Thursday, March 31, 2016

[podcast] A Conversation in Helltown

Justin Bell and Larry Johnson talk about USMNT in the wake of the Guatemala match in Columbus. This recording started in the shadow of the US U23s losing to Colombia for the right to go to the Summer Olympics. It's informal. Hitting the record button and getting unmeasured, unfiltered thoughts as it was happening.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Crew SC's Saravia Key in Historic Guatemala Win over USA

The United States has had a dominate run over Guatemala in recent years. We've been told that you have to go back to the Reagan Administration to find a match that Guatemala won outright. While that is true, there's a touch of agenda behind that statement. If you take a look at it from another perspective you see that that the US has only one win over Guatemala away from home soil in modern history (2008).

Overall the record for the US in Guatemala since 1977 is 1 Win, 5 Drawn, 4 loses. It's clearly a tough place to play.

Making it even tougher for this US this past Friday was the mid-field play of recent Columbus Crew SC signing (via "super-draft") Rodrigo Saravia.

Saravia went the full 90 minutes in the win. Playing a mainly disciplined mid role he helped keep US players like Mix Diskerud, Michael Bradley, Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey from finding any space or room to create in the Guatemalan half.

The US is horrible with the ball and they did dominate the passing category 505 / 303. What that means is Opta says US had over 60% of Possession. It's a misleading stat. Possession of the ball is a relative term for the USMNT. One could argue that letting the US fumble around with made the game easier for Guatemala. They were doing the work for them.

A lot on the line Tuesday when these two face off again in Columbus. Inside the importance to World Cup qualifying, it will also be the first time Saravia plays a competitive match at Crew Stadium.

The United States have never lost to Guatemala at home. It's an ugly, lopsided record. Undefeated. 13 wins, 1 draw for the Stars and Stripes with Guatemala managing only 3 goals in those games. A draw alone will be an unbelievable result, especially considering the game is nestled in the heartland of the country.

A tough environment like this are where a player like Rodrigo Saravia can make a career, however. It's one of these magnificent moments that you only get with soccer.

Game kicks off Tuesday evening.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

2016 MLS on TV - Down

MLS is in year two of their television deal with ESPN, FOX and UDN. Things are down, but before we get started on year over year, let's run over the bullet points from the new deal:

- Package deal with USMNT
- 90 million dollars (SUM/USSF) annually
- Games will have fixed Sunday schedule, Friday on UDN
- Deal runs 8 years

Last year, I tracked 75 games across ESPN and FOX (FS1, FS2) in year one and another 22 on UDN.

Average Viewers in 2015: Network
330k: ESPN
222k: ESPN2
197k: FS1
64k: UDN

Now, for the year over year stuff through the first seven games on ESPN2 and FS1.

-29% Drop, Aggregate Viewers, 1st 7 games
2,117,000 - 2015
1,512,000 - 2016

-36% Drop, Median
289,000 - 2015
184,000 - 2016

-29% Drop, Average
302,428 - 2015
216,000 - 2016

Not sure how else to jump off this than to say it's bad news for MLS offices. They were (are?) banking on a stable schedule, particularly Sunday, to gain some traction. Year 2 now... and there's nothing to hang their hat on. If there were, you better bet MLS would try and capitalize on it.

TV / streaming is the most important thing for MLS going forward. Right now, it appears as if there is a group of about 150-200k that fall into the "hardcore" category. Meaning - that's the size of the group that puts MLS first over other things on television. Comparing this to other leagues, both college and professional, it's a viewership number that teeters on the edge of obscurity and bass fishing.

This year's start suggests that the 150-200k is eroding.


Live sporting events have weathered the 'cord-cutting' storm so far, but cracks are starting to show. Cable subscriptions are down across the board. 2nd tier programming like NASCAR and NCAA College Basketball are starting to dip. Many think it's only the first sign of the coming ratings-drop storm (or The Cable Apocolypse).

MLS falls in this group that might get hit hard by the shift away from traditional TV broadcasts. They have a nice streaming service but they only have a small base of "hardcores" to build on.

It'll be interesting to see where this goes. Good, bad... I'll be tracking. Numbers don't lie.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Raised Against the Grain...

Random, but I like this commercial. Not, in any way, supporting or promoting the advertiser. Posting it because it's old school America. One that's not popular anymore, but one we need. I've been looking for these folks for the past 15 years. I've found a few, but not many. More are out there. And there's only one country that has them. Whoever did this... kudos.

Boring, Lethargic Crew SC Draw Fire

The end of last night's Columbus, Chicago MLS match was perfect. After 90 minutes of mostly nothing happening there was a flurry of effort from half of the Crew side while the other half was still in "let's get back home, no MLS next weekend" mode.

Games between these two up in Chicago have a recent tradition of being pretty bad. I'm not sure if it's because there aren't direct flights or the weather or the usually sparse crowd, but they are most always dull. Maybe it's a combination of things? In either case, last night's match fits right in with the rest. 

Most of the blame should go on to the Crew. Chicago is coming off a string of bad seasons, so it is expected that they would place a focus on defending when one of the best scoring teams from last year rolled into town. Gregg Berhalter and company likely knew this - but no adjustments were made and the team lacked significant energy. It led to a massively boring game, which is now three massively boring in a row.

Shawn Mitchell put it best in today's Dispatch... "Everybody was happy, except those who had to sit and watch it. Pity the 12,605 who did."


No question Columbus is in a post-MLS Cup Final loss funk still, but when should they snap out of it and how do they do it?

I looked at the "when" earlier this week and came to the loose conclusion that we will know if they are going to have a good or bad season by the 10th game or so. Looking at the math, Columbus has already dropped 8 pts out of their first three games. To match last season's start, they will need 13 pts from the next 7 games. Or; 1.86 points per game. Berhalter has topped that mark a couple times in a 10 game span before, so it is possible, but only if they put forth more effort in games.

Effort appears elusive right now, though. The is only one positional battle going on right now in the starting eleven (Justin Meram's left mid role) and virtually nothing going on when looking at players cracking the 18, down roster.

Compounding problems this year is that some key players got paid recently. Ethan Finlay, Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain to name the three most important. Some players, not all, regress a bit when they feel they've achieved their worth. Especially when there isn't anyone pushing them. Is this they case with these guys? Right now, absolutely. There is no reason to qualify that statement until they prove otherwise.

Columbus hasn't won a competitive MLS game, including preseason, since beating NY Red Bulls on November 22, 2015.

Next Crew game is sometime in April.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Starting "Top Worst" List

Two of the latest MLS teams to enter the league lined up against each other last night on UniMas. "On paper," this Orlando vs. NYCFC matchup comes across as a good one for the league. Big names, new cities in the league and most importantly - new branding!

Last year this game was the 3rd largest TV draw of the season, behind the MLS Cup Final and an August LA Galaxy / Seattle game. 

1. MLS Cup Final, ESPN - 668k
2. LA Galaxy vs. Seattle, ESPN - 549k
3. Orlando vs. NYCFC, ESPN 2 - 539k

UniMas ratings have been doing well comparatively to 2015, but strip out all the hoopla around expansion and all you are left with is the match itself. And it was terrible.

Terrible defending, wide open shots from in the box missing by yards (NY had 5 off target from inside the box), loads of lazy tackles, passes and a bad surface / pitch size on which it all went down.

The idea of a worst matches list gets thrown about this site a bit, but a list is never started. That changes this morning.


1. Colorado Rapids vs. Toronto FC, May 4th, 2013. This is the worst MLS game ever witnessed. I wrote about it over at Massive Report. I'll never forget it. The Brian Mullan "open field tackle" sticks out, but it'll forever be remembered because the play by play man wrote an apology letter to fans on the team site the next day.

2. NYCFC vs Orlando City, March 18, 2016. Highly energetic masterpiece of bad soccer.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

2016 MLS - When to Care

If you care about the competition side* of the league... start to dig in after 10 games or so. That's the quick answer to when to care about the table. At least, it kinda is. Jumping through the MLS table week after week, year after year, you see that the regular season is more about figuring out who the bad teams are.

Last year, over in the East, MLS watchers saw NYCFC only manage one win out of their first ten and Philly pull out an underwhelming 9 points from their first 12. The other two non-playoff teams took a few more weeks to find their level, but signs were there early on. 

Orlando was playing in front of some of the largest crowds in the league during their first year but were only eeking out points (12 pts from 11 games). Same with Chicago who picked up 10 pts from 9 with a -3 goal difference. 

The only team to rise out of a low table position last year was Montreal, but anyone who was remotely familiar with how MLS completely cleared (and blew up) their schedule to accommodate their CONCACAF Champions league run knew that they would improve.

The focus in MLS, almost all year, is to not suck

Columbus hasn't looked good or bad in the first two games. They've looked pretty much like last year's team in every way possible. Going over Gregg Berhalter's results in his first two years with the team is a funny reminder of just what MLS is during the regular season as far as a competition.

Average as an Achievement
Two team franchise low streaks happened both years. In 2014 it was April 5th through July 16th. One win in 16 games. ONE. Crew still made the playoffs. Just last year there was a 10 game streak that included only one win. Both streaks a firm reminder that Berhalter learned (at least, part of), his trade under a "wake me when it matters" Bruce Arena.

Why shouldn't Columbus Crew SC go through another long run of futility? We all want to see the best out of the players and teams, but MLS, like most other pro leagues in the USA, is open about placing inhibitors on excellence. Were we to all completely buy into the "parity" sales pitch, would we not all be rooting for average teams?

Maybe there should be an award for "Most Average (and therefore, most) MLS team in MLS."

2014 Winner: Sporting KC (10th out of 19 teams). Although, you could make an argument for the Philadelphia Union, with a record of 10 wins, 12 draws and 12 losses. That's some pretty darn average. In 2015, the award should go to Toronto FC. 15 wins, 15 losses and 4 draws. Maybe that corporate office guru guy Tim Bezbatchenko (pictured) was sent in to make them the most average in MLS, which, in turn, is MLS. They won!

Columbus is in action again this weekend against Chicago.

*This is an MLS problem.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

[PODCAST] The Ghost of Helltown

BREAKING: We were recently told the MLS season started. Justin Bell and Larry Johnson got together to talk about things up to this point. Mostly MLS / Crew stuff - some other what-not sprinkled in. We'll resume our regular Red Cards in Helltown (with the incomparable Mr. Rick Gethin) programming shortly. As always, thanks for listening. We do it because we love it, eventhough we don't have any bathroom breaks.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

MLS Executives List 2016 Goals

The Sports Business Journal asked MLS team executives to state their 2016 goals in 140 characters. It's very telling and sorta scary. You can read them below but how about I boil down topics (basically, remove hashtags and emojis) first to get to the heart of what their attention will be on this season.

12 -Stadium, Fan Engagement
11 -Attendance, TV
8 -Sponsorships, Merch, Brand
5 -Competition (winning things)
4 -Technology, Innovation
2 -Community Connection
1 -Leadership, Creating Lifelong Memories, New Beginnings, "Matchday's that are straight fire", a bunch of mumbo jumbo from Houston, "Build supporters clubs" and...Player Development.

Executives can be a busy bunch. They can also be very disconnected because of it. However, they are the kings of brevity and able to give you a season's worth of priorities in short order. 140 characters might be too much an executive worth his weight.

I liked the simplicity of this feature. Insightful look into the league and the voices driving it. Lumped together, it's an acute description of this league.


Break ground on National Soccer Hall of Fame & $39 mil Toyota Stadium improvements, lead MLS in HG player development (again), host matches, chase, dominate CCL group play #goalsongoals
ongoals #makeDadproud #DTID
— Dan Hunt, president

Break our records for highest attendance at a single match, playoff attendance and total attendance plus (of course) add some hardware
— Brian Bilello, president

Eight on the road to start the year, but when we come home on May 7, we will be covered at our new and improved fortress #BMOField
— Bill Manning, president

Looking forward to the #MLS playoffs and completing construction on our new stadium in Downtown #Orlando. #VamosOrlando
— Alexandre Leitao, CEO

’Caps are on the rise! Best sporting experience in #YVR Season Ticket #s best yet Stadium capacity expanded Academy Centres across
— Rachel Lewis, COO

Excited to help #Sounders fans mobilize w/ new app as first @MLS club to go fully mobile, while extending sellout streak w/ best fan-base in the league (currently at 127 matches!).
— Bart Wiley, chief operating officer

New record for STHs & extending shirt sponsorship, all while showing our ‘Strength at Altitude’
— Wayne Brant, vice president of business operations

Making MLS’s best stadium even better and showing the world we own.
— Dave Kaval, president

@PhilaUnion 2.0: New leadership, world class training facility, expansion #BSteelFC and the greatest fan experience in Philly
— Tim McDermott, CBO

Championships, civic pride, TV audience growth, finalize ’17 kit partner, fill the ’FRE and set attendance records. #CrewSC #ForColumbus
— Andy Loughnane, president of business operations

Another SKC , sellout streak continues, @cmpark rockin’, break jersey sales records, leaders in innovation/technology & lifelong memories
— Robb Heineman, CEO

Surround #RSL fans/partners/community digitally/in daily lives w/ spirit of #BELIEVE - integrating @RealMonarchs #AsOne & providing elite fan experience at #RioT
— Andy Carroll, CBO

New beginnings on the pitch. Growing club & community w/ @Valspar_Paint & #FirePitch. Matchdays that are straight . Always #LIVERED #cf97
— Atul Khosla, COO

New Badge, New Home, Building Our Community. #DCU
— Tom Hunt, COO

Ensemble continuons à bâtir la culture foot avec notre numéro 12. Allez Bleu-blanc-noir! Allez Montréal! #IMFC
All together, let’s keep on building the football culture with our No. 12. Go Bleu-blanc-noir! Go Montreal! #IMFC
— Richard Legendre, executive vice president

Build on our MLS Cup victory and first 5 years of success on/off field to further broaden our fan base, partnerships and TV audience
— Mike Golub, president of business operations

After a great decade of @houstondynamo soccer, we’re taking it to the next level, meaning: Lead. Evolve. Excite. Inspire. Win!
— Chris Canetti, president

One on on #MLS and rising season ticket numbers , another on s. #MNUFC2016
— Nick Rogers, president

Capture a sixth MLS Cup , continue to lead the league in Sponsorship , use to impact LA and be innovators for MLS. No biggie. #ThisIsLA
— Chris Klein, president

Crest Launched. Arena demo in June. Time to build our home in the heart of Los Angeles.
— Tom Penn, president and owner

Create the perfect naming rights partnership opportunity for the greatest soccer venue in North America – Red Bull Arena. #REDTogether
— Marc de Grandpre, general manager

Ready for year 2, building our Club with our fans and our partners in our iconic community across the 5 boroughs. The best is yet to come.
— Jon Patricof, president

"Break the record for season tickets sold for an MLS expansion club, build great supporters clubs and design a world class fan experience at MBS for 2017 "
— Ann Rodriguez, vice president of business operations

Monday, March 7, 2016

Crew SC Drop Opener

Same teams, same game, same result. Caleb Porter's Portland side beat Columbus in much the same manner as the MLS Cup final a few months ago.

High up on the list of things was to keep Ethan Finlay out of dangerous areas, both out wide to whip crosses into Kei Kamara and when he speeds past defenders looking for a through ball and an open look on goal.

Opta has Columbus again struggling to connect crosses into the box. This week it was 2 of 32. In the MLS Cup Final it was 3 of 27. Another statistical tid-bit... Possession was exactly the same as the final. 61% Crew, 39% Timbers.

Going forward, teams will try ad mimic what Portland did/does against Columbus so well. Not sure many can do it, however. It takes discipline (allowing Crew SC to make passes), two good central defenders, speed on the outside and smart Argentines.

We'll see how it goes. My season prediction has Columbus off to a slow as molasses start to this season via Cup Final hangover. They'll get better but first few weeks might get bumpy.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Soft Launch: MLS, Crew '16 Kickoff

The start of the 2016 MLS season has arrived once more. So, uh, here we are. Everybody excited? Yes? No? There does seem to be a hangover type feel to the beginning of this season for Crew SC. If you read into the (scant) interviews and comments from the "doers" in the organization you get a different feeling than in the previous two years.

It is hard to hang a single word on the build up to the 2016 season. Lethargic? Complacent? Maybe a Crew player should be assigned to how it feels. Maybe it makes sense to say January and February were more Michael Parkhurstonian than say, Josh Williamsonian, or Frankie Hejdukistic.

This isn't to say that the team is either better or worse than the previous two years, or that it's bad to have a quiet build to the season. But it does say something. Perhaps it's just that the new car smell that came along with a new team operator has gone away - or perhaps it is perfectly natural that the overall team feel to topple Frankie Hejduk's energy and morph into the temperament of the Head Coach (and Sporting Director!).

Not sure. The yin and yang are out of balance from what they were, though.

All that said, MLS has all their games kicking off tomorrow with Columbus taking on Portland on ESPN. If you are a Crew SC fan and still feeling the hangover of the MLS Cup Final loss, it's okay! I have the perfect remedy to shake that off and get you in the Major League Soccer state of mind.

[For what Parkhurstonian is, check out his ESPNFC blog]

In addition to Homegrown Players and College Protected Players – clubs may have priority for up to three players from their USL affiliate. In order to retain priority on any additional USL affiliate players, such players must be added to an MLS club’s Discovery List. 
MLS clubs may sign players from their USL affiliate to Short Term Agreements (up to four-day contracts) for CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup, and exhibition matches. An MLS club may sign a player to a maximum of four short term agreements each season (maximum of 16 days). 
Players may also be signed to Short Term Agreements for MLS league season games but only in cases of Extreme Hardship. the case of an MLS player to their USL Affiliate:

- All loans from MLS clubs to USL affiliates must be free (i.e. no loan fees paid by USL affiliate clubs). 
- In the event that an MLS player is loaned to a USL affiliate club, such player may not be paid in excess of the player’s MLS budget charge without that compensation being captured on the MLS club’s Salary Budget (including, but not limited to, performance bonus compensation). 
- An MLS club can receive roster relief and budget relief for a maximum of one player loaned to its USL affiliate; provided, however, that: The player is under the age of 25 (i.e., he does not turn 25 prior to the end of the calendar year). 
- The player’s total compensation is less than or equal to the MLS Senior Minimum Salary (including any loan fees, transfer fees, agent fees, housing, car, etc.); and 
- The loan of the player to the USL affiliate must last for the duration an entire USL season; provided, however, that in the event that such loaned player is a goalkeeper, he may be recalled to his parent MLS club only in the case of Extreme Hardship.

Feel better now? Of course you do. More importantly, after all that EPL and Bundesliga you've been watching, you are rewiring your brain for MLS.

Not quite there yet, you say? Got yourself hooked on that Leicester run this season and forgotten about the pain of the Crew losing (and out supported) at their home stadium back on December whatever? How about an excerpt from the latest CBA to help clear that right up and get you pumped...

Except as limited elsewhere by an express written provision of this CBA, MLS, in the exercise of its functions of management, shall in addition to its other inherent and legal rights to manage its business, including the direction and control of the Teams, have the exclusive right at any time and from time to time to take any action it deems appropriate in the management of its business, including but not limited to the exclusive right to determine when, where, how and under what circumstances it wishes to operate, suspend, discontinue,
That's my favorite Article in the latest CBA. In fact, we just saw MLS just enact some ARTICLE 5 action on the Chicago Fire in the offseason. If you recall, before that, it was Chivas USA. Looking down the road I wouldn't be surprised if the Colorado Rapids gets the same treatment.

Okay, now, here is the full PDF of the new CBA for you to go over. Once complete, you may read my quick Crew SC season preview.


One one hand, there is a singularity to what this team has to do now in order to have a "better" season than last year. Sure, there is US Open Cup to win (I don't see the team focusing on that) or winning the Supporters' Shield (unlikely), but the only thing left for the team to do is win the MLS Cup.

Can they? With pretty much the same roster as last year this season will be more about what to expect from their opponents. Think of it like retaking the same exact quiz in school. I don't expect Gregg Berhalter to have added much tactically, so with the same roster it will be up to how well their opponents prepare.

It's not that much more complex than that.

Does this mean, however, that the Crew are standing still while other teams are racing to catch up? Yeah, in a way it does, but I'm not sure what they could have done to measurably improve outside of picking up a more disciplined right back. Also, what else is there for a MLS side than getting into, and winning, the MLS Cup? CCL maybe, but you can get there without it.

Outside of all that, two main concerns for this team will be health and the ability of Kei Kamara to duplicate last season. Either of those (or both), would push this team down the standings and have them starting from the back in the postseason.

Crew 2016 in a single bulletpoint? They will not score 58 goals again but, with an improved defense, their goals against will be down. Expect them to be around even again this year, only in the high 40s / low 50s.

How about, let's say... 49 Goals For, 47 Goals Against.

I expect another solid regular season and playoff performance - but do not expect them to be playing in the MLS Cup final again.


The best way to list out how teams will finish the Eastern Conference is to just group them up...

1. Columbus Crew SC
2. New England Revs
3. DC United

4. Toronto FC
5. Montreal Impact
6. Orlando City
7. New York Red Bulls

8. NY City FC
9. Chicago Fire
10. Philadelphia Union

Columbus at number one? Not really, just my way of putting some sort of expectation on the team. They might start the year off slow, but I expect them to float towards the top as all the summer extracurricular activities start up (Copa America, friendlies, Summer Olympics, Euro 2016, etc).

Callout 1: NY Red Bulls will not be as good as last year. In fact, they will drift around the middle of the table all year. They had something to prove last year after all the offseason junk, as well as had a good backline, and a surprise Mike Grella and a good Robles. Ah, just take my word for it.

Callout 2: Columbus at one just means they are most likely to make the playoffs, not the BEST team in the east. I put them at the top because it will be a disappointment if they don't finish near the top.

Callout 3: Not much change to the bottom this year. I think Orlando will start the year better and, if they get into that new stadium, will have a strong finish.

Callout 4: NYCFC will be average, again. They'll still sell a bunch of tickets.


Welp, how I see it, thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

MLS Pounded in Naked Competition

Liga MX clubs had little trouble with MLS teams in this year's CONCACAF Champions League. The competition is sorta set up for the two leagues to match up in the knockout rounds (gotta maximize that revenue). This year's competition could be remembered for the heavy build up on the MLS side of things - that ultimately backfired. By the end of the two-legged series all four MLS teams were embarrassed, including a star-studded LA Galaxy.