Thursday, October 29, 2015

Effort, Some of the Time

"Most people only try as hard as they have to most of the time." - Bob Knight... I think. It could have been Dick Vitale, Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Jim Valvano or one of the other coaching greats that I was fortunate to hear during my summers spent playing basketball as a youth. Thinking back, all of them likely said similar, just used different words in an attempt to communicate what makes a player special from the rest.

I've been thinking about that quote a lot as the MLS Cup playoffs get underway. A lot of good players last night that had been in "regular season" mode were having to play at a higher effort level. I'm not talking about players like Taylor Kemp for DC United or New England's Keyln Rowe. It's more about guys like Jermaine Jones, Gio dos Santos, Steven Gerrard and even Chris Rolfe.

The opening night of the playoffs were as much chaotic as they were exciting. Some of the midrange guys were out there toiling away on wary late season legs, while the stars were trying to crank up cold engines.

Cynically put, it's the real start of the MLS season. Games that have meaning and consequence are finally here.

The DC vs. New England match had more of a messy midweek MLS match feel for most of it, but there were moments late in the match where the players finally locked in and said, "Okay, let's play the kind of game that we know will get us a win." Then realize they didn't know what the hell that was because they were talented enough to not have to play at full speed for most of the previous eight months.

"Regular Seasons," as we know them in the United States, are breeding grounds of mediocrity where less talented players are pouring their guts out while the top players on big contracts offer varying degrees of effort that is required to get the team into the playoffs. Not ALL of the top guys are doing that, of course. Nor does it mean that regular seasons aren't fun.

It takes special player to give their everything all the time, but if you've watched MLS the past few seasons (outside of your own local team) you know who the guys that do and don't. One could even float the theory that the Supporters' Sheild winning teams often aren't the teams with massive wage bills and star players precisely because they are filled with players still working their way up. The mid-range to upper mid range guys. Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins, Conner Lade types that can't afford to take a night off, because if they do, they get benched.

The low wattage regular season efforts contributed to the chaotic first 20 minutes of the Seattle, LA match last night. It looked like the first game of the season for these two star-heavy teams. Defensive mistakes, communication errors, players making runs they hadn't all season. The hard surface at CenturyLink only highlighted these things.

Soccer doesn't have the flashing lights, timeouts, commercial breaks, loud music and other shiny things that keep fans mesmerized during bad NFL, NBA or NHL games. No place to hide in soccer. No subbing out to cool your head or rest. From the owners of the organization to the players, you stand there naked, 45 minutes at a time. It's a giant playing surface out there. The sport needs consequence and pressure to bring out effort, and therefore, greatness. Effort not just from players, but from the top of the organization. MLS team investors like Andrew Hauptman in Chicago or Robert Kraft in New England need real consequence to perform.

We've got two more knockout MLS games to go tonight. Win or go home. The Montreal / Toronto match might be the chaotic match tonight while the KC / Portland will be the more measured of the two. We'll, see. Regardless the quality, it will be refreshing to see most of the players putting forth max effort, most of the time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Over There is a League

MLS playoffs kick off tonight just days after the heavily hyped "Decision Day" event this past Sunday. In the East - DC (is somehow) hosting New England, kick off at 7:30 PM EST and for the nightcap we have Seattle hosting LA - two teams with the most talent, but least amount of motivation and drive all season.

Let's step back to #DecisionDay here for a second. It was frantic event (even for us at Helltown) that the league invested loads of resources into. MLS being MLS, resource allocation almost exclusively means increased social media presence. It's their comfort zone, which they've done well with.

There is a bad side to MLS's indulgence in social media, however. They invest so much that it's become their tent pole. It's how their target demo consumes their product. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Periscope. It's all the ways fans like to keep up with MLS. It's fast, it's free and you can do it whilst watching another program. Which, it appears, people do often. Therein lies the problem. Nobody watches the actual competition on the field.

This time of year MLS fans watch the NFL. Sure there is college football, NHL, MLB playoffs, BPL and the start of the MLB season but those have their own sets of loyal fans that watch even if there is a NFL game on. It's like having a recession proof business. Unfortunately, Major League Soccer is not NFL proof.

TV data that in the past was only available to industry folks is now easily available online. Which means it's never been more apparent than this season to people outside the league that Major League Soccer's courting of the NFL fan has been a complete success. In a bad way.

Here's a look at FS1 television ratings for 2015 MLS (NFL kicked off September 10th).


...and here is a look at ESPN2's TV ratings this year.


Even more worrisome for MLS is that the numbers are matching a hunch many had over the years in that the league just fades away during the most important part of the season. MLS games aren't on ESPN's "flagship" station a whole lot, but it has been enough times to notice a scary trend for the league as the season meanders into their playoff cup.


Now that this information is now publically available, will it push the league to make changes to their competitive format? For years, MLS people have defended tooth and nail the way the league handles league basics such as scheduling (Spring - Autumn) and the playoff format(s), but it's clear that there are fundamental issues if the most important part of the league calendar is the least watched.

By the measure above, the decision day promotions did little to nothing to get more people to watch the games. Did it help? Did it hurt? In my professional experience, it's a severe problem if you aren't able to answer those questions.

It's entirely possible that MLS has become a sort of "second league." One that people don't actually watch but can easily consume through tweets, vines and gifs. A post-modern ghost league, if I may. Evidenced by fans touting attendance figures that are so far off it's laughable to anyone actually watching games night in, night out.

Hey, playoff start tonight. Are you watching?

Yes, well... kinda? I bet you'll just follow along on your phone.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

My MLS Team of the Year - 2015

Five years ago I decided that I'd create a player rating system to help me better understand which players were having standout seasons. It wasn't and isn't meant to tell me the difference between a player I have rated 6th vs. 15th. I just wanted to know who was in top 10% or top half or what have you because there wasn't anything out there like it. Squawka and WhoScored do it now, but I'll put mine up against theirs any day of the week. It's served me pretty well over the years, I like it.

With that, here is my team of the year for 2015. I used EA's FIFA profiles for the image (not my scores). If you want to check out more on these guys head over HERE (interactive!).

Sunday, October 25, 2015

[podcast] RCiH : Decision Day Special!

Major League Soccer's unique approach to the final round of the 2015 season called for a special edition of Red Cards in Helltown. Rick Gethin, Justin Bell and Larry Johnson talk about what happened and what it means (including the huge 5-0 Crew SC demolition of DC United). Thanks for listening!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Playoff Positioning, Supporters' Shield on the Line

After a season of teams being as far apart as five matches played, every team in MLS is finally on an even number of games for round 33 of 34 for the season. The league has scheduled the kickoff times for all games tomorrow (Sunday, Oct 25th) to occur at 5 PM and 7 PM (eastern) to increase the energy around the games.

This semi-planned and heavily promoted event is being called "decision day" by the league this year. It's an attempt to mimic the intensity of the final days of leagues across the world where teams are promoted, relegated, win European league spots, meet or miss board expectations and / or secure extra millions of dollars for finishing a spot or two higher on the final day of the season. It's an overwhelmingly awesome event that impacts hundreds of teams and dozens of leagues at all levels across an entire continent.

In MLS, it's more just to figure out who's playing who in an intraleague cup tournament. Nevertheless, there are implications for failure on #DecisionDay.

In the West, there is still some question as to who will be sitting out this year's MLS Cup. Most of it hinges on whether or not San Jose gets a result in their matchup against FC Dallas. A win means Seattle and Kansas City need 3 pts from their matches and Portland needs at least a draw.

FC Dallas1257Bye, playing for SS
L.A. Galaxy1151Playing for Position
Vancouver Whitecaps650Playing for Position
Portland Timbers-150Playing to stay in, position
Seattle Sounders FC648Playing to stay in, position
Sporting Kansas City248Playing to stay in, position
San Jose Earthquakes347Playing to get in
Houston Dynamo-442Out
Real Salt Lake-841Out
Colorado Rapids-737Out

The East has been settled since midseason but there is some drama to be had as far as positioning. Most teams want to skip the crappy midweek game and walk directly into the two-legged conference semifinals next weekend.

New York Red Bulls1857Bye
DC United351Playing for Position
Columbus Crew050Playing for Position
Toronto FC149Playing for Position
Montreal Impact348Playing for Position
New England Rev.-147Playing for Position
Orlando City-944Out
New York City FC-737Out
Philadelphia Union-1434Out
Chicago Fire-1430Out

The Columbus Crew SC put themselves in a good spot. A win earns them a Get Out of Midweek MLS Cup Scheduling Hell Card (quite the card, I must say). A draw or a loss drops them in the mixer.

It's going to be a tough game for the Crew. Outside of the intensity around the game (national TV will be in the house) the Crew will be missing both Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain due to card accumulation. 

One thing helping Columbus is that under Ben Olsen, DC United only play as hard as they have to. In this match they likely only need to earn a point. In that scenario, Toronto can catch them with a win and a +2 goal difference, but I think Montreal will give them a stiff enough test to prevent that.

I've said for most of the year that 3rd place is not a bad sport for a team to be because you get a bonus home match, midweek, against an inferior opponent. From a business perspective, this should be a win, and should you move on, even a bigger win (unless you are a member of the ticket sales or stadium staff, I guess). Bonus home game!

The only way it would be a loss for an MLS organization is if the team loses money holding an event. Boy, would that jack up the books if that is the case. Given the embarrassingly low attendance for last year's game, it's entirely possible that this is the case for Columbus.


Two teams left fighting for the most difficult to obtain trophy in the league are FC Dallas and the NY Red Bulls. Both teams are on 57 points and play at 7 PM tomorrow. 

Red Bulls have the easiest pathway here, as they face last-place Chicago. On the other side of things, FC Dallas face a needing-a-win San Jose.

I would like to see Oscar Pareja and his Dallas team win this one. Pareja is the best coach in Major League Soccer. He proved what he could do in the hinter MLS lands of Colorado and has taken it to the next level on the fertile youth player grounds in the Dallas, Texas area.

In hindsight, it does make some sense FC Dallas is doing better this year. With the Hunt family moving the burdensome Columbus Crew franchise from their books they have been able to sharpen their focus. 

Dallas has always had inconsistent results. Some of that, one could argue, was because Hunt Sports Group folks were pulled in a few too many directions. They are even taking some of that Crew money and attempting to build a soccer hall of fame.

Eitherway, NY or Dallas lifting the shield will be a huge accomplishment. Navigating a MLS season is tricky, at best. As the league expands it won't necessarily be the best team that earns this but the one that is best prepared for the wackiness of the calendar.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Solutions to a Soccer Problem in North America

The beginning of Autumn marks the end of another year in the top three divisions of soccer in North America and ushers in the playoffs. But instead of being the best time of year, the postseason is more of a meandering epilogue to a novel that has an unsure grasp of an underdeveloped regular season.

Fall is also a reminder of soccer's place in the pecking order of domestic sports because it tries to be other sports. It's a fundamental issue of league competition. In particular - meaningful games.

How to fix that right now without blowing it up? I'll get to the long answer here in a minute, but the short answer is to create a competition that involves the top three levels of pro soccer immediately and without impacting investments or league rules. The idea also lays the foundation for linking the pyramid down the road (sooner, rather than later).

It's simple and builds upon events already happening. Take the top teams from each division (MLS, NASL and USL) and have them fight it out in a tournament. Not only will this expand upon the growing interest in the US Open Cup, but it will also help grow the sport across the country.

The great thing about this is that there are a number of ways to do it:

3. Hold it in January and February (warm cities)  
Among the many positives of having a huge, rich country is the varying climates. Preseason Cup tournaments are getting pretty big in recent years and outside of getting teams ready for the season they grow interest in the sport. I saw first hand how Orlando's Disney Cup helped grow interest in the sport in the city before they jumped to MLS. 
2. Hold it after the season ends
All three divisions of pro soccer in North America end in Autumn. Hold this competition in place of the current league playoffs. It would still include your best teams and would draw loads of interest from each league. I'd venture to say that USL and NASL interest would skyrocket in the first year. MLS would benefit because most of the teams their franchises would be playing would be in non-MLS cities. Everybody wins here. 
1. Spread it out over season   
Have it set up similarly to how Champions League is currently done. Qualification happens the previous season and games are played out over the course of the season. Each league could breathe a little and extend seasons without playoffs. It works even if they still want them because there isn't a whole lot going on for most teams during the year in MLS anyway. With rosters still at 28, you've also got reserve teams and affiliations of which to draw, not to mention academy sides. Playing the competition out over the season is my favorite because it gives fans something interesting to watch. It adds sweetener to the season, so to speak.

How many teams, single elimination, home and away legs, and so on. Lots of options. After messing around with things, I found that dropping teams into groups is the most exciting for me. It's also flexible in terms of holding it over a short time period in one city or having it play out over many months.

Here's what it would look like if you six from MLS and USL and 4 from the NASL based on current standings, separated by region.

GroupLeagueRegionTeamLeague Rank
A - EASTUSLEASTRochester Rhinos1
A - EASTMLSEASTNew York Red Bulls1
A - EASTNASLEASTFort Lauderdale Strikers2
A - EASTUSLEASTCharleston Battery3

GroupLeagueRegionTeamLeague Rank
B - EASTNASLEASTNew York Cosmos1
B - EASTUSLEASTLouisville City FC2
B - EASTMLSEASTColumbus Crew3

GroupLeagueRegionTeamLeague Rank
A - WESTUSLWESTOrange County Blues1
A - WESTNASLWESTMinnesota United2
A - WESTUSLWESTColorado Springs Switchbacks3

GroupLeagueRegionTeamLeague Rank
B - WESTUSLWESTOklahoma City Energy2
B - WESTMLSWESTVancouver Whitecaps FC3

If you held this over the course of a season you could really let it breathe. Home / Away and take winners from each group into a playoff (along with awarding CONCACAF Champions League qualification in there).

A short and intense option would be great fun as well. End of season would be a blast. Each team playing the other once  - 3 games in 8 days, for example (Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday) and then take the group winners into a playoff.

For me, this competition would do wonders for the overall sport in the US in both interest and dollars. It would also separate it from the rest of the sports market in the US in a cool and creative way that soccer fans and casual fans alike would understand. New cities, small teams, increased intensity around matches. It all works for me.


A question of how to link the soccer pyramid in the United States has been bouncing around in my head for years. The answer I come to is usually the implementation of promotion and relegation across all levels starting at the bottom (leagues like the USASA, USL-PDL, NPSL and even college) and working your way up the divisions (regionally set up).

It would take a good bit of time to get it organized and stable, which would be good because it would allow new investors in MLS, USL and NASL time to make back their money - we are talking 5-10 years (this is 'Merica, we can do it it five). Those not making it back in that time frame, probably won't ever do so.

Many challenges await a US Soccer Federation that tries to better organize the pyramid. Topping the list is Major League Soccer's stance on promotion and relegation. They do not want it under any circumstances. Beyond that, the hurdle is the fact that each league is its own entity with their own set of revenue sharing, distribution and league entry qualifications.

Best way to think of it is that there are really only three fully pro clubs in North America... MLS FC, NASL SC and USL City (or what have you). Looking at it that way opens doors to solutions that might be able to solve a number of competition problems in the US.


Regular Season as a long qualification for playoffs is shared among the other two pro soccer divisions in the US as well. Details might be different but the competition winner across MLS, NASL and USL is the playoff winner.

The reasoning behind holding a playoff to determine a champion centers around other US sports, who all have some sort of playoffs. If you are reading this, then you likely are familiar with how each league works and you also likely know that the playoffs (even in college you have "March Madness" type tournaments to determine winners) draw increased interest from the country over their regular seasons.

Generally, it works like this...

1. Final (Super Bowl, Final, World Series)
2. Playoffs
3. Regular Season
4. Preseason

For MLS it works differently. No need for a list because there are so many different things going on during a soccer calendar year that the rhythm can't be compared to other domestic sports. And that's a good thing! It's why people enjoy the sport.

MLS treats it like a disease, however. Something they need to remedy.

They WANT the order listed one to four above instead of embracing the uniqueness of the sport. With summer friendlies, international friendlies and qualification, summer tournaments, the US Open Cup and more. It's great! yet MLS can't get it straight and want to shoehorn a wonky MLS team only playoff on during mostly bad weather and a time of year where their target audience is tuning out - and, again, it's comprised of teams that have already faced each other two OR three times. It is redundant.

For MLS, playoffs across the country generally see decreased interest by any metric (attendance, TV, social media activation, etc). In the past, you could point to the MLS Cup final as an event where more people tuned in but even there, interest spikes only slightly over a hyped up regular season game on ESPN or Fox Sports.

Playoffs were born out of challenges with geography when travel was more difficult. Teams, to this day, still play regionally most of the time to help negate cost and keep the interest of team performing badly - in that it's easier to swallow being only few spots out of 1st place in a division vs. being 15th (or whatever) out of 30 teams. Intellectually, this reasoning seems silly but there isn't a whole of critical thinking going on these days (why - a topic for another day).

All that leads to why we still see up to six divisions in a league. Things may be changing however, NBA and MLB have recently talked about whittling it down to just 2 conferences. Whether or not that happens is still to be determined but, it does feel as if it will happen sooner rather than later.

Heck, the NBA is already talking about having a cup competition.


The United States Soccer federation has to figure out a meaningful way to get the pyramid working together. Not having it linked together alienates 99% of the people that participate in the most played sport in the United States. It's the people's game. It reaches all levels of society and should not be locked up by a handful of investors.

No single system is perfect, but I believe that doing everything you can in order to get each team talking is critically important for this country. Even small steps are important.

Having an inclusionary tournament builds on what the US Open Cup does so wonderfully. It will increase interest in the sport as well as investment, which, in turn, increases revenue that can be put back into the game.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

[podcast] Red Cards in Helltown: Season 2, Episode 17

New show - two weeks in a row. Host Rick Gethin is joined by Justin Bell and Larry Johnson this week to talk a mess of soccer. Thanks for listening!

► USMNT Costa Rica friendly
► Where was everyone?
► Meaning of result, Klinsmann...
► Fabian Johnson, dirty laundry
► Grant Wahl sneakiness
► Liverpool - Jurgen Klopp's 1st game
► Sporting KC investment group exploring purchase of Everton

► Big win for Crew over Toronto
► "bloody big deal" - TFC make playoffs
► Defense looked good, Gaston Sauro, Parkhurst
► TFC looked lethargic
► Measuring stick game for Trapp
► "Finlay's going to get get called up"
► Kamara, Higuain out next week
► DC United matchup, game meaning
► Who the Crew don't want to face
► does a bye week benefit

► Teams not going to the playoffs
► NYCFC, what happened
► Biggest disappointment in MLS? (hint: huge market)
► Rick getting fired up about MLS competition format
► The rarity of a regularly occurring MLS podcast
► Giovinco's wonder-goal
► "MLS: Up your game"

► Austin Aztex (USL, Crew affiliate) are not playing next year
► Investment profile, MLS
► TV viewership - Impact of NFL on MLS

Podcasting without a net.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

All About the Postseason for Finlay

After failing out of the 2014 MLS playoffs in just about every way possible, there is no question that this Columbus Crew SC season is all about performance in the 2015 postseason. Looking up and down the standings with two regular season games left there doesn't appear to be a team that the Crew would feel completely comfortable with, especially since dropping three games in the last five.

MLS results leading up to the playoffs matter, of course, but only as much as the players and coaching staff allow because the teams involved (six of the ten in the conference) have been set since July. Throw in a summer schedule that drifts in and out between international matches and a series of club friendlies and you get a regular season that renders individual performance during it sort of... discounted (hey, just like every other sport in the USA!).

With that comes clear opportunity, however. Particularly for Ethan Finlay, whose run of form over the last 18 months has been amazing. An expanded playoff mean guys are going to get a chance to play tense / tight matches that have real consequence. This is something a player who has lit up the regular season in Goals and Assists absolutely needs.

Finlay's form has dropped over the last couple months or so but it matters very little in the bigger picture for the player. Fair or not, his time to show he is among the offensive elite in MLS as well worthy of a call the USMNT is coming up soon.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

[podcast] Red Cards in Helltown: Season 2, Episode 16

Great show this week. Host Rick Gethin is joined by Justin Bell and Larry Johnson this week as the team goes over the latest in soccer here in the US. As always - Red Cards is recorded one hour straight through, no bathroom breaks. Reminder: you can also find us on iTunes and over at soundcloud.

► USA / Mexico, home games
► What to do with Klinsmann
► "Can't market patience"
► Quality of US player
► Missing players calm on the ball
► MLS's role
► US similarities to England
► Aging players

► Expectations, just waiting for the playoffs
► Crew defending
► Discussion on Tyson Wahl
► Parkhurst decline?
► How much playoff format impacting play
► Kei Kamara decision
► "Changing the culture"
► (not) performing in front of a large crowd
► Biggest match in Toronto FC's history coming up?

► Adam Jardy moving to new position at Dispatch*
► Next beat writer at the paper? None?
► What MLS wants
► Justin's thoughts on Jardy
► "the Tyson Wahl of beat reporters"
► A league worried about everything

► FIFA News!
► MLS limping to finish line

*good a time as any to thank Adam Jardy for his coverage of the Crew the last few years and wish him the best going forward. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Simply Summarized: 2015 Crew SC

The above summarizes how things went for the 2015 Columbus Crew SC in the regular season. Two games remaining does not afford the Crew time to completely climb out of the grasp of a mediocre regular season (as a team). That's not what this season seemed to be about though. Ever since the embarrassing exit last year against New England you got the feeling that 2015 was all about performing in the playoffs. That time is almost here.

Does the team highlighted above have enough to navigate a tricky MLS playoff format? For the Crew I think skipping past the knockout round doesn't do a lot for their chances of getting a playoff win. Their defense has been off all year and over the course of a home and away they could be punished.

Finishing with a couple wins is important but perhaps working on a shutout or only allowing a goal should be the focus to help build some defensive confidence going into the postseason. It'll be interesting to see how the team approaches it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Crew SC Defending Around the Box (video) + 4 Thoughts

I'm a little late watching the Crew SC away match vs NY Red Bulls this week. Four comments:

1. Shades of the NE Revs playoff series last year. NY looked like it could get a goal if it needed a goal. In the meantime the just toyed with the Crew SC defense. It was said when Pogatetz left the lineup... no one fears this Crew team and you get the sense when watching them that anyone can put up +1 goals over whatever they are able to produce from (an increasingly predictable) Kei Kamara or Ethan Finlay.

2. Wil Trapp's absence was felt, but I'm not sure the result changes much. Perhaps the team wouldn't have looked bad in some spots on defense and would have gotten a couple more quality chances in the 2nd half.

3. Justin Meram had a "Good Meram" game aided by the early goal (that looked like an own goal on NY?). Either way, once Meram gets going... he plays very confident. Still gives the ball up a little too much but he isn't alone in that. It's something at least two of the three forward mids have to do well. Right now it's only Federico Higuain.

4. Ethan Finlay is playing like a player worn out - mentally. Before the last two months, he had not gone more than two games without a goal or an assist. He's now at 2 goals and 1 assist in his last 10. A rate of 0.34 G+A per 90 minutes played. Still pretty good but much more ordinary now. Berhalter has also subbed him out last four games. Last two in the 64th minute.

Late Season

A couple weeks left in the 2015 MLS season. Crew SC dropped off the pace over the last couple weeks. Teams play a 34 game season in MLS this year. The reformated playoff situation is likely to blame for the league not having any breakout teams this year (among many other things). Here's the latest.

Pts pGMGD pGMTeamPlayed
1.700.50New York Red Bulls30
1.670.30FC Dallas30
1.590.44L.A. Galaxy32
1.580.26Vancouver Whitecaps31
1.550.16Sporting Kansas City31
1.50-0.03DC United32
1.480.06Toronto FC31
1.470.19Seattle Sounders FC32
1.470.00New England Rev.32
1.47-0.06Columbus Crew32
1.42-0.16Portland Timbers31
1.400.07Montreal Impact30
1.380.06San Jose Earthquakes32
1.32-0.19Real Salt Lake31
1.28-0.13Houston Dynamo32
1.28-0.31Orlando City32
1.16-0.19New York City FC32
1.10-0.26Colorado Rapids31
1.06-0.34Philadelphia Union32
0.94-0.31Chicago Fire32