Monday, February 12, 2018

"This Girl" Kathy Carter

Flashback to half a year ago and 90% of soccer fans in this country had no idea who Kathy Carter was. All that changed, however, after she announced her candidacy in the latter half of 2017 for US Soccer President and subsequent "This Girl" piece by Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl.

From that piece:

“I never saw the girl in my life [before this week]...I’m sure a lot of people are going to support us to put this girl there,” Rapaglia concluded. “If I was in the position of Sunil, I’d want a friend of mine to take my place. I’d want a guy who could do the job... She played soccer. She’s not just a housewife.”

That's 76-year-old Sal Rapaglia, a long time friend of Don Garber, Chuck Blazer and Sunil Gulati and decades-long president of the New Jersey and Eastern New York Soccer Association. The defacto birthplace of all we know about the modern soccer landscape in this country.

Now, I don't know Carter. Nor will I ever know her. But I did grow up very close in time and place to where she did.

That place would be Northern Virginia. A land that seems to separate itself from the rest of the country as far as importance, at times. For those that don't know, it's where families earn there way in government or closely affiliated via agencies like the CIA, FBI, FEMA, or your run of the mill federal government employee, senator, congressman or contractor. Not to mention the home base of the most concentrated wealth on the planet (well, one of the most).

All this is to say - it's a mostly affluent area. But I also want to say that, at least in the time she grew up in, it was a more rural, hard working and family based area (...go there now and you will find the likes of Beau Dure and Jason Davis, for example).


I know this because I grew up there. Anyone that's been to my little place here in Columbus knows that I have a picture of my father shaking hands with Ronald Reagan in the oval (he worked with all presidents - LBJ through Clinton - for vocational education programs as an alternative to college for high school age kids).

With all this - comes expectation. It's interesting because I thought of this more recently because of the LDNR Nike ad campaign where about a minute in you get a row/crew member talking about "failure" among others who we know have it much harder (I'll leave the dynamics of having a financial safety net vs. having nothing to Nike to explain). But that point I'm getting at remains, just on different levels.

Carter was expected to do well in her career and she did. All the way to the highest levels of Soccer United Marketing. The organization that controls the media rights to just about all soccer-related things in North America. That's great.

But where is she now? After being propped up by Don Garber, and the rest of the investors in MLS, she lost the election. Not only lost but saw those same people that put her in the race abandon her in the third round of voting in order to put the nail in the coffin on the "change" candidates. And, frankly, that sucks.

In the end, Kathy Carter will be fine. My understanding is that she will move back to her high ranking position with SUM and go on her merry way. But that doesn't mean that she won't feel a bit of a severe sting that those who backed her bid for President jumped ship when shit hit the fan.

Was she ever a real candidate? Was Don Garber wanting to vertically integrate everything SUM and MLS into the upper levels of the USSF?  Or was she just a small pawn. Simply used to make sure that power remained with those squatting on the soccer landscape since the 1994 World Cup.

While there are many things that will stick with me after this most recent and most contested US Soccer presidential election, it's her place in it that will remain the most interesting. Also, possibly, the most sad.

I don't think she knew anything outside of what she was trying to accomplish in this election. Whether it was due to the right place, right time or working her way to the top of soccer in this country. The fact remains, the people she likely calls friends more than co-workers dropped her.

While I don't think that SUM has the best interests of the sport of soccer for all people in this country at heart - I do know that her returning to her office in the coming weeks will be a tough one - and nobody will be shedding a tear for her. Especially those disenfranchised with the whole setup of American soccer.

Most of the other candidates that put everything into the election have communicated a lot with soccer fans one way or another since the elections. Eric Wynalda seems exhausted by the whole experience, while Kyle Martino and Hope Solo seem to want to continue the fight (be it for professional gain or personal vendetta).

Carter? She simply left an incredibly powerful quote on twitter from Nelson Mandela.

"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

Take from that what you will.

My hope is that she was able to see a whole new soccer world here in the United States. One that is inclusive and removes financial barriers to success and not one that is simply a business operating on profit for the relatively exclusive few that can afford it.

All the best to Kathy Carter.

Not sure how good the Fairfax Flyers were but I'm pretty sure the Round Hill Hobbits would have given you a good fight.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Crew add Ricardo Clark

MLS veteran Ricardo Clark signed with Columbus recently via free agency. Clark is about as steady as they come in regards to playing in an MLS midfield. He is a well rounded, consistent performer and who remains injury free (dare I say, one of the most consistent players I've ever seen in MLS).

Ricardo played most of last year in a non-attacking central mid role, tucked somewhere between a central defender and attacking mid. Gregg Berhalter's system might see him playing alongside Wil Trapp, as an insurance policy behind Federico Higuain (who likes to take some time off each season, especially with the World Cup this year) or out wide behind Mike Grella.

As far as salary, being a longtime MLS player has seen his wages jump up to $370k or so. I suspect that through free agency he was signed for considerably less (possibly in the 250-300 range).

Looking at wages overall? Crew looks about in line with last year (possibly a little less, with the departure of Meram).

Crew have three more slots to fill if they so choose.

TEAM TEMPERATURE

- Columbus is a playoff team, as far as talent and coaching, but don't expect amazing runs of form.

- Things in Austin are being extended so the drama around the team will continue well into the season. How that affects the group? Who knows.

- So much depends on Gyasi Zardes goals and how invested Higuain is. This season will be long and meandering with the World Cup, this team will be looking for a breakout performer.

------------------------------

Goalkeepers (3): Jon Kempin, Logan Ketterer, Zack Steffen

Defenders (8): Lalas Abubakar, Harrison Afful, Alex Crognale, Connor Maloney, Jonathan Mensah, Gaston Sauro, Milton Valenzuela, Josh Williams

Midfielders (11): Mohammed Abu, Artur, Ricardo Clark, Niko Hansen, Federico Higuain, Mike Grella, Hector Jimenez, Cristian Martinez, Pedro Santos, Eduardo Sosa, Wil Trapp

Forwards (3): Adam Jahn, Edward Opoku, Gyasi Zardes

Friday, February 2, 2018

Larin broke free, Finlay didn't

Player careers are short. As observers of the league, we tend to look at longevity as a whole and not drill down to an individual player. It's natural. Remeber Ethan Finlay and his two magical years with Columbus? For fans, everything is okay for because Pedro Santos came in and replaced him.

Finlay had a break out year in 2014 when he was basically on a league minimum contract ($66k). 11 Goals and 7 Assists in less than 2000 minutes put him near the top of any mid-fielders in the league making 5x that amount. MLS rewarded him with a raise for the next season by bumping him up to $142k, which was still far below other players producing what he was.

2015 saw Finlay top his previous season in terms of production with one of the best in team history. 12 goals, 13 assists and helped take Columbus to a home game in MLS Cup final. His reward, another raise. This time to $250k. STILL well under what others with similar output made. During this time we saw Finlay get National Team call-ups.

It's here that trouble came.

2016 was the year things fell apart in Columbus. Kei Kamara, who was the difference-making player that propelled the Crew to the final, wanted more money. Running parallel to that was rumors about Finlay exploring options abroad. It made for a bad season in Columbus, arguably the second worst in team history. To his credit, and without the services of Kei Kamara, Finlay chugged along and finished the season with 6 goals and 9 assists.

We'll never know if Finlay signed a 2 year deal in 2016 or if it was a one year deal with an option, but his wages only jumped to $290k in 2017. What was clear is that Finlay wanted more. He wanted to be paid what he was worth.

In the rest of the world, a player striking fire like he did means other clubs will start circling for his services and open their checkbooks, but in MLS there is a barrier to that. Teams can't bid on players like they can elsewhere. Finlay's rise was right on the front of new financial rules like TAM and GAM. For him, it's unfortunate. But even with those rules, you have a tricky contract qualifier called a "player option." Meaning, another team can swoop in, pay a little bit of allocation and keep his wages low. In a nutshell, that's what happened when he was let go to Minnesota halfway through the 2017 season.

Year: Mins - G - A - Wage
2014: 1898 - 11 - 6 - $66k
2015: 2790 - 12 - 13 - $143k
2016: 2462 - 6 - 9 - $250k
2017: 2262 - 4 - 4 - 290k

Finlay is about to turn 28 years old. He has another one or two years ahead of him, yes, but he missed out on capitalizing on two of the best seasons of his career. He doesn't get to go back to 2014 and 15. Because of MLS rules he has missed out on tens of thousands of dollars, possibly hundreds.

Finlay is no Pedro Santos. They have different skills, different players. Does Finlay have deficencies in his game? Of course, but based on production alone, Finlay was worth close to double what he was paid in 2016.

CYLE LARIN

This brings us to Larin. The number one "SuperDraft" pick in 2015 set a scoring rookie record that year for Orlando City (17 goals in less than 2000 minutes). He followed that season up with another 14 goals and 3 assists in 2016. No new contract came and he was still making less than $200k. Like Finlay, word started to spread that he wanted out and that he had options overseas. But because of the way MLS works, it's not very valuable to sell him off. MLS keeps most of the fee and Orlando is stuck losing a relatively rare talent for not much in return. So what usually happens? Nothing. The player is stuck.

Larin decided to take another route. Force his way out.

With only a "team option" keeping him in Orlando he took it upon himself to go meet with teams overseas that had interest. Going as far as taking pictures with a Besiktas jersey on. Orlando cried foul and claimed that he couldn't go because of the "option" held on him for the 2018 season. The problem here for Orlando (and MLS) is that the rest of the world does not recognize a team option. You are either signed to a contract or not.

MLS considered going to the mat to keep Larin but were ultimately frightened away by the very real prospect of losing the argument on the validity of player options. Imagine for a moment - what if that did happen. It would completely change the landscape of player contracts in MLS.

So the league let him go and in return for the trouble gave Orlando 100% of his transfer fee. This, reportedly, ruffled the feathers of the other MLS franchises a great deal, but MLS took the lesser of two evils (for them).

The lesson here is a rough one for players outperforming their contracts in MLS. They've got you.

SOLUTIONS

The increase in allocation money has loosened things up a bit, but that does not help players necessarily earn what they are worth when they are hitting a hot streak in their short careers. Pluck a player out of Columbus and they are still beholden to whatever contract they have, including the option.

The solution to this problem is to let teams keep most (if not all) the fee a foreign team is willing to pay. The "homegrown" rule change last year allowing MLS teams to keep all the fee is a baby step, but not nearly good enough.

The barriers in place need to be removed. The incentive for players to outperform their contracts needs to be there.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Meram to Orlando

Justin Meram was sent to Orlando City this afternoon for over a million in allocation dollars and an international slot in 2019.

Drafted in January of 2011, Meram was the most tenured player on the Columbus Crew (continuously, Josh Williams signed the summer previous but left the team for a couple years).

Meram will be greatly missed by the folks here at helltown.

Best of luck, Justin.

Captain Trapp, Jan camp over

Wil Trapp wore the armband last night in a 0-0 draw between the US and Bosnia and Herzegovina that marked the end of this year's January Camp. Columbus GK Zach Steffen and new Crew signing Gyasi Zardes also featured in the friendly.

The match was more or less a frustrating end to the three week-long "camp cupcake." Younger players were expected to be featured but head coach Dave Sarachan seeming opted to go for what he thought would be a win by using older, more experienced, ones.

Up top, it was CJ Sapong (29), who had a good MLS season last year, was replaced by a seasoned Juan Agudelo (25) were not able to add much to the match.

In the midfield, we saw some younger players, but only one could be really considered a "young player" in Tyler Adams (18). The other four are well known MLS commodities. On the wings, Sarachan went with decidedly non-wing like players in Jordan Morris and Gyasi Zardes. In the middle of the pitch we saw Christan Roldan (22) and Wil Trapp (25).

In the back it there were two under the age of 25 in Matt Polster and Walker Zimmerman paired with two 30-year-olds in Ike Opara and Justin Morrow. Bill Hamid got the start in goal.

It was a messy game because the lineup was lumpy. Trapp held things together in the back but because of the relatively poor play of Jordan Morris and Zardes the US never approached anything in regards to possession.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, for their part, played pretty good. It was a "C" team missing guys who are currently mid-season overseas.

January camp is used to be a sort of primer for the MLS season. Players are selected from as many MLS teams as possible for exposure with the goal of putting a couple in the net against a weakened side playing far from home. By this measure, the USMNT failed.

Later today we will see MLS roll out a new plan for their Miami franchise. USSF/MLS picked today because, in a perfect MLS world, I think they wanted a result from the team of MLS-ers the night before to help with momentum. They didn't get it.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Crew sign Valenzuela, 19

Columbus signs Milton Valenzuela, a 19-year-old left wing back from Argentina, as the 3 official Designated Player after buying down Jonathan Mensah's wages with allocation money.

Being a younger player, Valenzuela will only cost the Crew something like $250k in terms of a budget number, but I expect his actual wage to be somewhere near double that considering the transfer fee is being reported at around $1.3 million.

Valenzuela's resume is highlighted by starts on the U20 Argentina team. Other than that, details are fairly limited. In the game world, EA FIFA likes his potential (77 rating), but more or less an average player at the moment. FM Scout has him listed in top 100 wonderkids as far as left wing backs are concerned.

Projected Crew Starters
Zardes
Meram - Higuain - Santos
Trapp - Artur
Valenzuela - Mensah - Sauro - Afful
Steffen

That's a fairly strong MLS starting lineup, with strength and balance all over the field. I expect the play between Santos and Higuain alone to make Columbus enough of a force to pull them towards the top of MLS (top 8, if I may be so bold).

ZARDES NEEDS TO DELIVER

The big question mark right now remains with the production of Zardes. He'll need to produce more than 10 goals in order to get this team into the MLS elite. Last year the East has four teams with over 60 goals. Columbus fans are familiar with the output of a number of players. Optimistically, you expect 25-30 or so from Justin Meram, Federico Higuain and Pedro Santos with means you'll need at least 10 from Zardes to get to 40 and have the rest of the team (namely; Mike Grella) to fill in the remaining dozen goals to make the Crew a viable playoff team.

DEFENSE

Again, this team has a nice balance to it. If Gaston Sauro is healthy, I can see Columbus putting up a few more shutouts than last year. So, while Ola Kamara is gone, they may make up for the lack of scoring by stopping their opponents (particularly if Zack Steffen continues to improve, and of course, stay).

CREW WAGES

I'm estimating it to be about in line with last year; $6.3 - 6.5 million. What this means is that the team is just about complete in building its Spring / Summer roster. There's room for another pretty good player, perhaps to challenge Zardes up top, but I don't expect it to be much of anything.

The team is already covered if Justin Meram moves on because of the Grella signing. That said, if Meram were to go I expect Gregg Berhalter to go shopping.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON VALENZUELA

Columbus were / did get gutted at the left back position in the offseason (Jukka Raitala and Waylon Francis are gone via various expansion related things). Valenzuela has a huge opportunity here to grow into that role. The idea of a young Argentinian playing a wing back role is exciting and different (for MLS) but there are lots of question marks. "Unproven" being the big one.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Ola out, Zardes in (Meram stays)

Gregg Berhalter grants Ola Kamara's wish to play on the coast with a trade for Gyasi Zardes.

Kamara's role will not be easily filled by Zardes, whose career started with a bang but has drifted south since his second season (2014) where he notched 16 goals in 32 appearances. That said, with a Berhalter coached team, he will get many more chances directly in front of goal next year.

What Berhalter likely see's is his ability to finish chances throughout his career when taking the longer view (xG stats, save for last year, are good). The style of play helped both Ola and Kei Kamara jump to the top of the league in terms of scoring.

Zardes is a sort of made man in terms of salary. In March 2016 the LA Galaxy tripled his wages to $458k due, in part, to the desire to keep him in MLS and not see him head out to Championship side Reading. That figure puts him in line with what Kamara is making ($500k).

Important to note that Zardes' contract is up at the end of this season so Columbus will likely see quite a bit of effort from him.

All-in-all it is a bit of a gamble to believe Zardes can produce the way both Kamara's did for the Crew.

===============

On Meram. Berhalter has made it clear that he wants him to be part of the 2018 Crew plans, even though the player has expressed a desire to move out.

===============

The Crew roster is sitting at 24, with salaries equalling around $6 million.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ola Kamara, Coastal City

"...multiple sources have now said Kamara prefers to be in a larger, coastal MLS city."

Both Ola Kamara and Justin Meram have asked out of Columbus. The story broke January 5th. Since then sources have chirped more about Kamara (with almost nothing on Meram).

The Colorado Rapids and the LA Galaxy have expressed interest in Kamara. News today seems to put LA on top to win the striker.


What struck me about Kamara was the news that he wanted to play in a coastal city. In my time following MLS I've found that you rarely, if ever, hear about a player preference in the press. And certainly not a preference to live on the coast.

It's rare, but I've heard about player preference in other major pro sports in the US, however. I know in the NHL it is common practice for players to include cities that they would not to be traded to, but outside that, you don't hear much. With trades and free-agency, players are limited and can't get choosy. In fact, it's more likely that you'll hear players get frustrated about winding up in a place they don't want to be. Either from a draft or being traded in the 11th hour.

It somehow got out that Kamara has a preference. Maybe he can pick his spot because he is top two in league scoring the past couple years. Regardless.

It prompted me to take a look at how many professional champions come from coastal cities in NBA, NFL, MLB and MLS over the last 20 years.

Turns out that almost 65% of all titles are won by a team near the coast. Throw in tax-free Texas and it is 3/4th of all league champions.That's... something!

Coast - 50
everywhere else - 30

Here is the breakdown by state:

18 - California
9 - Texas
9 - Massachusetts
6 - New York
6 - Missouri
5 - Florida
4 - Illinois
4 - Colorado
3 - Pennsylvania
2 - Ohio
2 - Washington
2 - Maryland
2 - DC
1 - Wisconsin
1 - Utah
1 - Indiana
1 - Arizona
1 - Louisiana
1 - Oregon
1 - Michigan
1 - Canada

It's hard to argue that Kamara wants to be in a winning MLS city. He's winning in Columbus. I think he just wants to be in a bigger city and near the beach.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

I Went to a Soccer Town Hall

By: Vidda Grubin

If I were to sum up Eric Wynalda's vision for American soccer in very few words, it would be this...

Facilitate the expansion of opportunity to achieve.

I am tempted to leave this blog post with those words and those words only.

The part of me that was stunned at how well Mr. Wynalda expressed what I have been trying to write about for the last seven years cannot stop typing. From youth soccer, he's a dad of six, to the professional level (both female and male) to the national team level, Eric gets it.

He gets that with the United States Soccer Federation's vast wealth, power and ultimately backing and reason for being; millions of dues paying players, parents, fans and others, the next great leap forward is, and must be, by empowering each and every corner of the American soccer family to have a chance at creating Clubs (with a capital "C") that can build from youth through pro. Clubs, and the people who make them Clubs, which can strive and compete with both small goals and great big goals in mind.

Specifically, if I may be permitted to extrapolate out from what Eric Wynalda talked about (Please, Eric, if you read this, correct me where I'm misunderstanding your stance), the marketing of the American game must be taken away from SUM and brought back in house to the USSF. Talks should then be started with MLS as to whether they want to be part of the USSF's professional soccer initiatives, which will adhere to FIFA standards. The regional map for thousands of clubs to exist within a thriving American amateur and professional club soccer family is already in place. Publish the standards and requirements for each level and then help facilitate where possible.

Mr. Wynalda wants these things to happen. And importantly, he wants to use transparent governance to make them happen.

I went to a soccer town hall. I am happy I did. I hope Eric Wynalda can win the fight ahead of him. Transparent governance facilitating the expansion of opportunity to achieve is nothing less than the singular goal in front of American soccer.