ups were different. It was intense but controlled. Organized. Most of it away from the goal and in small groups, all close to a ball. Coaches close by. Across the field was Toronto FC, their next opponent. It was random. Players 50 yards apart launching passes. There was also, what appeared to be, a shooting drill from outside the box that looked not unlike one you might see before a high school basketball game. There were also players clustered around the sideline talking with coaches or players from other teams in the stands. It was very casual.

Fluminense controlled the match from the whistle. Even after scoring early they didn't change their approach to the match. When Toronto's newly signed Michael Bradley scored from a free kick 25 yards out, Fluminense just continued about things, weaving in and out of TFC defenders, and jumped back ahead not long after.

Behind the stands was a collection of Crew players arriving to get warmed up. They were doing what looked to be shuttle runs in between chatting and stretching. Players arrived intermittently but were more focused than the other MLS teams there. It was Gregg Berhalter's first preseason and no doubt that had something to do with it.

In the stands with the fans was a collection of Philadelphia Union players sitting behind Fluminense bench watching. Attention and conversation was centered around a player named Fabinho, who is from Brazil and has played for no less than ten teams as a pro and as far away as Australia before being signed by MLS. The English speaking US players were poking fun at him for thinking that the Montreal Impact were from San Jose, California. Fabinho, who is still with the Union, was sitting sort of separate from the group and seemed more interested in what Fluminense were doing.

[U23 Fluminense in white, Toronto FC in Red. March 2014]

As the game progressed there as a change to the attention of the Philly players. They were all watching more intently. Toronto was being outplayed and it wasn't even close. Anyone who watches soccer knows the familiar possession statistic can often be misleading, which it is, but it wouldn't have been here. And, if there was something that measured control of the ball it would have been 90% Fluminense. Toronto couldn't figure out how to get the ball for most of the match.


Columbus is in the final act of a three-part play down in Brazil right now. In the first act Crew SC prepares, travels, brushes the cobwebs out and loses to São Paulo 7-0 in two games consisting of four 25 minute periods. The second act had the team playing a closed door match against Gremio Osasco last night where they were beaten 3-0. The final act is a preseason match against Ituano on Monday. It might not be a great play so far, but it may turn out to be an important one.

[Columbus Crew SC in gray. Sao Paulo in red/black. February 2017]

Win or lose, these games are valuable for Columbus if the leadership handles the experience correctly and no question it is and trip of a lifetime for many of the players. The hope is that everyone in the organization is sitting up, paying attention. Taking notes. Taking it in.

Will all this matter when the games finally matter? That's a tricky one. When do MLS games matter? Summer? Fall? Looking at it this way you can make an argument that these games are even more important than half of the domestic season and for most of the players who don't see time, this is the moment of their year.

It matters.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

MLS Ohioans

Fig. 1
Rounding out the 2016 MLS season with a dive into minutes and where players are from. A couple of items stick out. 1. US born players now play less than half the minutes, and 2. There is a strong group of Ohioans in the league right now.

In regards to the first point, MLS is starting to look more like the English Premier League. There's nothing right or wrong with who is playing as it should always be the best available player. But there are forces at work here that might be something to keep and eye on. 

The EPL has the entire globe of which to draw the best players. Players are signed based almost entirely off playing ability. Teams cannot afford to lose. Keep in mind that it is a matter of degree, as well. Teams like Arsenal and Manchester United have to remain in the top four. Anything less is a failure. Others, like Sunderland or Burnley, are trying to not get relegated.

Things are different in MLS. Teams bounce around the table all year, every year. The way rosters are constructed are influenced by a number of factors outside of where they will finish. Jersey and ticket sales are at the top of the importance list. Making a splash in the news (social, mostly) is also critical. 

Nestled in there somewhere is how competitive a team is. There is a bit of a myth out there that says MLS teams don't suffer consequences if they are bad. For the most part, that is true. No matter how bad they are, they stay in MLS. That said, bad teams do suffer in attendance (the real kind, not the "announced" kind). Bad teams like Chicago or what was Chivas USA or Colorado before the end of last season draw half full stadiums.

Ohioans, 2016 MLS regular season
With the way MLS is constructed this not only hurts the teams but the overall league. The pitifulness of Chivas USA drew the attention of the league office and eventually a sale was attempted. When no buyers emerged, the team was folded. It was a drag on the rest of the teams. The Chicago Fire are currently living the same state of affairs. Have you seen the news that the MLS Allstar game is going to be in Chicago, but not at the MLS stadium in Bridgeview that is the home of the Fire? In recent years, the annual all-star game is usually reserved for new stadiums. This year's game being played at Soldier Field has everything to do with trying to resurrect the MLS franchise there.

Now, to the second point. In the midst of all the wackiness that is how MLS rosters are constructed, the state of Ohio continues to produce a strong stable of good players. This past year was no different. 

One piece of information that is a testament to many of the qualities I've witnessed first hand in my ten years here is how teams with Ohioans perform strongly in the MLS Cup Playoffs. In Fig. 1 up there (extra time playoff games trimmed to 90 mins) you'll notice that the percentage of minutes played increases measurably in the playoffs.

It's a one year look in, but it's enough to pull out a thing or two. It's an impressive list of players. There are two players, in particular, to make mention of. Evan Bush and Nick Hagglund. Hagglund wasn't a lock in Toronto's XI during the regular season but did play five playoff games, notching a goal and two assists in a defensive role.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

MLS Mins by Age

Finally getting back to checking in on MLS player minutes and age after touching on the lack of minutes played by young players in MLS a few months ago.

MLS teams finished the year not giving many minutes to young players. Spending a few weekends watching widely available on TV leagues in England, Spain and Italy will tell you, in general, that they are playing younger players more. Beyond that, a quick look up at or Squawka will tell you how MLS compares to many of the other top leagues out there. Going in on MLS regular season data it should be expected. With that, I'm not (nor do I have the time) going to data mine those figures. Safe to go with observation on this one.

Dropping the info into a spreadsheet it wasn't surprising to find that young male players in MLS aren't playing much. By young, we mean under 20 years old or so. That said; there was something else. Something... unexpected.

Click around. A gap has formed in MLS. Players in their prime aren't getting minutes. Mid to late twenties. Not sure why this is happening, but it shouldn't be what MLS wants. You want those guys. As it stands right now, you have a group of older (established-ish) players going up against college kids. It's like playing your EA FIFA game on a difficulty level a notch or two below what challenges you.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Cable Snapped, or Innocence Lost
By: Vidda “JibJab” Grubin
September 7, 2014 (Amended January 16, 2017)

{The below is an update of a piece I wrote over two years ago. Given the trajectory of Major League Soccer, I thought a redo was in order.}

The cable snapped…twang…quietly. The auditory nature of the “twang” made sense, the cable was made out of Twizzlers. The kids picked up the scatted pieces of red deliciousness quicker than a soccer mom, or dad, can peel an orange.

The game was over and Tommy and Timmy had somehow found a way to tie Twizzlers around their two dirt and grass-stained soccer balls. After circling the individual balls in sugary goodness, the two friends got the idea to tie the balls together with the remaining stretchy lengths of candy.

Gabbi, the goalkeeper for the under seven Squarepants Middleburg Youth Soccer Association team, had shouted “See how far you can stretch the balls apart.” Her declaration of childhood ingenuity was met by a raucous cheer from the rest of the Squarepants team.

Tommy and Timmy began pulling, slowly, the two balls apart. Time seemed to stand still as the small group of six and seven-year-olds (scraped knees, runny noses and bed hair) leaned closer. One or two attentive parents joined the time altering fun.

Six inches apart, seven, eight and then…twang…quietly. The picking-up and eating of the Twizzlers was accompanied by shouts of “Don’t eat that!” and “Gross!” Not a single child present remembered the game which had ended only five minutes earlier.

One particular dad remembered. He was busy waving his hands wildly at the 13-year-old referee. Words were coming out of the crimson faced father’s mouth. Something about offside and something about the Squarepants’ opponents, The Fiddlesticks, deserving to win. The 13-year-old ref stared, slack jawed, at the wild-eyed father. And then, the 13-year-old walked away, while mumbling “Wow” under his breath.

Like that Fiddlesticks father, North American soccer has finally made it to the edge of reason. North American soccer’s version is the billion-dollar, sports as big time business precipice. Major League Soccer has pushed the beautiful game up the rocky slope. There have been casualties along the way. The Tampa Bay Mutiny come to mind. There have been near disasters. Paul Caligiuri almost having to play more than a single season in Columbus, Ohio may have destroyed what little credibility MLS clung to in its infancy.

Don Garber, Major League Soccer’s billionaire owners and wanna-be owners want to push our sport over the edge and into the rainbow, unicorn and pot of gold filled valley below. The LeBron James, Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter filled valley.

For many soccer fans, myself included, the trip up the mountain has been fun, a kind of affirmation of the bullied child’s life and dreams. For many soccer fans, like myself (somewhere between 45 and 60 years old), the thought of riding the unicorns and digging in the pots of gold is both quiver-inducing and nauseating.

We want to see the world’s greatest players on our Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, New York Red Bull, Seattle Sounders and L.A. Galaxy. We want to watch youngsters born and raised in the United States command Messi-like respect. But we grew up with a chip on our shoulder. We carry that chip proudly. That chip helps define our soccer minds. That chip is as big as a boulder taken from the mountainside as we climbed higher and higher. That chip is made of taunts like “Soccer is for sissies. Why don’t you move to France if you want to play that commie sport? Soccer will never be big in the United States.”

Despite the rocky past, we cherish Saturdays at the park with our children. We look forward to a Thursday evening beverage remembering the ferociousness of a shot, the creativeness of a pass shared with the handful of lucky travelers who played the game alongside us in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Our sport was our special secret, only the chosen few knew what made it shine.

Now, North American soccer is about to leap into a world of cocky, self-assured prominence. There is no room for hard-won boulders. What are we supposed to do with all those boulders? So many un-answered questions.

Will there still be room for size four soccer balls wrapped in Twizzlers? Or, perhaps more importantly, for the adult equivalent of size four soccer balls wrapped in Twizzlers, hidden coolers of beer dragged triumphantly from beneath team benches, flung open, contents emptied in a glorious celebration of the local team, it’s fans and caretakers winning the right to play at the next level?

You know, those boulders might just come in handy. Strap them on. Wear them proudly; because, there is one universal truth about our sport. The more human beings who feel a direct connection to the ball, the field of play, the teams, the players, coaches and fans, the greater the magical players become, the more vivid the magical moments shine.

We and all those who came before us, and our children after, those who slogged through mud puddles, spent hours juggling into the night, used trashcans for goals and cracked shins created the opportunity for the handful of businessmen who started Major League Soccer. It is our boulder to carry, and that boulder is shared with hundreds of millions around this beautiful planet.

Those who think they “own” the sport of soccer in this hemisphere must earn their place among us. There is nothing stopping them, the United States Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer, from regionalizing soccer (the blueprint is already in place at the youth level) in this country from the very bottom to the very top. There is nothing stopping the USSF and Major League Soccer from implementing a standardized set of criteria/rules for promotion and relegation within each region. There is nothing stopping the USSF and Major League Soccer from beginning promotion and relegation in the lower divisions and promotion only into the top tier, MLS, when teams in the second tier win their way in and meet the set criteria for top level play.

Would Major League Soccer want twenty years before a single team is relegated from the top tier? So be it. Give them twenty years. Do they want 7 or 8 teams per region, per level and five or six regions? So be it. This is a large country and close proximity of regular competition brings us all greater joy. Would Major League Soccer still want a championship among the winners of each region? So be it.

In a weird way, it is our burden, those wearisome boulders, which may reconnect the frayed and snapped cables of North American soccer. It is all of us who bear their weight who must bring, kicking and screaming if need be, USSF and MLS back into the beautiful game’s wide open soul.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

2013 MLS Superdraftees

MLS held its annual "super draft" yesterday. Well, most of it. It's still going, in a way, as there are more rounds next week.

Columbus picked a couple players in the first round (5th pick: Lalas Abubakar and 9th pick: Niko Hansen). It's a little unusual for any MLS team to pick twice in the first round, but Gregg Berhalter and co. pulled it off via... whatever wonky MLS thing has to happen for that to work out.

This had me wondering out first round picks have worked out. The best way to work that out is to look at a draft class from a few years ago. 2013, to be more specific. How are those guys doing? Are they still contributing to their respective teams?

Turns out they are. Well, at least more than I thought they were. I remember looking at this a few years ago and coming to the conclusion that picking 1-10 is basically the only thing that nets you a good college player. Turns out, 2013 pretty much worked that way.

The success rate in the top 20 tells us a couple things. 1. College produces around 3-5 regular starters over a four-year span and 2. Much of it depends on the situation the player goes to. If you hit on both those then you have yourself a cheap, durable pro player who had no other options but to sign with the team that drafted him!

Here are the players in the graphic above:

1. Andrew Farrell
2. Carlos Alvarez
3. Kyle Bekker
4. Kekuta Manneh
5. Erik Hurtado
6. Deshorn Brown
7. Walker Zimmerman
8. Blake Smith
9. Ryan Finley
10. Eriq Zavaleta
11. Dillon Powers
12. John Stertzer
13. Jason Johnson
14. Mikey Lopez
15. Tommy Muller
16. Emery Welshman
17. Taylor Kemp
18. Fernando Monge
19. Charlie Rugg

Last note; None of these players, outside of Deshorn Brown, have progressed beyond MLS. Ryan Finley and Charlie Rugg are still bouncing around the nordic region, but have yet to take root.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

[podcast] Special, part 3/3

Wrapping it up, almost. The search for part one continues! Split show from a recording Justin Bell and I did back in mid December. Great time. We'll do it more often. Thanks for listening.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

2017 Crew taking shape

2017 is here and the Columbus MLS team is starting to shape up. First question has to be the same as the one publicly made by operator/investor Anthony Precourt as the 2016 season came to an early close; "Let Gregg do his thing. Expect FINAL roster by end of January."

We are 24 short days away from hitting that deadline, so let us take a look at the look of things. High-level, as always.

My observations:

1. Early action to improve was taken by the team after the season ended. Which is great! It's what Precourt wanted and what Gregg Berhalter said he would do. 
2. Berhalter is putting together a group of starters that is long in pro experience outside MLS. Raitala, Mensah are joining Afful, Kamara, Martinez and Naess as guys who have 61 years combined experience in not receiving SUM paychecks. 
3. 23 rostered players means the remaining slots will likely be draft picks and/or projects. There could be one more starter in the works but big 5 windows are open now. Makes business hard for teams on a budget. particularly one carrying dead weight (Sauro).

In keeping with my last post before the holiday break - here is a couple visuals that help us get a better understanding of the current roster. Frist up is one sorted by the number of years each player has been pro. This is essentially "real age." That big gray area is what point 2. is referencing.

This next one is similar, but is organized by age (at top).

It's impressive the way Columbus has gone out to find players with lots of playing experience at relatively high levels. Real players in the 25-29 age range. So far, so good from my point of view. A good offseason will put this team firmly in a playoff position come summer.

All I've got for now. Hope everyone had a nice holiday season.